Written by Naomi White
If someone told you not to walk your dog every day, how would you feel? Shocked? Horrified? Outraged? Relieved? Maybe you’d laugh or gasp in shock …
There is this idea that dogs need to be walked, and a dog can only live a happy life if it’s walked enough. The more you walk the dog, the happier it will be. That old saying ‘a tired dog is a happy dog’. Despite our long-lived beliefs, there is new research and new ideas which suggest that actually our dogs can benefit hugely from having rest days or complete breaks from walks. I’m sure some stressed out dog owners could also benefit from a few days without walking their dogs too!
A very interesting study by Linda Cooper found that implementing a relaxation programme by reducing dog’s daily exercise, and increasing enrichment and mental stimulation, led to reduced reactive behaviours, improved responsiveness to owners and quicker recoveries from reactive outbursts. While this was a small scale and by itself doesn’t necessarily prove anything, it supports the theories and experiences of many trainers and behaviourists.
It really does depend on the individual dog, there is no ‘one-rule-fits-all’ when it comes to our dogs. Many dogs are able to enjoy relatively stress-free walks, which have little or no impact on their stress levels or behaviour. They are good at coping with arousal and when they experience something exciting or stressful, they are able to recover quickly without an issue. However, for other dogs, this level of arousal is more difficult to cope with and can be detrimental to their behaviour.
“Each stressful event causes a rise in adrenaline and cortisol, as these hormones build up the dog will have less tolerance for daily events because their systems are repeatedly flooded with hormones. In turn, all their energy is focused on maintaining some balance in the presence of these chemicals and there is little left to deal with outside challenges.”
This post discusses arousal in more detail …
When your dog is repeatedly exposed to stimuli that cause these hormones to be released, it leads to an excess in their systems, making them more likely to be nervous, reactive, or living in a constant state of stress. This is where REST DAYS can transform your dog’s life!
On a REST DAY, your dog should have no interaction with the outside world. No walks. No playtime in the park. No visit to the local café or pet shop. A total stay-at-home rest day. For some dogs a ‘rest week’ is even more beneficial. A whole week of no walks. Imagine that!
This can be quite surprising because for many of us it’s a totally alien idea which we may associate with animal cruelty … a dog needs to be walked every day. Right?
Wrong. We often place so much importance on walking our dogs that we neglect any other interactions or stimulation in their day. Sure, we spend time cuddling them or playing with them, but the main interaction we have with them is going for a walk (and even then we mostly ignore them, but that’s another topic for another day…). When you replace the ‘walk time’ with other activities you suddenly have endless options and a totally new way of interacting with your dog.
Let’s face it, walking the dog can be stressful. Maybe he turns into a scary, barking, lunging mess when he sees another dog. Maybe he runs off and ignores you. Maybe he pulls so much on the lead you find the whole walk quite unpleasant. Maybe he has ‘mad moments’ where he starts jumping at you and biting your arms.
Walking the dog can be a chore and something we have to brace ourselves for some days. Knowing you can replace this activity with something really beneficial and less stressful can be eye-opening and incredibly relieving. There should be no shame or guilt in choosing not to walk your dog.
What can you do instead?
- Enrichment activities – Kongs, chews, snuffle mats, searching for food in cardboard boxes or shredded paper. There are hundreds of games like this and a quick Google search for dog enrichment will bring up enough to last you months!
- Training – teach your dog some new tricks, get a clicker and start clicking behaviours you like. Dogs love learning and training is a great way to improve your bond and get your dog listening and focusing on you
- Play – have some fun with playing tug, working on training and impulse control at the same time. If your dog doesn’t play, take the time to teach him how. It’s another great bonding activity which you can take out on your walks in future
- Find it – hide food or toys around the house for your dog to find. You can even hide yourself and have a game of hide-and-seek with your dog!
- Sleep – your dog needs time to de-stress and relax. If he’s been coping with high levels of stress then he will need time to sleep. Most dogs don’t get enough sleep so make sure you prioritise this (see here for more about the importance of sleep and rest time)
This doesn’t mean walking brings no benefits and we should just keep our dogs inside and never walk them again. Walking and spending time outside brings huge benefits to our dogs and us. But we should think more about how our dogs feel during and after their walks. We shouldn’t walk our dogs just because that’s what we’ve always done. We must consider the impact this has on our dog’s behaviour and health. Prioritising rest days can have a huge effect on behaviour and lead to a more relaxed, calmer dog in general.
There isn’t a perfect optimum which fits all dogs. Each dog is different and each will benefit in different ways. Some dogs may benefit from a longer period of rest, for some regular rest days are important and for others, just the occasional rest day when needed will be enough.
Rest days can be particularly beneficial for dogs who display reactive behaviours. Following a reactive event, their arousal levels will be high, and may remain high for several hours or days. Taking the rest of the day, or the following day, off from all stressful events, and avoiding all stressors, will give your dog time to rest and allow his arousal levels to return to a baseline level. For dogs who have a history of reactivity and who may be experiencing multiple stressors each day, it can really help to have a longer period of rest days to give plenty of time for stress levels to reduce and an opportunity for true relaxation!
Contacting a knowledgeable trainer who has a good understanding of arousal and behaviour is a good place to start. They can help you plan how to work rest days into your dogs routine and find a beneficial balance.