Picture the perfect walk: It's a balmy spring day at the park. The sun is overhead, and there isn't a cloud in the sky. Around you, there are tall trees and unseen wildlife scampering in the underbrush. A sudden breeze carries the scent of dogwood blossoms. You feel relaxed, even at peace.
Now picture that you are a dog. Do you notice anything different? What senses are triggered the most? What do you notice that you didn't before?
As a cognitive scientist, Alexandra Horowitz studies the world as seen through the eyes of dogs. Her latest book, titled "On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes", teaches us to keep our eyes peeled for the unfamiliar details that are otherwise overlooked -- as our dogs would do. The idea is: Once you really understand the dog's-eye point of view, there should be a lot less tugging, coaxing, and confusion between you and your furry friend. The result: a more enjoyable walk for both of you.
"The perfect walk [for both of you] would be one in which the dog chooses the route and the pace," she says, "where to go, how fast (or slow) to walk or run, who to greet, what to spend seconds or minutes sniffing." Come on, let go. You can let your dog be in charge for a few minutes each day.
Here is what you should do in order to ensure a pleasant walk for both of you.
Make Sure You Have the Right Gear
Before you embark on your outdoor excursion, be sure that you bring some of the go-to essentials: waste bags, water, a baggie of tasty treats.
Dr. Pam Reid of the ASPCA says that the daily walk is a great training opportunity, so she recommends bringing along a bag of dog treats. "The sounds and sights are so vastly interesting," she says, "you have to have something to compete with all of that."
As for the proper equipment, Dr. Reid suggests a no-pull body harness. This is especially for dogs who tend to pull or lunge on the leash -- it keeps you more in control while keeping the dog comfortable.
Start Off on the Right Paw
Our human concept of a walk is sadly tame: We choose a route along the predirected path, moving at a brisk pace and keeping our eyes locked ahead. But this is vastly different from your pup's. And because of this, we expect our dogs to walk orderly as well. "People believe that they want a dog to heel," Dr. Reid remarks. "But what they really want is a dog that walks politely and mannerly."
Some trainers subscribe to the notion that the dog should be leashed under strict control, attached in short proximity (either beside or behind you) at all times. To that, Horowitz says bluntly, "Hogwash. There are good smells on the right and there is something interesting up ahead. This is the dog's walk, let them go to the sniffs."
Take in the Sights (and Smells)
Dogs relish in the sensory details -- sights, sounds, and smells -- that we often take for granted. For instance, a dog's sense of smell vastly overpowers our own as human beings. Take a closer look at your dog's nose: It is lined in tiny bumps and ridges that are so individually unique that scientists say that it is comparable to the human fingerprint. The inside of a nose is lined with sensory receptor sites -- according to Horowitz, humans have six million while a sheepdog may have upwards of two hundred million! With that information, it is easy to understand how dogs are olfactory animals. As human beings, we often sniff out of curiosity. As dogs, they sniff to better understand the world around them. On a walk, be patient as they quite literally stop to smell the roses.
This would also explain your dog's seeming obsession with the neighborhood fire hydrant. "Dogs leave messages for each other through their urine," Horowitz says, "and the best place to leave messages is where other dogs have been leaving messages." Think: the landmarks of the block -- fireplugs, lampposts, trees, etc. "They are sniffing who has been there before," she says, "her identity, health, readiness to mate, what she's eaten, how long ago she was there. And your dog leaves the same information." Horowitz likens it to an (albeit smelly) community board where dogs leave notes for one another.
In this way, observe your dog as they observe the world on a walk. It's fascinating and the details are always telling: Are his ears perked? He may hear a few friendly dogs frolicking at the nearby dog park. Is his nose twitching? He might smell an incoming rain storm. Is his head held high? How does his tail wag? Is his body tense? Watching your dog walk through the world teaches you about his behavior.
Unleash Your Dog's Freedom
If your dog reliably responds to being called and the environment is hazard-free (and of course, permits it), don't be nervous to unleash your dog! Dr. Reid says that this is actually important for puppies as they learn to stay within your sight and keep up with your pace. Allow your dog this degree of freedom to learn, to explore, to investigate. When dogs spend so much time cooped up indoors, separated from you most of the day, a simple "walk around the block" doesn't cut it.
Ironically, one of the biggest misconceptions owners have about walking their dogs is that the walk is about exercise or relief routine exclusively. But don't forget who this walk is meant for -- the dog. "The dog 'needs exercise,'" Horowitz says, "but they also need to look around (sniff around), socialize (with other dogs or other people), spend quality time with you."