Sniffari or Sorry, Can’t Party?

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Why are we taking our dogs on a walk? Physical exercise? Mental stimulation?  Because we think we should? Side note: I once read an article on about all these wild health benefits that dog owners have. . . it didn’t directly link the scientific studies that contributed to these claims, but it’s enough reasoning for me to feel good about sharing our lives with these furry family members.

This blog is about walks, but it starts a bit further down the walking journey.  Your pup already (read: usually) walks on a loose leash.  Your dog finds value in being by your side.  Your dog isn’t insisting on having a conversation with the neighbor dog crossing the street.  For more tips on working with leash reactivity, check out this blog by Allie.

This blog is specifically all about the sniffing aspect of walks.  You’ve read enough of our blogs (and maybe even Allie and Emily’s book Canine Enrichment For The Real World) to realize that allowing our pups to sniff is beneficial on so many levels; however, it can be one of the hardest competing reinforcers when working on walking.  One of the longest conversations I have with families who are working on loose leash walking is sparked by the question: “What is the point of your walk?”  Once we unpack the answer for that, it makes training (and expectations) a whole lot clearer.

My family is a walking family.  We’ll take two-a-day, maybe more.  It’s our favorite way to exercise our dog because we enjoy getting out of the house, and Opie took to the activity with very little reactivity (but a lot of pulling for the first year). Once we decreased the pulling, there was just one more thing that left me more frustrated by the end of the walk than when we started.  The incessant sniffing.  And pausing.  And more sniffing.  And shoving his nose into the dirt as he repeatedly clears his airways.  We like to think that before we got him, Opie was this heroic Search and Rescue dog and he’s just reliving his glory days on the force.  That works with calming me down sometimes, but certainly not always.  I remember one midwestern winter walk when I broke down in tears because I was so cold and tired and my fingers hurt and I didn’t feel like waiting for his sniffing to stop. I honestly screamed to the heavens “come onnnnn whyyyyyy.”  It wasn’t my finest moment, but we’ve moved on.

So something needed to change.  I needed to reflect on why we were going on walks, what benefits I wanted Opie to experience, and why a walk suited us better than other exercise.  After a bit of reflection, I realized that we can come to a happy medium with Opie’s sniffing desires.  I want Opie to get as much sniffing as he can, but I needed a cue to let him know that we need to get moving and wonderful things still await us ahead. I trained a countdown cue that I now use when he’s starting to sniff too long for my schedule.
Before going on a walk with Opie, I find I get the most enjoyment out of the walk when I know what my expectations are.  I’ll do a quick check on how I’m feeling, what Opie’s day has been/will be like, and I set out knowing if today is going to be a “sniff to your heart’s content” or an “andiamo regazzi, we gotta get a move on.”  This way, before we even close the garage door, I’m prepared for the training that needs to happen and can communicate with my pup accordingly.

There are so many types of walks, some may be for exercise, some for relaxation, some for mental stimulation, and some just to… complete a bodily transaction.  The type of walk may change based on the path you take through the neighborhood that day, the people/creatures that are out, the time of day, the time you have, the weather, etc.

Now, while you are the one who typically gets to decide what type of walk it will be, remember, most of the time, these walks are for our dogs.  The walks should always be something that completes their stress cycle, not something that gets them more worked up.  It should be something that satisfies their needs, not something that we force them into.  It should be something that allows them to do doggy things like sniff and explore. In any case, before you head out, make sure you get in the right mindset about if the walk is going to be a sniffari, or a sorry-can’t-party.

Now what?

  • Reevaluate what you want your walks to look like before you go for each walk.
  • Note the ways we communicate to our pups if they can go on a Sniffari (sniff to your heart’s content) or if time is tight and it has to be a Sorry, Can’t Party (gotta keep it moving).
  • Ask yourself– Why are we going on walks?  What benefits does my dog get out of the walk? How can we reinforce our pups for choosing to move forward when we need to get moving instead of sniffing that tapestry of scents?

You’re doing great!

6 thoughts on “Sniffari or Sorry, Can’t Party?

  1. I’ve been in a similar situation recently.

    On the one hand I’m glad my dog isn’t pulling as much, but instead he’s sniffing or licking the same spot for like 10 minutes. I almost cried a few times until I remembered the weather was nice and it’s his walk not mine . But then I got frustrated because he doesn’t understand why I’m frustrated and i can’t explain it to him. . Sometimes after we start walking again he will double back like he forgot to sniff something. He will very precisely and carefully place his nose on each leaf in a particular second of a bush.

    I know part of his sniffing is due to his prey drive. He’s really good at pulling rabbits out of bushes.

    Sometimes if I throw a treat a few feet away that’ll get his attention and he will keep walking.
    On my days off I’ll let him sniff to his hearts content. Other days I try to be more organized and manage my time better so I can allot for more time for his walk.

    – – Dog mom to Gregory Jupiter Bean (3 year old pit mix-mountain cur, pibble, beagle and staffirdshire terrier)
    And cat mom to 2 senior barn cats , Gilbert and Chai.

    1. Way to read Gregory Jupiter Bean’s (cute!) needs and to balance it with your own emotional state. It’s so hard sometimes to remember that if we were go-go-going all day, the walk can just be a stroll. I like that you’re using a “find-it” game to encourage his foraging skills while also helping you manage the time slot you’ve got.

  2. Thank you for this. I’d love to know your thoughts on how to best communicate..Sorry it’s not a party, gotta move.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Diana! Are you asking about teaching the cue to keep moving once your pup has started sniffing or about communicating at the beginning of the walk that we’re on a business trip and there won’t be much sniffing?

      1. I would be interested to know how you set the tone that it’s a “business trip” walk… the vast majority of our walks are straight sniffari and I feel like it’s not fair to my dog on the days where I do want to practice walking with more of a destination in mind because she just keeps trying to sniff–she does continue with me if I keep walking but I feel like I’m saying “ok, come on, let’s go” every 3 seconds so I would love to figure out a way to let her know that isn’t an option from the get go so we don’t have to have that discussion the entire walk.

        1. As with everything, there’s a couple of ways we can approach this. Because dogs are the best at what they’ve repeatedly practiced, I suggest adding a few more “business trips” in, even if there’s not an actual need for it–this way you can set the team up for success AND you can be in a relaxed mindset knowing that there isn’t a need for it to be perfect.

          Start by considering your dog’s perceived rewards and try make moving along more rewarding than sniffing (i.e. dropping treats at your feet to encourage forward motion, but still fulfilling your pup’s love of sniffing). Make sure to start this BEFORE the pup starts sniffing instead of as a reaction to the sniffing. Along with this, try choosing a path with less interesting scents and distractions.

          When considering a beginning of walk cue, reflect on what the pre-walk looks like for both of these types of walks. You’ll likely discover that you’re giving cues already that your pup has picked up on to indicate that this is a Sniffari or a Business Trip (i.e. time of day/sequence of events/humans’ emotions or body language). This can help communicate what the walk needs to be like.

          P.S.- I love the term “business trip” and will definitely be using it, so thank you in advance!

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