The benefits of walking your dog

Nowadays dogs are far removed from their original function. It would be great if our water dogs could swim, our herding breeds could herd and if terriers were allowed to extinguish vermin all day to keep them physically and mentally stimulated. Unfortunately our lifestyles today do not always allow for this, not to mention not even having the time to walk our dogs. Even if a dog has access to an acre or two each day, it does not necessarily mean that the dog has been running around all day while you are at work; luckily there is a solution to the problem.

Dogs in backyards really do experience stress if they are not kept mentally and physically stimulated. Sometimes some signs of stress only becomes notable to an owner once the stress has become so severe that the dog is displacing it into certain (unwanted) behaviours i.e. hyperactivity, lack of focus and attention, self mutilation, (some) skin disorders, rapid shallow or deep forceful panting, sweaty paws, confusion, compulsive behaviours, displacement behaviours, stiffness, overly reactive to stimuli, excessive sleeping, relapses in housetraining and many more. (Please note that some of the above mentioned behaviours could also have medical causes. If you do notice any of these, have your vet give your dog a check up.)

Research has shown that physical stimulation has a significant therapeutic influence on the physiology of the dog. Exercise such as walking produces the production of serotonin, NE (nor-adrenalin) and certain endorphins which are responsible for the positive mood-altering effects associated with exercise. Dogs probably experience the same feelings we do after exercising.

Research (Dey, 1992) has shown that long-term daily exercise such as walking enhances noradrenergic activity and increases serotonin levels in the amygdala. This part in the brain plays a central role in emotional learning and mediates the expression of fear and modulates aggression. Low levels of serotonin can lead to impulsivity, impaired learning, anxiety, aggressive and obsessive behaviours. If NE is depleted the body shuts down its energy expenditure and the dog becomes lethargic and withdrawn. NE depletion is also associated with impulsivity, over-excitability, aggression and over arousal.

Studies (Chaouloff, 1997) done with short, irregular and explosive exercise i.e. the andquot;once-a-week-beach-madnessandquot; can lead to overstressing the dog’s neuroeconomy and actually deplete NE and thereby causing in some cases the behaviours mentioned above.

The mental stimulation the dogs receive from a walk is very much underestimated. Dogs are mentally stimulated when required to use their senses (Rugaas 2005). Dog’s sense of smell is one of their best developed senses ? give them the opportunity to use it! They get to see different environments, people and other dogs; they get to feel different textures under their feet, which lead to improved proprioception, which in turn increases dopamine in the body. Dopamine influences the brain’s pleasure centre and is responsible for the positive feelings a dog experiences. They get to socialize and hear different noises. The more different environments a dog experiences the more adaptable he becomes.

The bonding experience between dog and owner on walks is also often overlooked. If you have more than one dog per household try every now and then to walk just one dog at a time, even if it means they get a shorter walk on that day as to fit all of them in. It gives your dog time to be with you without the normal competitiveness that usually surrounds more than one dog on a walk.

A well exercised dog experiences the effects of pleasurable chemicals within the brain which promotes a calm, relaxed and happy dog. If you really do not have the time to walk your dog/s on a very regular basis, please explore the possibility of employing a dog-walker.

Long gone are the days that dog-walkers are frowned upon, they play a very important part in keeping your dog well adjusted and stress free! Contact your nearest vet for references and if it helps you to feel more comfortable, make an appointment and let your dog meet the dog-walker and go for a walk and observes how s/he interacts and handles your dog. Make sure that this person fully understands your dog’s breed and age requirements and limitations. A 2 year old Border collie requires much more exercise that a 4 month old short muzzled puppy. If your dog has been a ‘couch potato’ for long, ensure that you increase the amount of walking very gradually to avoid stress or injury. After a period of three to four weeks of moderate and frequent walking, you should start to notice the positive behavioural effects.

Your dog will love your for it! You’ll see it by his appearance, health and behaviour.

Copyright Claire Grobbelaar