Connecting with your dog is more than attaching the leash and going for a walk together. Attention must be paid.
When I first got my Pug, she was reactive to everything: dogs, people, cars, the sound of birds. She’s better now, but one thing she still barks at is kind of funny: people who are looking at their phone. I have to wonder if I haven’t been able to break her of this because it drives me crazy too – especially when that person is simultaneously walking their dog.
Looking at your phone while walking the dog is risky for a number of reasons. But it’s also a sad waste, because there’s so much you could be getting out of the walk if you put the phone away. It’s more than the chance to get time off from doomscrolling; it’s the kind of break that can be actively good for your mental wellbeing, and good for your dog, too.
Nature Is Good for You
Walking your dog is exercise, which is good for you physically and mentally. But what’s also important is that it happens outdoors.
Research shows that spending time in nature has a positive effect on mental and physical health and is associated with a lower risk for medical problems such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. A large study published in 2019 is one example, finding that at least 120 minutes per week of contact with nature was significantly correlated with reports of good health and wellbeing.
That study specifically looked at the amount of time necessary for a positive effect, and the good news was that it wasn’t that large. “Just 20 minutes a day connecting to nature can be so beneficial to your wellbeing,” says writer Sandi Schwartz, who’s working on a book about how nature can help children feel happier and calmer. “They’re not asking you take a two-hour hike every day.”
Twenty minutes a day is probably at least how long you walk your dog. However, there’s a catch: You need to be paying attention.
“If people take themselves off the phone for that 20 minutes, pay attention to the natural surroundings, it provides a healthy distraction,” says Schwartz. “It gives people something positive to focus on instead of the negative thoughts floating around our head. We can redirect our attention to something that relaxes us.”
My conversation with Schwartz kept coming around to the word “mindfulness,” which has a woo-woo aura that puts me off. But it comes down to something very simple, which is paying attention to what is going on around you in the moment.
“It’s really about your five senses and how you tap into them,” she says. It’s not just looking – it’s also listening to the birds, feeling the breeze on your skin, following the wisdom about stopping to smell the roses. None of which you can do if you’re scrolling through social media or talking on the phone. “If you’re just going through the motions, then you aren’t getting the benefits that have been scientifically proven.”
And while you can do mindfulness exercises indoors, there’s something special about nature. “There’s research that shows that greens and blues are very soothing,” says Schwartz, and she observes that there’s a connection to the theory of biophilia, which suggests that we have an instinctive craving to connect with nature. “We are animals,” she says. “During our evolution we were always out in nature. It’s only very recently in history that we spend this much time indoors.”
Your Dog Is Nature, Too
You don’t need to be out in the woods for this to work. There’s nature in the city, too, if you look. And when you’re walking your dog, you’re with an animal! Observing an animal is another way to connect with nature, and one easy way to do this is to let your dog sniff on a walk. It’s really good for your dog – and have you ever really watched and thought about their behavior?
“Sniffing is very important to dogs because it’s their main way they perceive the world, rather than by looking at things like us,” says Zazie Todd, Ph.D., author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. “They can detect a whole lot of things that we can’t, even if we get down on our hands and knees and stick our nose on what they’re smelling.”
Watch carefully, like a naturalist, and you can see some of the special adaptations that allow dogs to do this. “One of the cool things about dog’s noses is that when they’re smelling something, they use breathing out to help smell things more, as well as breathing in,” Todd says. That’s what the slits on the sides of a dog’s nostril are for. “When they breathe out some of the air goes out the slits –and it makes little puffs of air that brings more scent up for them to smell.”
Understanding this ability helps explain some behaviors that may seem gross. If your dog licks the ground where another dog has peed, they’re using their tongue to bring the chemicals in it up to the vomeronasal organ up in the hard palate, which helps them to detect pheromones.
Let your dog sniff where he wants, and you may also see him following the direction of a scent. Depending on the dog, he may track from side to side or may sniff the air. “If you’re not looking at your phone, but paying attention to your dog, you’ll notice,” Todd says. “They might overshoot and come back to find where it is. You can see their nose in action.”
Watching your dog’s behavior also helps you notice other things. “If you’re paying attention to your dog, you’re going to notice more things in the natural world around you — the plants they’re sniffing, the birds they notice. That helps keep you connected to the natural world.”
Togetherness and Safety
Looking at your phone while walking the dog not only means you miss out on these benefits. It’s a missed opportunity to make your dog’s life better and can be risky to yourself and to others.
As the owner of a reactive dog, I’m always worried when I see someone walking their dog obliviously, not ready to control their dog if my dog starts barking. It’s also a risk for that dog. “Someone else’s dog might come charging out of their property and might not be friendly. A kid might come whizzing past on a skateboard and startle your dog and make your dog jump,” says Todd. “If you’re paying attention you can help to keep your dog safe, which you can’t do if you’re looking at your phone.”
Walks are also a training opportunity. Positive training is a bonding experience and can help keep your dog’s good behaviors in practice and help them avoid future problems.
“I think it’s nice to do a little bit of training on your walk even if your dog is already well behaved,” she says. “Make sure the behavior stays strong, like sitting before you cross a road, and reward them for that.”
It’s also good to always have treats with you on a walk to do counterconditioning to scary things, especially if you have a slightly anxious dog – give a treat when you walk past something noisy or strange, “in the hope of making the dog think, oh, that’s okay, because I got treats,” says Todd. “Also, if you have a dog that’s afraid of fireworks, it helps to countercondition any louder-than-expected sounds on their walks.”
The same old walking route is less boring if you take the time to look for things like seasonal changes. And with a little imagination, you can also combine other creative activities with your walk. “If you’re bored with the same walk, add some creativity to it. All kinds of research shows that creativity itself has been proven to relax us,” says Schwartz.
When Schwartz started a hobby of painting watercolors, she started taking photos on her walks to paint later. She found that even when she wasn’t taking photos, she was noticing flowers and tree bark and shadows and light that she wouldn’t have before. And I’ve found a way to combine creativity, dog training, and nature observation: I’ve been taking photos of my pug with different colors of fallen leaves. She gets sit-stay practice and a treat; I get the satisfaction of a nice photo. Yes, I confess, the photos can also get you those coveted likes on social media, but just remember – put the phone back in your pocket and post the photo after you get home!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.
Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash