Walking keeps dogs fit physically and mentally, allowing them to interact with people and animals and explore their environment. Caroline Zambrano spoke to experts about the epidemic of under-exercise in Australian dogs and why we need to get our dogs out and about every day.
Dogs tell us they love walks its the highlight of their day. Its hard to ignore their excitement at the prospect of a walk the crying, jumping, spinning circles and high-speed tail wagging that would knock a tree to the ground. But experts say many people are simply not listening to their dogs.
Just like humans, canines require regular exercise to help keep them physically and mentally fit; a walk provides entertainment and stimulation for your family pet on a level we can’t really understand.
In fact, in response to the declining levels of physical activity in both people and pets, RSPCA Australia and the National Heart Foundation of Australia teamed up in a national health initiative, Walking the Dog, to encourage pet owners to become more active to improve their health and that of their pets. According to the RSPCA, a national survey has found more than 40 per cent of dogs are overweight or obese.
To help increase awareness of pet obesity, Dogs Life followed the progress last year of three overweight dogs during a six-month Pooch Weight Pawtrol diet and exercise program, which also appeared on Channel Nines A Current Affair in April 2006. (Check out the Sept/Oct 2006 and Nov/Dec 2006 issues for articles about the program. To order phone subscriptions on 1300 303 414 or visit www.dogslife.com.au). Our program not only got the three dogs back into shape, but also helped change the lifestyle and feeding habits of their owners.
To find out more about this issue, Dogs Life spoke to the RSPCA, as well as Associate Professor Paul McGreevy (recognised by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons as a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine) at the University of Sydney, who has done significant research on canine health, welfare and behaviour.
Epidemic of under-exercise
There seems to be an epidemic of under-exercise in Aussie dogs. Working breed dogs seem to need three walks a day at least once a day is an absolute minimum, McGreevy said. With so many dogs preferring to defecate away from their den, relying on walks as toilet breaks, too few walks translates into an epidemic of constipation imposed by owners.
He said exercise out of the backyard is exciting for dogs because it offers them so many opportunities to explore the world they play, wee, poo, eat, meet people and dogs, mark their scent and much more.
McGreevy is fascinated about why these opportunities are so valued by dogs. We do well to remind ourselves that dogs find many activities intrinsically rewarding in ways that we will never understand, he said. We must never underestimate a dogs need for activity.
McGreevy referred to data published by Professor Danny Mills of Lincoln University in the United Kingdom from a survey of more than 500 dog owners, showing a mismatch between what people and their dogs regard as appropriate activity levels. The report shows:
- 81.4 per cent of dogs initiate interaction with the owners
- 47.4 per cent watch the owners all the time
- 42.1 per cent interfere with the owners when they are doing something unrelated to the dog
- 72.8 per cent are very playful
- 48.2 per cent are easily overexcited
- 12.3 per cent are restless during the day
- 8.9 per cent are restless during the night
McGreevy said this data points to a misunderstanding of what is normal. If more than 70 per cent of dogs are very playful and more than 80 per cent take an active role on initiating activity, those that do not are abnormal, he said.
These figures also suggest that many dogs are frustrated by lack of exercise and pester their owners (with varying success) to make life more fun for them, he said. Surprise and discovery are the Big Fun elements of any walk and sampling the air for novel and significant clues is the vehicle for such pleasures. It has been said that you never have to motivate a dog to use its nose. To me, this means sniffing is what all dogs do all of the time. To smell is to be canine, McGreevy added.
On an even more serious note, frustration and restlessness from lack of stimulation and activity can force dogs to indulge in destructive behaviours such as escaping, jumping up, barking and digging in the garden. Sadly, these are among the more common reasons given by owners who choose to surrender their dog to an animal shelter.
Get active with your dog
With data suggesting a worrying lack of exercise in our dogs and health reports warning of the rise of pet obesity, its more important than ever to get your dog out walking on a regular basis.
McGreevy said dogs benefit from regular walking for many reasons, including weight control and lowering the risk of developing long-term health problems such as pain and stiffness in joints. Walking also gives dogs a chance to revisit parks, socialise with other dogs, interact with people and spend quality time with their human pack when cooking, cleaning, talking on the telephone and watching TV cannot get in the way, he said.
Walking also induces fatigue, reducing problem behaviours such as barking because of separation-related distress, and providing mental stimulation essential for your dogs emotional wellbeing. Jane Speechley, Communications Manager of RSPCA Australia, added that walking is a great way to exercise your dog because it is very convenient you can walk just about anywhere!
You can do it at a time of day to suit yourself and its cheap. You don’t need expensive equipment, just a sturdy collar and leash and a good pair of walking shoes, she said. Providing adequate daily exercise is a vital part of being a responsible pet owner and with rising rates of obesity in pets and owners, walking is the natural choice to keep you and your pet healthy and active, Speechley said.
Spending this quality time exercising with your dog can really strengthen your relationship, help you to understand your pet better and learn more about his personality. Its also likely to improve his responsiveness to you, said Speechley.
