Updated: Aug 15
One of the first things we’re ever told about dogs is that they need exercise. ‘A tired dog is a happy dog’ is a common saying. While this is true to an extent, it can lead to guardians feeling they need to take their dogs out and run them until they’re all puffed out. Often this may involve a ball launcher, designed to throw a ball further and faster with less effort.
The truth is, we don’t need ball launchers to tire our dogs. Even the high drive, high energy breeds we so often see waiting poised for lift off don’t need those repeated runs after a tennis ball launched into the middle distance. I’m not saying we should ban fetch, but that we should think carefully as the truth is it can become all consuming.
Many dogs will be happy with a few chases of the ball from time to time, but for others it can lead to them becoming obsessed, wanting ever more, more, MORE! The more we repeat this cycle, the more the dog needs to exhaust them to that same degree.
Consider how human athletes in many sports increase their fitness levels. Often it involves shuttle runs, sprints from one point to another and back again. The more they do this, the more their fitness increases. It works exactly the same in dogs. The more of these runs the dog does, the fitter they become.
They turn into canine athletes, able to do more and for longer. Rather than simply tiring the dog out, the amount they will need in future is actually increasing. Their arousal levels skyrocket as they have the excitement of chasing the ball, over and over again. Feel good chemicals are released in their brain, lighting up the brain’s internal reward centre. It can easily become an obsession, almost an addiction.
Repeated fast runs after a ball can also carry high injury risks and the development of joint problems. A flat out run followed by slamming on the brakes to grab the ball puts massive amounts of pressure on joints, as do rapid turns. Jumping up to catch a ball can result in an awkward landing and accompanying injuries.
The good news is that we can do something to exercise our dogs without so much as a glimpse of a ball, let alone a ball launcher. We don’t even really need any specialist equipment except perhaps a long line if recall is a work in progress or if it’s advisable to keep a physical point of contact with them. Instead of endless running, we can incorporate sniffing to work their brains. It’s immensely tiring for many dogs, and the steady nature of it is great for helping high energy fizzy dogs to calm and relax.
Sniffing is an incredibly natural behaviour for dogs. Smell is the main sense they use to process their world. One of the Five Freedoms is the freedom to exhibit natural behaviours, which definitely encompasses sniffing. If you’ve spent much time observing your own dogs on heading out of the door, I’m sure you’ve seen their nose go down to the ground almost immediately as they catch up on the canine version of social media, both reading the messages left by other dogs and passers-by and leaving their contributions to the conversations in turn.
If we look at how developed their scenting capacity is compared to ours it becomes clear that we must give them opportunities to carry out this behaviour. On average a dog has 220 million scent receptors to our 6 million, more in breeds developed for their scenting prowess like the Bloodhound. If we don’t build the chance to sniff into their lives, we aren’t using the easiest and most natural enrichment opportunity available.
Find a new place to go, or somewhere they haven’t been for a while. Choose somewhere with room to move around and explore, without needing to worry about roads or livestock, for example. Maybe a local park, a nature reserve, a secure field perhaps. If safe to do so (for you, your dog, and any other people or animals around you) let your dog off the lead. If not possible, a long line attached to a harness gives room to explore while keeping the safety of a physical connection in case something unexpected happens.
Then just let them sniff. At their own pace. Anywhere they want to go you are permitted to go and it’s safe for you to do so. Let them decide how long to spend in one spot before moving on. It’s fascinating to watch them explore and process their world once we slow down and really take the time to observe them.
As an example of the effect a good sniffy walk can have even on high energy breeds, here are two videos of my Border Collie, taken just a few minutes apart. He’s an anxious boy, with a tendency to use reactive behaviour displays in an attempt to drive off triggers. He wears a long line anywhere other people may be so we can have control quickly if another person or dog comes up on us unexpectedly, as he struggles with both.
In the first video, it’s clear that his arousal levels are high. His tail is carried very high, and he’s moving from spot to spot rapidly, not lingering. He pulls to the end of the line, as he wants to be everywhere as fast as possible and gather all the information that he can.
In the second video he has clearly calmed down and is taking his time over the smells, moving steadier between them, and lingering more at each spot. This at their own pace exploration rally encourages slowing down and calming. When we went home, he slept on the sofa for over an hour.
Some dogs struggle with going out into the world, especially new places. For these dogs, gather things from the world and bring home for them to investigate in a place they feel safe. Leaves and pinecones from a walk through the woods, scraps of animal hair or wool you find on fences. Pop them in a box or spread them out in the garden and let your dog explore in safety.
Sniffing is great for exercising their brains and tiring them out with brain work, but it is also so much more than that. It is one of the most important things we must ensure they can do, to ensure we’re the best guardians to them we can be.