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By Paula Fitzsimmons
Letting your dog use your fenced-in backyard for potty breaks and exercise is convenient, especially when life gets hectic. It’s also a great way for her to get fresh air and exercise in a safe environment.
Walking your dog, however, is associated with a myriad of physical and mental benefits, which contributes to your dog’s well-being. Learn how to balance the backyard with the sidewalk to make sure your pup gets the exercise and bonding time she needs.
Is a Backyard Enough for Your Dog?
Letting your dog run around in the backyard is a beneficial supplement to walking your dog. But dogs thrive on variety, says Dr. Pam Reid, a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) and vice president of the ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. “Most dogs enjoy seeing different things, smelling new smells, feeling novel substrates under their feet and hearing unfamiliar sounds.”
Relying solely on the backyard for your dog’s exercise can lead to problems. “It is not uncommon for these dogs to become bored and frustrated, which can lead to destructive behaviors, barking, repetitive behaviors (like perimeter circling, and even escape attempts. It is also common for many backyard dogs to begin showing territorial behaviors like barking, rushing at the fence and running the fence when people or other dogs pass by,” says Jenn Fiendish, a veterinary behavior technician who runs Happy Power Behavior and Training in Portland, Oregon.
If solely kept in enclosed spaces, they can also become sheltered, says Dr. Ari Zabell, a Vancouver, Washington-based veterinarian with Banfield Pet Hospital. As a result, “They can become less confident and comfortable with new people, pets and experiences that they aren’t exposed to on a regular basis.”
While walking your dog does provide them with exercise, a fenced-in backyard can, too. “The backyard is the safest option to let the dog run full tilt and burn off some steam, so both activities should be incorporated into a happy dog’s lifestyle,” says Dr. Reid.
Be sure that you have a secure, fenced yard so that animals cannot escape. You should also microchip your pet, as many animals get out through small holes or by digging under fences.
What Walks Provide That Backyards Don’t
Aside from the physical health benefits, dog walking provides opportunities for enrichment, socialization and training that a backyard may not. “Dogs are, by nature, curious explorers, so going on a walk or hike is a great way to let them explore,” says Fiendish.
Dr. Reid agrees: “Walks are great for providing the mental stimulation that comes from visiting places outside of the familiar backyard. Sniff walks (allowing the dog to set the pace and stop and sniff whenever she likes) are particularly gratifying to dogs.”
Walking your dog on a dog leash also plays an important role in developing her social skills, she adds. “They see, and perhaps even get to meet, unfamiliar adults, children, dogs and other pets. They become comfortable with motorcycles and bicycles zipping by, kids on skateboards, and just about anything else you can imagine!”
Leash walking requires you to be with your dog, providing an opportunity to strengthen your bond, says Dr. Reid. “It’s no fun walking a dog that pulls on leash or zigzags back and forth all over the place, so you’ll be motivated to work on training your dog to be more mannerly while on leash.”
Finding the Right Balance Between the Backyard and Walking Your Dog
The right balance of yard and walk time is unique to every pet, family, home environment, neighborhood and lifestyle, says Dr. Zabell. “Exercise is an important component of every well-rounded dog’s life, but young, high-energy dogs, for example, will likely require more walks (or runs) than low-energy or geriatric dogs.”
Some dogs prefer the familiarity of a backyard, but still need the exposure that leash walking provides, while others quickly become bored and thrive when walked, says Dr. Reid. “Also, if you’re in a hurry to make sure your dog is ‘empty’ before heading out for a few hours, walking is by far the best option for encouraging the dog to empty his bladder and bowels. The sustained movement plus the novel vegetation that invariably contain the smells of other dogs’ eliminations will quickly prompt your dog to urinate and defecate.”
Walking Your Dog for Maximum Benefits
How often should you walk your dog? Fiendish recommends at least one 15 to 20 minute session each day, and “more if your dog doesn’t have a backyard to be in.” (Experts recommend speaking with your vet if your dog has health problems to determine the appropriate walk duration.)
Any dog collar or harness you use should be comfortable, fit properly and be safe for your dog, she adds. “It is not recommended to use products that cause pain or discomfort as these can inhibit learning, cause fear and harm the human-animal bond.”
If your dog has a tendency to pull, a harness has an advantage over a collar because it relieves pressure from her neck, says Laura Hills, certified dog trainer and owner of The Dogs’ Spot, based in North Kansas, Missouri. “In addition, many harnesses have a place in the front, on the dog's chest, to clip the leash. When used in this way, a dog that pulls will find themselves turned back toward the person holding the leash. This makes pulling more difficult, as it causes the dog to be slightly off balance, and like training wheels, is a great aid while working on loose leash walking.”
If your dog doesn’t typically pull, a flat collar may be a good option, she says. And if you typically walk your dog in the evenings, “Collars and harnesses that are reflective will help dogs be seen better in lower light, which is especially good during the shorter days of winter.”
Learning how to properly exercise your dog includes knowing how to balance walks and yard time. Your vet or dog training professional is in the best position to help. “Your veterinarian should be able to advise you on the best ways to keep your pet safe, exercised and socialized, based on their individual needs, characteristics and lifestyle,” advises Dr. Zabell.
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