Exercise for Dogs: Tiring vs. Taxing

12109913_10206986347170209_170366383121794723_oThere are two kinds of exhaustion; one is good, and one is not so good. Get up early, pack a lunch, and hike all day long. When you get home you will be tired, but it will feel good. You will rest that evening and sleep hard; it is the best kind of restoration. On the flip-side, get up early, pack your suitcase, and spend the entire day in air travel. Multiple connections, several flights, a rental car, a drive in a strange city, and finally your hotel room. You are tired, and it does not feel good. Your sleep might even be restless and uneasy. Both these scenarios are tiring, but the air travel is also taxing. Both are exhausting, but one drains while the other restores.

With our dogs, we are often trying to tire them out because we recognize restlessness and boredom are bad for them. But too often we present them with activities that are tiring but also taxing, like the air travel scenario.  How do we make sure we are tiring our dogs, but not taxing them?

A Closer Look at Exercise

For many of our urban and suburban dogs their daily walks are draining for them. Trucks backfiring, traffic zipping by, other dogs barking and lunging at them, crowds of people, and a human rushing them along all serve to tax our dogs’ minds. This is especially true of dogs with anxious personalities or reactive tendencies. Add a restrictive or uncomfortable walking device and you’ve just increased any stress these walks cause.

Picture the polar opposite: a dog off leash in a field. His nose alternates from air to ground, his body moves in a zig-zag pattern, and his face is soft with a loose pant. His speed changes constantly; sometimes he runs full tilt, other times he maintains a steady trot, and occasionally he stops to sniff a spot for what feels like an eternity. It is clear to anyone that this is the ultimate in dog bliss; one that is hard for most people to provide on any kind of regular basis, if ever.  There is a halfway point; one that is possible no matter where you live, and your dog’s mind and body will thank you for it. I call it the Decompression Walk.

A New Way to Walk

If it’s at all possible to provide your dog with off leash romping-roaming-dogness, do so as often as you can. It’s my greatest piece of advice for his prolonged health. Recognizing that we live in a land of leash laws and dangers, I do have alternative suggestions.

First, seek dirt. Find a place that your dog (and you!) can walk on a natural surface in a wide, spread-out fashion. (Hint: get off that concrete pathway). Then, ditch your restrictive devices. Trade your head collar for a harness that doesn’t restrict your dog’s shoulder movement and swap your six foot leash for one of ten feet or more. Finally, hang on, and let your dog lead the way in the open space you’ve selected. At best, you’ll be roaming an open meadow or a forest, at least you’ll be zigzagging a soccer field in a public park. In any case, you’re avoiding triggering events or situations, and you’re just along for the ride.


If you live ultra-urban, use the longest leash you feel safe about and try out a non-restrictive harness. As you walk, scatter cookies at the bases of trees, underneath park benches, around mailboxes. While your dog is busy finding your last scatter, set up the next one so that he is surprised yet again when there is more to find down the sidewalk. Keep it casual, let him sniff and search as long as he pleases, and scope out your neighborhoods to avoid scary or stressful things.

In any case, always examine what you’re doing with your dog. Is a quick walk around the neighborhood on a short leash really worth what you think it is? Or would a puzzle toy be better for your particular dog? Are you getting through your walks without incident, or is there always something triggering occurring? No one is perfect, but we can all do better. You might find that a new way to walk helps you decompress, too.

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Positively Expert: Sarah Stremming

Sarah Stremming is a dog trainer, a blogger, and an agility competitor. She teaches online classes and coaches people regarding behavior solutions for their performance dogs, all through her web-based business, The Cognitive Canine.


5 thoughts on “Exercise for Dogs: Tiring vs. Taxing

  1. MJDiLo

    I have a reactive dog who is eager to go on walks but often is stressed by the whole experience. Our wonderful trainer has us working with treats and games, but we still have to use a head halter. This has me wondering if it's just better to play in the backyard! Thanks for the thoughtful column.

  2. Ulla-Brita Carlsen

    This is precisely what I do, and Laika is a well balanced, friendly dog. However, my highly regarded friend who is a positive dog behaviourist and trainer maintains that off lead should be a reward, not a right. The conundrum: would my dog be as happy if she had to earn her off lead beach/wood/wilderness walks, and would she be as willing to come back to me regularly for a love and a treat? I stick with what works for us, but I am confused that trainers of more or less equal standing have such different views. Has it to do with the breed of dog? (Laika is a lab).

  3. Sarahsmilesalot

    While I cannot say that all our walks are great (e.g. off leash), our walks are always full of praise and love for,our dogs who would rather be us than anything else.

  4. Liza Irvine

    I thought I was helping my dog by walking him past the barking dogs at the gates that he is afraid of. I did the look at me thing and gave him treats and it got better. I feel bad that I put him through this stress 🙁
    Now we walk along the outside of our area, where there are wide grass pavements where he can be off lead.
    We go to the park where he can run free and I can see how relaxed and happy he is 🙂
    This is so relaxing for me also, we have fun instead of trying to heel
    He is actually more obedient off leash.
    If he gets near the road, he will stop and wait for me to attach the leash to cross
    Thank you

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