While some people take exercise to the extreme, too much exercise in dogs does not seem to be a concern to canine experts. With around 40 per cent of Australian dogs known to be overweight or obese, its very important to note that starting a rigorous exercise program with a dog that is very young or very old, overweight or has been inactive for some time can indeed be dangerous, Speechley said. Many large breeds (such as Great Danes) can suffer long-term health problems if they are too active while they are young and their bones are still developing, Speechley told Dogs Life.
A quick trip to the vet for a checkup first will set your mind at ease and help you make sure your walks are a great first step toward improving your pets health (and yours!). Consult your breeder, vet or the RSPCA for advice if you’re in any doubt.
Prepare for walking
Before you head out the door, keep in mind these tips from the RSPCA to help make your walk pleasant and enjoyable.
- Wear a hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun.
- Always carry a leash, even if you’re in an off-leash park.
- Don’t forget the poo bags!
- Bring your own water and bowl, and have a dog first aid kit in the car.
- Don’t leave your dog alone in the car on a hot day, EVER!
Benefits of walking your dog
- Keeps dogs physically fit
- Opportunity to revisit parks
- Opportunity to socialise with other dogs
- Opportunity to interact with people and other dogs
- Opportunity to spend quality time with their owners/family
- Reduces boredom and problem behaviours, such as barking
- Provides mental stimulation essential for your dogs wellbeing
Tips for healthy walking
The RSPCA has some great tips on healthy and safe walking with your dog:
- Train your puppy to walk at a young age using cheerful commands and treats
- Be gentle and teach your dog to walk well on the leash rather than punishing him if he doesn’t; never yank a young puppy by his leash.
- Older, untrained or dominant dogs may benefit from a humane training tool (check out the Dogs Life March/April 2007 issue for a roadtest on some great stop pulling training products).
- All collars are not appropriate for every dog and must be used correctly; a harsh jerk on a choker chain can cause serious injury.
- Consider your dogs size, age and condition when you exercise. A healthy dog of a suitable breed can walk for miles, but remember your stride may be longer than theirs.
- Don’t take your dog to an off-leash area unless you are confident he will come when called and will socialise safely with other dogs. Contact your local council for other dog park etiquette advice (or better yet, check out Dogs Life Jan/Feb 2007 issue for valuable information on visiting off-leash parks).
- Consider your dogs breed and don’t push him beyond his limits. For instance, an Australian Cattle Dog will want to walk and run for miles, whereas a short-legged little Dachshund might struggle to keep up.
- Some dogs like to run, but others just want to plod along. Allow them to do as they wish. If you want to jog with your dog, make sure hes big enough and fit enough to keep up (and vice versa).
- Check your dogs paws for wear and tear at the end of each walk, especially when the pavements are superhot.
- Dogs can sunburn, especially those with short or light-coloured coats. Limit their sun exposure and use sunscreen on sensitive areas, like the nose and ears.
Walking your dog safely
Regardless of when you walk, you are responsible for your dogs safety. Remember that accidents do happen and often they can be prevented.
Dogs Life caught up with Jane Speechley, Communications Manager of RSPCA Australia, for some advice on walking safely with your dog.
Always have your dog on a leash, unless you are in a designated area where your dog can be off leash as long as it is under effective control. Remember, accidents do happen so its vitally important to make sure your pet is identified with a microchip and ID tag so he can be returned to you if he gets lost. For the comfort and safety of others, make sure your pet is well-trained, desexed and that you clean up after him.
Never let your dog leave your sight or outrun the sound of your voice.
In the summer, one of your main concerns will be coping with the heat. Aim to walk during the early morning or possibly in the evening, Speechley said.
This is especially true if you have a dog that finds it more difficult to handle the hot weather very young or older dogs, dogs with pushed-in faces such as pugs and bulldogs, black dogs and winter breed dogs are just a few examples, she said. Don’t let your pet overdo it this may mean keeping pooch on a leash or keeping walks shorter if he really likes to run around. Stick to shady areas where possible and make sure you and your pet drink plenty of fresh, cool water to stay hydrated, she said.
Because Australian winters are generally quite mild, the main problem in colder weather is making sure you still take your dog for a walk and don’t hide under the doona instead! Speechley reminded Dogs Life readers that dogs need exercise all through the year and winter can be the prime time for gaining weight if your dog isnt getting enough and that can lead to a whole range of problems.
Older or younger dogs and those with especially thin fur may benefit from a coat to keep warm in winter, she said. When its cold, make sure your pet has a warm comfortable place to rest. If you’re concerned that your dog is feeling the cold more than normal or may be suffering from arthritis, a trip to the vet may be necessary to investigate the problem and consider some of the many treatment options available.
Importance of visibility
Visibility can become a problem when walking at dusk or at night, Speechley said. Consider wearing reflector strips on your clothing and using a reflective collar and leash on your dog, she said. Take extra care near roads and keep your dog close to you. Dog coats are also available with reflector strips. Alternatively, you can attach a flashing light beacon on your dogs collar.
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