In my last blog post, I explored how regular enrichment helps to prevent or reduce common behavior problems in dogs. This month, let’s explore another method for helping dogs achieve a happy, relaxed state of being: decompression walks!
What’s a decompression walk?
Let me start by saying that I am not the first trainer to sing the praises of decompression walks, nor was I the person to coin the term (unfortunately I’m not sure who did; if you know, please tell me so I can credit them appropriately). Trainer Sarah Stremming has a whole podcast about decompression on her Cog-Dog Radio channel, and trainer Jenny Efimova wrote a lovely blog post about them here. Decompression walks are sometimes also referred to as “sniff walks,” “nature walks,” or “sniff-aris.” In essence, a decompression walk is one that allows your dog to release the stress and pressure that they accumulate in everyday life.
Decompression is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “to undergo a release of pressure.”
In my opinion, decompression walks are characterized by the following features:
- Your dog walking in a natural space that is free of any triggers that are frightening or stressful for them (so fields, forests, etc. can be great choices).
- Your dog is either off leash (if that’s safe or appropriate) or on a long leash.
- Your dog gets to guide most of the walk, making as many choices as is safe/allowable. Your dog sets the pace, decides what they’d like to sniff, goes where they’d like to explore, etc.
- The equipment you use should be minimally intrusive. Back attach harnesses connected to your long leash are ideal, but humane equipment such as a front-attach harness can be OK for dogs who tend to be strong pullers.
Here’s a compilation of clips of the dogs in my Group Adventure Crew doing what I would classify as decompression walking. Notice that we are moving as a loosely organized group in a natural space and the dogs are free to do “doggy things,” including sniffing, exploring, peeing on things, kicking up dirt, smelling each other’s pee (always a favorite), and even a bit of digging for moles. I intervene if the dogs look like they’re going to take off after a deer or eat something truly awful, but for the most part, they get to make their own choices and just be dogs.
Your dogs are off leash in some of that video. My dog would run away.
First of all, I’m happy that you recognize your dog is not ready to be safely off leash yet. That’s OK! It takes quite a bit of training for dogs to be able to safely hike and run around off lead, and for some dogs with aggression or extremely high prey drive, it may never be a safe idea to let them off lead. Luckily, there are some great alternatives.
SniffSpots are a fantastic tool for dogs who need to decompress. You can rent a property for your dog to explore! Some of the properties are fenced, some are unfenced, and some may have dogs or other animals on the property, so read the description carefully and pick a spot that meets your dog’s needs. Sniffspots are especially wonderful for dog owners who do not have a fenced yard. Even if you do have a fenced yard, it can be great for your dog to get to check out a DIFFEFRENT yard or property.
Secondly, your dog does not have to be off-leash to do a decompression walk. You can use a long leash. Check out my blog post about Essential Safety Skills for Long Leashes for tips and videos on how to have safe and happy leashed walks with your dog that can feel like your dog is off-leash!
I also want to take a moment to point out that your dog’s decompression should never come at the expense of others. In a non-dog park setting, it’s never OK to allow your dog to run up to another dog without asking the other dog’s guardian for permission first. Yelling “It’s OK, he’s friendly!” as your dog barrels at the other pup at the speed of light doesn’t count: you need their permission BEFORE your dog approaches. If your dog does not yet have the skills to come and heel when called off lead, including around distractions such as other dogs, please make sure your decompression walks are on a long line so that if you encounter other pups, your dog is under your control.
Why does my dog need decompression walks?
For some dogs, staying home all day while their guardians are away at the office (or focused on Zoom meetings in their home office) builds tension. For other dogs, living in a family with other pets or noisy toddlers can be a hassle. Some dogs live in an urban environment and find the tight spaces and city noises to be worrisome. Some people adopt high-energy breeds or breed mixes who were originally bred as working breeds, and life without a job can be its own kind of strain for these dogs. Some guardians do a great job playing high intensity games or sports with their dogs without realizing that this can get some individuals more worked up instead of more tired. All of the dogs I’ve described here benefit from decompression walks to promote relaxation and stress relief.
Today’s pet dogs face a lot of pressures. What constitutes a “pressure” depends on the dog.
And then, there are reactive dogs: dogs who become very worked up at the sight of another dog, a stranger, or a car. For these dogs, even if they are getting plenty of exercise around their neighborhood, those neighborhood walks can actually be very stressful or overarousing for them. We have all grown up hearing that our dogs need exercise, and we should take our dogs for daily walks. But what if those walks themselves induce anxiety and frustration because the dog is exposed to trigger after trigger? In these cases, the benefits of the neighborhood walk may be outweighed by the costs. These dogs need a different kind of walking as their exercise and enrichment.
I have some concerns. If I let my dog make all the choices on decompression walks…
Will it teach them bad walking habits?
Probably not! I find that the dogs I work with are able to differentiate between “decompression walk time” and “short leash time.” For the purposes of this post, I’ll define a “short leash” as one less than or equal to 8 feet in length.
To help my dog know when we are about to take a decompression walk, I use a long leash attached to the back of my dog’s harness in a natural setting (if we’re not off leash). I also add a consistent release cue (such as “Go Sniff!”) to tell my dog that she is free to explore and just act like a dog.
When we are working on a shorter leash, I attach my leash to the front of my dog’s harness, and my dog knows that our default walking style is a cooperative loose-leash walk. We have accomplished this through positive training, and this takes time to build. Also, I have not given her the “Go Sniff!” release cue. So, my dog is clear on the expectation that pulling will get her nowhere, and we’re walking together on our 6 foot leash.
My dog has been able to easily learn the difference between these two scenarios, and in my experience, this is feasible for most dogs. Make sure that you put the necessary time and energy into building appropriate short leash walking habits with your dog, then be sure you clearly set expectations and communicate “what kind of walk” you are about to embark on, and you’ll be good to go!
Will it make my dog think they don’t have to listen to me anymore on leash?
That’s unlikely! Going for a decompression walk can help foster a positive relationship with your dog, which builds a stronger bond and may help your dog be more likely to listen to you. Sometimes when I help animal guardians train their dogs to walk politely on a short leash, their biggest challenge is that their dog is desperately trying to sniff everything. If the dog is given an appropriate outlet for this natural doggy behavior through “sniff walks” some of the time, then they are often able to better focus on their guardians when it’s time to walk on a short lead.
I do recommend that some of your walks be decompression walks, which allow more freedom, and that you also spend some time working with your dog on a shorter lead, since this is also a helpful skill for most pet dogs to have. But having some of your walks be decompression-style walking is not going to cause you to lose control of your dog somehow.
Will it make my dog think that they are the alpha?
Nope! This is not a thing. For more information, check out this document by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
How often do I do decompression walks?
It depends on the dog! I find that having at least two decompression walks per week is extremely helpful for my dog. She is less likely to bark and tends to be more relaxed around the house. She’s far less likely to pester me during my Zoom consultations! If we meet other dogs or pass them on the street, she is less likely to be reactive and more likely to be relaxed and successful. Other dogs may require more frequent decompression walks for you to see a difference.
Sometimes, when I am training a dog that is extremely reactive and/or stressed, I recommend taking a complete break from neighborhood walks for several weeks. In these cases, the dog and their guardians work only on backyard exercise and/or decompression walking to take a “cortisol vacation” and bring their stress hormones down.
Dogs who have medical issues or are older may also have different needs as far as their walking speed, duration, and frequency. Some dogs may not cover much ground during a decompression walk, and might be satisfied with just a short sniff around some bushes. This is still a valuable decompression exercise. I recommend starting with two decompression walks a week, and then let your dog’s behavior be your guide.
Let me know in the comments how your decompression walks go, and whether you notice any positive changes in your dog’s overall behavior or demeanor! Happy training!