How to walk a dog (especially an older one)
Updated: 7 days ago
Mutterings from a veterinary nurse turned dog walker turned end-of-life carer for pets
Photo by Kanashi on Unsplash
Walking the dog, it’s not rocket science, is it? You march them to the nearest green space, give them time for a pee and a poo, play fetch until their tongue is hanging on the ground (or they refuse bringing the ball back to you) and march them back home. Dog pooped (literally and figuratively), quiet house but the gentle snoring in the background, another one of your to-do’s checked off.
Yet somehow, this doesn’t feel satisfying, for you nor your dog.
When you envisioned getting a dog, perhaps your imagination went to all those long countryside walks you would do together on the weekends: exploring the woods, runs on the beach, paddling in the rivers. Then how did walking the dog become another task on your everlasting list of chores, and why does that manic stare of your dog seem slightly unnerving?
I have a strong opinion about throwing balls and sticks continuously for the sake of tiring out a dog. I used to do it with my own insatiable Border Collie. But when I became a professional dog walker and educated myself by reading material from professionals like Turid Rugaas and Winkie Spiers, I realised that (quite honestly) throwing a ball makes your dog dumb.
Ball-obsessed dogs stop interacting with peers, blindly chase the ball and bump into things (or worse, cross the road without looking) and become neurotic and protective. It’s one of the reasons I don’t bring a ball on group walks. If one of the team members finds a ball, by all means, carry it along, as long as it doesn’t cause an issue with the other team members. But if you send your dog with me on a walk, they won’t return home knackered because they’ve been chasing a ball for an hour.
They will be tired though, but by other means.
I am a big fan of the dogs using their noses and having the freedom to clamber over natural environments such as hills and tree trunks. This means we switch up our walks, visit different parks and woodlands and sometimes stick to a guided urban walk, stopping at every corner they like to sniff.
During the warmer months, when too much walking isn’t possible, I scatter dry kibble in the long grass or hide them in and around tree trunks, so they need to go and find. We often find very excitable dogs, with an energy level that is way above the team’s, joining the group and everybody happily sniffing out treats without any food rivalry.
I realise that you won’t have time on every walk to hold an extensive “sniffari” but try to understand it’s not about the miles you make when the goal is to have a happy and exercised canine friend. It’s about the stimulation, more so mental than physical.
As I told one of my dog’s caregivers once: "Think of the tree-sniffing as reading a book. Very satisfying and stimulating." To which she responded: "Yes, but sometimes it’s like he’s reading The Lord of the Rings, parts 1 – 3, the Hobbit ánd the Silmarillion!"
Trust me, you will find that in time, your dog is starting to be calmer, both inside and outside the home. They stop being obsessive and start being a more centred dog, using their senses in a deliberate way. And it will make you slow down too!
“Cristina and Aurélien Budzinski, recently published a study of dog heart rates. At the Heart of the Walk, found that walking on a long, loose leash or no leash lowers a dog’s pulse. Over time, this lowers your dog’s stress levels. Although it may not feel like you are doing a ‘classic’ dog activity, like throwing a ball, it is much better for your dog.” (Source: Slow Dog Movement)
Being present during your walks with your dog, will do wonders for the human-canine bond. Try to not be on your phone, listen to a podcast or default to chatting to other dog caregivers while the dogs get up to no good. This doesn’t mean you have to go exploring natural reserves on every walk. Just go on your neighbourhood walk and look around. Look up and marvel at the city’s architecture. Listen to the robin sing her song. Take a few deep breaths. And feel your nervous system slow down. As a dog walker I don’t practise meditation sitting on a pillow, counting my breaths. I meditate by walking in silence, being mindful and appreciating my surroundings.
It's quite clear what positive immediate effects has on your life with your canine friend. But in the long run, your dog will be happier and healthier as well. Not only will they be open to mental stimulation when they grow older and (even) slower, you will also protect their joints from damage because they’re not constantly stopping, jumping and sliding when running after a ball.
Inevitably, your dog will grow older and suffer from osteoarthritic joints, but it will be easier to keep them satisfied and stimulated when they are used to moving deliberately and slowly, using their noses and brains. It’s easier to get a savvy, patient dog with a long attention span to solve a food puzzle than a dumb and obsessively ball-oriented dog.
Furthermore, yóu are used to moving slow with your dog. Hands up for anyone who has seen a person drag their older (or heavier) dog along the pavement on a walk. This kind of walking is not only frustrating for the human, but it’s also annoying for the dog who really wants to keep up but is being dragged forward, while often in discomfort.
Get rid of the idea of ‘walking the dog’ and get used to ‘walking with the dog’. This will ensure you’re both happy going for walks as mates, all the way until the autumn of their life.
But what about that older or overweight dog, that has difficulties even walking around the block? How stimulating can the same four streets be if you walk them multiple times per day? My answer to that would be to invest in either a harness that can help you help them, like the Help ‘em up mobility harness or a low step pram like the Thule Chariot Cross.
The harness can help them to walk a bit further when their hind legs are too tired, or help you help them to get up after a rest. And the pram will help you to transport them to places to which they used to be able to walk easily but are now too tired or sore for. During the stroll, they’ll still be able to experience their surroundings in all their glory! The dog does not actually have to walk themselves to receive mental and olfactory (smelling) stimulation.
Be sure to always give them a quick muscle warming massage before going on a walk, and keep them warm whilst on it. I love the Equafleece capes and jumpers to keep backs and joints warm and dry. On dry weather days, leave enough space for breaks where you both sit down and enjoy the scenery or chew on something (physically or mentally).
And especially with your older friends, be sure to take your time and enjoy each other’s company.
Photo by Ilya Ilford on Unsplash