Spring dog walks are a highlight of the year. Jackie Drakeford offers a few tips on walking your dog during the spring and summer months - and how to make the most of them...
Now the days are getting longer, walking your dog takes on a whole new perspective. For those of us whose work commitments mean that dog walking in the winter is all about torches and tarmac, there’s the opportunity — at last — to take our dogs ‘off -piste’ and let them off the lead. And those of us who have been exercising our dogs all winter along footpaths and through woodland in the half-light discover ‘new’ dogs seem to be everywhere!
Often these dogs are new to their owners too, and may be overcome with excitement at their sudden freedom, displaying behaviours that are normal for dogs but instil anxiety in owners. Suddenly, you have to learn about all sorts of new dogs and owners, and rather quickly, too.
You may need to readjust your expectations in order to get the most enjoyment out of your walks, instead of coming home furious, shattered, embarrassed, or profoundly grateful you still have the dog!
TOP TIP: We all know that moment of pure horror when someone, who is dogless and dressed in white, appears ahead of us on a muddy track. Never be afraid to pop the lead back on your dog to avert disaster!
Where to walk your dog
If you asked your dogs where they would like to walk, woods and fields would come top of the list with almost all of them. There is space to run, different scents to enjoy, and weemails to check. All this is blissful for dogs, leaving them mentally fulfilled as well as physically exercised. And, with a little preparation, it can be the best part of your day, too.
Many beaches are closed to dogs during the summer, but if you have beach access, dogs love a blast across the sand, and a game in the water. You need to be careful if your dog is a swimmer, though, because it is all too easy for him to get into trouble with strong currents.
There are risks for dogs that scavenge, too, whether from rotting fish seething with pathogens, or fatbergs of solidified oils and chemicals.
You need to be vigilant at the seaside; make sure your dog’s recall is good, and then you can relax and enjoy the space and sea air.
Make sure your dog is getting what he needs from his walks
If winter restrictions mean your dog has become unfit, work up to longer walks gradually, so that by the time you are ready for long hikes, your dog is, too.
Jogging or cycling is OK for fit, young dogs, but it is nowhere near as much fun for the dog as being able to take time to enjoy the different aspects of his surroundings.
Older dogs need less distance and more interest, so a sniffing walk, with plenty of mental stimulation, will do them more good than the long yomps they enjoyed when they were young. It’s all too easy to forget or deny the ageing process. Don’t rely on your dog to ‘tell’ you that he has had enough, because dogs are so loyal, and love their walks so much, that many will keep going even in considerable discomfort.
Be aware of the effects of different surfaces on paws, and plan ahead so you keep out of the sun at the hotter times of day. If your dog’s coat is clipped in summer, remember this affects its insulating properties against heat and wet.
Dog walking equipment
Most dog walkers know that whatever they wear must be robust, comfortably loose-fitting, and easy to wash. No matter how warm the day, keep arms and legs covered to protect yourself from midges and other winged biters (annoying, but relatively harmless) or ticks (very nasty).
Footwear should enclose your feet, and have non-slip soles. The various essentials you have carried in your coat pockets all winter — poo bags, spare lead, treats, tissues, tuggy toy, phone, car keys, and so on — are harder to accommodate in summer clothing. I can recommend wearing a gundog trainer or falconer over vest; these swallow up a plethora of essentials without being heavy or cumbersome, and can even manage a water bottle and small collapsible bowl for those longer walks.
TOP TIP: Hats and sunglasses can be quite worrying for some dogs, especially sunglasses because your dog can’t make eye contact, so accustom him to these first in the safety of your home and garden.
If your dog needs frequent eye contact for confidence, lift your glasses from time to time so he can see you are still ‘in there’!
Stay alert during dog walks
Wildlife is a challenge at any time of year; never forget that dogs are hunters by nature, no matter how gentle they may be in the home. Ditsy young animals may not recognise that they are in danger from dogs until it is too late, and there are ground-nesting birds to consider as well.
Keep your dogs out of the undergrowth, and watch out for them suddenly getting a scent and disappearing after it — easier said than done! Livestock will have young as well; keep your dog on-lead near sheep, for many a reliable dog with sheep can be completely undone by the shrill bleats and erratic leaps of lambs.
Cows with calves will often attack dogs on sight, so keep out of their fields even if it means turning back. Horses are generally flighty, and can hurt us without really intending to, so it’s best not to go into fields with these either, whether or not they have foals.
Joggers and cyclists will enjoy longer daylight time as well, and may suddenly appear, provoking your dog to chase or even nip. Watch out for horse riders, too, who are vulnerable if a dog runs at them. Horses defend themselves first, and don’t wait to see if a dog means it or not. They can injure a dog badly if they panic and lash out, or they might bolt, endangering themselves, their riders, and anyone in their path.
With an unreliable dog, it’s best to put him on a short lead anywhere you might encounter something he might chase.
Other things that can affect dogs include flapping kites, loud bangs from agricultural bird-scarers, adders, which will try to avoid us but are torpid in cooler temperatures, and scary looking noisy things in the sky, such as hot-air balloons, paragliders, and hang gliders, drones, or model aircraft.
A pocketful of tasty treats can make most potentially frightening things a lot less worrying, but ideally you have to start the treat process before the dog becomes reactive, so keep a good lookout.
Remember, too, that there are other walkers to consider, such as elderly people, who don’t welcome dogs that might knock them over, and the very young, whose parents might not have warned them not to charge up to a strange dog.
The quote: ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ is just as apt for our little world as it is for wider issues.
TOP TIP: On your walk, avoid standing water that might be contaminated by run-off from agrochemicals or vehicles, and keep away from ponds and lakes that might contain toxic blue algae. Fresh running water is safer, but check first for dumped litter that might injure your dog.
Plan your dog walks
Unstructured walks lead to anarchy; you don’t want to be that dog owner who never sees her dog, from the moment he has his lead unclipped until whenever he deigns to reappear!
But the glory of walks is the amount of freedom that your dogs enjoy. You can have both, if you only arrange the walk with all the cunning and foresight the versatile human brain can deploy.
First of all, put the headphones away and switch off your phone, because this is the most joyful time you can spend bonding with your dog, and your full attention is necessary; the rest of the world can wait for an hour.
First your dog will probably need to have a wee, so there is no point in trying to interact until he is comfortable. Then it’s good for him to spend 10 minutes or so having a casual sniff about, learning who and what has passed by recently. This can be off -lead if your dog is reliable, or on-lead if he is a work in progress. If the latter, have a treat in your hand before you unclip the lead, gain your dog’s attention: ‘Petal, look!’ and throw the treat behind you. This brings his attention back to finding proximity to you rewarding, rather than him charging away to find entertainment.
For best results, some of the walk should be training, some reinforcing training already complete, some allowing the dog to investigate his surroundings, stretch his legs, enjoy a plethora of scents, and generally unwind at his own pace, and 15 minutes of calming at the end of the walk.