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Walking with Intention

Kate and Murphy walking outside

I recently realized the importance of setting an intention for walks with your dog. By this I mean that each walk should have a purpose behind it. I subconsciously set an intention for my walks with dogs, which has opened up a new level of communication not only with my dog, but with others as well. I have found that setting an intention for your walk helps communicate to your dog what your expectations of them may be. If you are leashing your dog up for a five mile run, the last thing you want is for him/her to be pulling you left and right as you run while he scavenges for interesting smells. On the contrary, if you are looking for a more relaxed, leisurely pace, this would be tough to accomplish with a dog who is thinking you’re heading out for a swift power walk.

Usually, I’ll say the intention out loud because I’m one of those owners that is constantly chatting to their pup. Some examples of expressing my intention to my dog are: “Okay Murphy, quick pee and then we’re coming back inside”, or “Let’s get you good and tired, buddy”, or even “Let’s see who’s at the park today”. I have found that setting an intention for my walk helps communicate to my dog what my expectations of them are. Each walk is different, so each intention I set is unique in helping to set the tone and pace for our walk.

As far as the walks I take with my dog, sometimes the walk can be a quick trip around the block so that Murphy can relieve himself. This is meant for days like today, when it is negative six degrees outside and neither of us can stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Setting this intention and sharing it with Murph gives him the heads up that our trip outside will be fast paced and short lived. On the contrary, if I tell Murphy that when we go outside it’s with the intention of tiring him out, this gears us up for a fast paced yet long walk, usually around forty minutes to an hour. He gets a chance to get his heart rate up and there are not many opportunities to stop and sniff around beyond doing his business. When I pull up at the off-leash dog park, (I highly recommend Capital Hills golf course in Albany for any of my off-leash skilled dog-friendly clients and their pups!) Murphy knows we are in for a slow paced, long and relaxing walk with lots of sniffing stops and time to socialize with other dogs.

There are a few questions to ask yourself when setting an intention for your walk. The first question is, “Why does my dog need this walk?”. Is your pup already tired, and just needs a quick lap to relieve themselves? Does your dog have some leash-manners that need to be refreshed, in which case, you are heading out for a focused training walk? Perhaps your dog has been cooped up all day and needs a chance to sniff around and explore their neighborhood. The next question to ask yourself is, “Why do I need this walk?”. You are an equal participant in the walk, and your input is important! Do you need some exercise and fresh air after being stuck at work all day? Do you need an activity to help bond with your dog? I find that walking clears my head faster than anything else, maybe getting into a zen walk will help you, too! The third question to ask is “What do I expect from my dog on this walk?”. If you expect your dog to practice a loose leash walk, you know you’re looking at a training walk, which will take a lot of engagement (and treats) on your part and a lot of focus on your dog’s part. If you’re planning on letting your dog off-leash to play with others, you are expecting your dog to have fun, burn off some energy and socialize, and not necessarily to walk at your side the entire trip.

Having an intention set at the beginning of your walk also gives you and your dog a place to come back to and reset if you feel that the walk isn’t going as planned. You could head out with the intention of getting into a groove with your dog, maintaining a fast pace with minimal stops, and find that your dog is in a sniffing mood that morning. Reset yourself, and your dog- have him/her set their focus back on you, and back on your walk. Determine if your intention matches his/hers. This reminds your dog that you are calling the shots when it comes to walks, as well as puts your mind in a fresh place to start over and try again. Sometimes I will find that Murphy gets too distracted on a socialization walk, which is measured by his ability to break away from other dogs and come back to me at any point. If he is unable to regain focus on me, he is back on leash until we have reset ourselves and he is more focused on why we are walking.

Here are the four main types of walks I do with my dog, each of which can be merged with the others to find the perfect exercise routine for you and your dog:

  1. Flow: What I call a ‘flow walk’ may have other names created by people who know more than I do. When I refer to a flow walk, I mean the type of walk where you and your dog both relax into the motions and enjoy the process. This is my dog’s work walk- when he comes on walks with my clients’ dogs, he will say a quick hello to them and then settle into a zen state. During this zen mindset, he remains present and focused. Your shoulders should be away from your ears and relaxed, your arms should be loose and swinging slightly, and your eyes should be fixed ahead. Your dogs head and tail should be neutral, ears relaxed and eyes alert. Your dog can be interested in sights, smells and sounds, but does not engage with these distractions. Much like during meditation, things may come into your space and leave as they please (birds passing, cars going by, leaves tumbling) but not much breaks your ‘zen’. These walks can be as long or as short as you please, but I recommend going with the flow and seeing how far you can make it!
  2. Training: This is the kind of walk that makes me look like a crazy dog lady. I’ll have a treat pouch, equipped with different levels of treats, occasionally multiple leashes depending on the training, and I’m talking to my dog more than I talk to most people. This walk involves you and your dog being constantly engaged with one another, whether you’re working on pulling, heeling, leaving garbage where it is, or anything else you’re training your dog to understand. These walks should be relatively short depending on your dog’s attention span for training in order to keep things fresh and training exciting.
  3. Exercise: These walks are fairly straightforward- you are walking your dog for the purpose of getting it the exercise it needs to be healthy and happy. Some dogs require longer exercise walks/runs, but regardless of length these trips are meant to be all about fitness without any distractions or stops (it helps to make sure your dog did their business before you start). Your dog’s head should generally be up away from the ground to avoid sniffing or finding a distraction. (This is the type of walk I give Murphy when I know I will be out of the house for a while and I do not want to come home to anything chewed out of boredom.)
  4. Exploration: This is a general term for walks that are not for the purpose of training or exercise per say. This does not mean that because it is not strictly and exercise or training walk, that those things are not important elements of the walk. Instead, the intention with an exploration walk is to let your dog be a dog! They do not need to have their head specifically up or down, but can instead sniff as they please. They can check out the neighbor’s dog, hop around in the snow, take a different route than usual, take their time sniffing a patch of grass etc.. Your dog should still be engaged with you (teaching them to “look” is my favorite way to ensure that your dog will check-in with you- it allows for quick eye contact without taking away from their fun time) but is not required to be as on-point as they would be with a different type of walk.

Now that you are able to identify what kind of walk you and your dog need, as well as set an intention for that walk to ensure that it is productive and fun for you both, you can get out there and start walking. Remember that the relationship you have with your dog is a partnership, and all partnerships require communication to be efficient. Communication is always a work in progress, and some days you may set an intention and carry it all the way through your walk, and others you may need to reset yourselves many times before you’re on the same page. Just keep in mind that the world is a fascinating and distracting place for a dog, and the one outcome you should never intend for is perfection. The perfect intention is one that supports growth, health and love between you and your pup, while allowing them to have fun along the way.