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There's a lot of talk in the dog world about the sniff walk and why you should let your dog sniff on their walks. So is this sage advice? Should you simply allow your dog to do what they'd like on walks in an effort to improve their enrichment? Will our dogs only enjoy their walks if we let them sniff the entire time? As with most things in dogdom, there is no right or wrong answer, but rather how you might decide what the right choice is for YOUR dog. As usual, there are valid arguments on both sides of the equation, so the decision should be weighed thoroughly and then made by each individual dog owner. There is rarely, if ever, a one-size-fits-all solution in dogs, so let's answer today's question after we talk through a few of the arguments. When is it okay to allow sniffing and when is it not?
Sniffing is NOT the Only way Your Dog Can Enjoy a Walk
First, let's discuss this fallacy. Sniffing is NOT the only way your dog will be stimulated on their walks. Yes, dogs love to sniff. The average dog has nearly 300 million olfactory receptors compared to a measly 6 million in humans, so it is arguably their strongest sense. Of course it's going to be the first one we notice them use and likely the first one they do use when trying to identify things. Truly though, unless you are walking your dog around the same block day in and day out, they're getting mental and physical stimulation from their other senses as well. Watching the world, hearing it, moving though it, etc. will all contribute to your dog's walking experience. You do not NEED to allow your dog to sniff for them to get enjoyment out of walks.
It's Not Just Their Walk
This is the part that's missing from a lot of the advice out there in my opinion. It seems the human is often forgotten. So, what about the human? Are we merely there to pick up after our dogs? One of my life's biggest and best stress relievers is a good walk with my dogs. Of course I want my dog to enjoy themselves, but I don't want to be lost in the equation. The human counts too and you do not need to feel guilty for wanting to enjoy the process as well! If standing around waiting for your dog to finish sniffing isn't your idea of a good time, that's okay! You don't have to feel bad about wanting to move freely with your dog at your side - you won't be ruining your dog's good time!
Dog's Age and Level of Training
Okay, so now that we've discussed the some of the emotional complexities, let's talk about what will be more of a benefit from a training perspective. The thought that is always top of my mind when deciding any rules for my dog is, will it clash with or create confusion for him down the road. For example, I never allow my puppy to jump all over people when greeting. I will often pick them up to have them greet when they are still youngsters so it's easier to convince them to greet without jumping up later on. If I allow him to jump on people for greetings in the first few weeks with me and then, once he's started to grow bigger, I try to put a stop to it, plainly put - that's extremely confusing for the dog. At what point should I stop my dog from rehearsing the wrong behaviours? For clarity, it's very important that I am fair and consistent with the information I give my dog. Changing the rules mid-game can be a huge detriment to the relationship I'm building with my dog.
When walking on leash, I want my dog to learn good leash manners right out of the gate, so I do not allow sniffing while my dog is under the cue to 'heel', whether they are on leash or not. I'm very clear with them that they are only allowed to sniff when I've released them from heeling. They get lots of reinforcement during the learning stages, so heeling becomes very reinforcing and part of the joy they experience on walks. If you have a youngster, you likely want them to learn good manners and skills, so don't confuse that by allowing too much sniffing. If you want your walks to be walks and not just you standing around waiting for the end of sniffing, teach them right from the start!
Dog's Understanding of Leash Walks
Once my dogs have clarity in their skills and understand how to walk nicely and make good decisions out in public, I'll start to utilize the release cue more often. When we're in an appropriate place to allow sniffing and freedom, I allow my dogs to be free to roam and sniff as they'd like with the cue 'free dog'. Since this is a really easy thing to teach, I make sure I teach good walking skills first. The polite walking skills will take far more sweat equity to teach than a 'free dog' cue. They typically get that in one or two repetitions.
Dog's Level of Control and Responsiveness
Being a 'free dog' is an earned reward, not a right. If my dog is not responding as I'd like him to, he will not get the 'free dog' cue until I'm happy with his level of response. Remember, we don't want to give the teenager who constantly breaks curfew the keys to the car! They need to prove a certain level of responsibility and understanding of the rules to earn that priviledge. If your dog is not listening well on leash, they will be far less responsive off leash.
My expectation is that if my dogs are on 'free dog' and for any reason, I need to regain control, they are to be back to my side immediately when I give the 'Heel' cue again. This is the safety net. This is the life saver. This is the measurement by which I decide whether my dog will be release to be free again. I don't ever want to take the chance that I can't regain control should the need arise. If my dog is not giving me the response he should when I need it, he doesn't have the right to freedom. That's just good safety planning.
Use it as a Reward
When I'm out with my dogs, I'm always looking for interesting ways to reward and surprise my dog for good responses to cues. I will often use my 'free dog' release as a giant reward for good behaviour. As an example, if I'm out on an off-leash walk and I see another person walking in the distance, I will call my dogs back to my side for them to resume 'heel' position. When the person passes, I will reward my dogs by releasing them with their 'free dog' cue. What better way to reinforce good behaviour than the reward of freedom.
Hopefully this post has helped you decide how and when to use sniffing to your advantage on walks with your dog.
As always, Happy Training!