What is the central part of the very best dog walks? Is it a beautifully trained heel cue so that you can stride along with your obedient dog trotting along just behind you?
No, that’s not it.
Don’t get me wrong, a well proofed heel cue is a wonderful and very useful thing, but to keep your dog in that position for much of the walk is removing a large part of their capacity for enjoyment. A solid heel is great for walking along a narrow roadside pavement, but once you are away from the road or somewhere with room to give them a little more freedom, even while still on the lead, one cardinal rule should come into play. Let them sniff.
We as humans communicate with our world through our eyes and ears. We gather information using the signs of sight and hearing, and communicate with each other and our environment through the use of spoken language and, to a lesser extent, body language
Dogs do have a system of vocal communication, their hearing is well known to cover a wider frequency range and be more sensitive than ours, and they do use their eyes. None of these are the primary method by which a dog analyses and communicates with their world. Their primary sense organ is instead their nose. This is why it is so important to let them sniff.
We humans are in constant contact with our world, ever more so in these days of the smartphone and carrying devices with us that allow access to social media, emails, the internet. For our dogs, that tree stump next to the path that all the local dogs visit is their social media. There they can ‘check in’ and, by using their noses, find out who has been by to visit in the last few days. By sniffing where other dogs have urinated, a dog can tell a huge amount of information including their sex, reproductive status and some details about their state of health. This is an important reason to let them sniff, and leave their own messages, ‘pee mail’ if you like, for the dogs that will come along after them.
Sniffy walks, sniffaris, whatever we call them, the walk where we permit our dogs to investigate their surroundings with their noses is known to having calming effects on their brains. Studies have shown that our dogs sniff, off leash or on a long leash, reduces their pulse rates. This is a great thing to know for people sharing their lives with fearful or anxious dogs. For the dogs who find the world a difficult thing to which to relate, the complex dogs who are unable to enjoy going to the park where there are lots of other dogs or people or all kinds of things that may promote fear or anxiety in them, the sniffy walk can be their saviour.
The very act of sniffing calms, and exercises canine brains. For some dogs going out for long walks is difficult because of the danger of encountering sudden triggers that would distress them. An unexpected close encounter with a trigger may derail weeks or months of hard work helping them relate to their world better. A shorter walk where their humans let them sniff and investigate their surroundings can bring them home happy, relaxed, and tired.
The main reason to let them sniff, however, is that it is one of the things that dogs enjoy most about going to different places. To let them enjoy their time outside to the maximum, let them sniff.