Today is National Walk Your Dog Day but instead of focusing on the benefits of walking your dog, I’d like to focus, perhaps controversially, on why I believe in rest days. We can all understand the positives gained from regular dog walks: the health benefits for you and your dog (both physical and mental); an opportunity to bond with your dog through new experiences and training; and of course, the social interactions walks can provide.
For most dogs, even the most sociable and laid-back of dogs, going out into the world can be an arousing experience. This can be due to the excitement of playing with other dogs, the overwhelming sniffing opportunities, new experiences, or the physical exercise involved. But for some dogs, this level of arousal can be detrimental. Perhaps your dog has had negative experiences in the past? It might have been attacked by another dog, scared by a loud noise, or previously walked on an aversive piece of equipment such as a choke chain or prong collar. You might have a young puppy who is finding the world a little overwhelming in terms of the new experiences it has to process on a daily basis. All of these situations can mean that your dog is experiencing an unhealthy level of stress when out on walks.
Known as the “fight or flight” hormone, adrenaline is the main hormone responsible for the immediate reaction we feel when we’re stressed. Following on from adrenaline, cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”, is produced slightly later and is likely to hang around in your dog’s body for a lot longer. While adrenaline allows you the energy and focused attention to deal with the stressful situation, cortisol manages bodily functions such as blood pressure to ensure you’re up to the job. While a natural amount of cortisol is needed by the body, if your dog is experiencing a regular production of too much cortisol this can have negative implications. Too much can result in digestive issues, a suppressed immune system, skin issues and pancreatitis, amongst other things. Behaviourally, the more cortisol there is in the dog’s system, the more likely they are to be nervous and reactive. It becomes a vicious circle. So how do we ensure our dogs don’t have an excess of cortisol in their system?
A rest day is free from any walks – no interaction with the outside world at all. It allows our dogs to relax and have calm experiences for a day. This, in turn, means no further cortisol is being produced, as well as allowing the already existent levels to deplete. Imagine it, if you will, as a stress detox for your dog’s emotional well-being.
When I suggest rest days to clients (and often a ‘rest week’), I’m met with “but I can’t NOT walk my dog“. This is normally due to the fact that the dog’s only source of interaction, aside from cuddles, during the day is their walk time. I’m not suggesting your dog does nothing for an entire day. Most puppies and adult dogs will need at least some sort of physical or mental stimulation to ensure that we don’t end up with boredom and the problems that can bring. But what we can do is replace their walks in the world with training, sniffing, chewing or indoor playtime. Having a rest day is often beneficial for the human-dog relationship as you tend to focus more on your time together, rather than completing the “chore” of a dog walk.
Some ideas of things you can do with your dog on rest days include:
- scent games in the garden – throw their meals out into the grass for them to forage for, or hide high-value treats for them to have to seek out
- feed meals from kongs, puzzle toys, or make a snuffle box with a few cardboard boxes and scrunched up paper (hiding their food among the layers)
- teach your puppy or dog a new trick
- practise recall around the house, build up the difficulty by hiding behind the sofa or in a cupboard
- give your dog a bone, chew root or stuffed frozen kong for nice calming chewing opportunity
- play with your dog – get out a tug toy and have an energetic game, practising some “drops” at the same time
- sleep! most dogs don’t get enough of it (think 18-20 hours/day for a puppy, 12-16 hours for adult dogs)
We know our dogs need exercise to stay healthy.
We also know that the enriching sniffing opportunities that dogs experience out on walks can’t be easily replicated in the garden.
But if we don’t want to force our dogs into experiencing negative stress and that excess production of cortisol, we need to understand the importance of rest days.
So consider adding a rest day into your dog’s week and enjoy a calmer dog.
If I could help my dog learn just one thing it would ‘STOP’