What is a decompression walk? A trainer’s guide to enrichment
The health and well-being of a dog can be greatly dictated by the amount of enrichment they get. Just as we’re beginning to talk about the importance of human mental health, we need to open the discussion for doggy mental health too!
In this blog, we’re speaking to certified dog trainer Stephanie Zablah-Kruger from Co-operative Care Training about decompression walks for dogs – an enrichment paradise for pups!
If you’re looking for ways to better your pup’s wellbeing, redirect their high-energy behavior, or have been prescribed by a veterinarian or trainer, then read on to find out more.
What are decompression walks?
“To me a decompression walk is a chance for a dog to be a dog without the pressure of social norms and the expectations we have for dogs. It’s their chance to unplug and breathe in the environment, basically,” says Stephanie.
A decompression walk for a dog is a way for them to do exactly that: decompress. These are walks where restrictions such as short leads are minimized and the environment is enhanced – think, out of the city and into the countryside!
“I think it’s hard for dogs now that we’ve morphed them from working to being in the family home. Dogs that have been bred to work and use their senses in a certain way have a hard time adjusting to being a couch potato!”
Because dogs have such a heightened sense of smell, decompression walks that stimulate their senses can be really enriching and exciting, but still calming, too. This sniff-centred walk also reconnects dogs with their nature of being hunting and working dogs.
For pet parents to get a better idea of what a decompression walk is to a dog, Stepanie explains,
"Usually I tell my clients that a decompression walk is like trying a really smooth wine, where you are trying to taste all the flavors like the tannins, the cherries, and all the other notes within it. That’s essentially what a decompression walk is like to your dog.”
And, just like a glass of wine, decompression walks are relaxing for dogs and can help them unwind!
What are decompression walks good for?
Different to a regular walk that is often controlled and restricted, decompression walks allow dogs a sense of freedom they may not usually get in their usual walk.
“Decompression walks are a chance for dogs to not be around environmental stimuli that might usually trigger them,” Stephanie explains.
Remedy for reactive dogs
This is especially important for more aggressive and reactive dogs. Walks for these dogs can be tough for owner and dog alike. Often with reactive and aggressive dogs, their engagement with others is limited and their environment is restricted.
“It’s important to give those dogs a chance to be normal and not be around social triggers. These walks give them a place to be free,” says Stephanie.
“Decompression walks are an overall stress reliever,” Stephanie tells us. Taking your pup out on a hiking trail, away from the busyness of city or suburban life, is a good way to unwind and take some time away from overstimulating environments.
Our home environments are crammed with traffic, people, construction works, and all sorts of other noises. You can imagine this might be tiring for a dog! A bit of time out can allow you both to recharge.
“Decompression walks are huge for enrichment,” Stephanie says. Most of Stephanie’s cases that are exhibiting behavioural problems can be helped with the right enrichment plan.
“I had a client whose dog was being very destructive in the home, he was chewing up a lot of the house. Once we implemented an enrichment plan, the behavior completely stopped.” Stephanie continues, “providing appropriate outlets such as decompression walks for dogs to be who they really are can really help to curb and eliminate behavioral problems.”
“If you're seeing these problems in the home, think about ways you can add more enrichment to your dog’s life,” Stephanie explains that decompression walks can help with this, as well as snuffle mats, playing the ‘find it’ game and PupPod!
“It’s because of the importance of enrichment that I like recommending the PupPod. In the vet hospital, I would talk about PupPod all the time. I had a couple of clients buy it and I never heard from them again!” Stephanie tells us.
Stephanie explains that a lot of ‘bad’ behaviors happen because dogs just don’t have the right outlet for their energy.
“Dogs tell us stuff all the time. We might just be interpreting it the wrong way. We often just think ‘Oh he’s being a naughty boy’ or a ‘bad dog’, instead of thinking ‘Hm I need to give you something to do.’”
“If a child is coloring on the walls, we don’t scorn them, we redirect them from the walls to paper... You can’t tell a dog not to be a dog. We have to ensure we give them the right outlet to just be a dog,” Stephanie says.
If your dog has a lot of energy, especially the kind that can be hard to manage, decompression walks can be a great solution to help them beneficially exert their energy.
Antidote for anxious dogs
Anxious dogs can also benefit from decompression walks. “Anxious dogs can get overwhelmed easily, but these kinds of walks help to remove social pressure,” explains Stephanie.
The healing benefits of decompression walks have been praised by many dog behaviorists and trainers. Whether your dog has social anxiety or is a general worrier, taking them out into nature can help reduce this. The outdoors is their natural environment – a return to this is calming and enjoyable.
Is a sniffari the same as a decompression walk?
“A sniffari is a little different to a decompression walk,” explains Stephanie, “these are for dogs that enjoy decompression walks but maybe can’t engage as much because they have limited ability or are older.”
Sniffaris are usually more choreographed kinds of enrichment for dogs, where owners will either plant sensory items around the home or area where the sniffari is taking place. Pet parents might alternatively bring items to a dog for them to explore with their nose while on a walk.
Are there times not to encourage sniffing?
While we want to encourage our dogs to explore the world as much as possible through their nose, there are times where we should discourage their nosiness!
I tend to avoid letting them sniff in areas that I know aren’t safe. For example, I live in California where it’s dry and there are foxtails everywhere! These plants are really dangerous to dogs, they can get into dogs' nasal passages and burrow into their skin,” Stephanie says. Foxtail spikelets are hard to remove from a dog’s nasal passage or skin and can even be fatal when inhaled through the nose.
Stephanie also recommends that if it looks unsafe, there’s an item you can’t identify for example, then it’s in you and your dog’s best interest to pull them away!
Decompression walk: Creating the best routine for your pup
So, how long should a decompression walk be? There’s no time limit for a decompression walk – however long you can fit into your schedule! If you can manage an hour or two, then this will give your dog a nourishing recharge.
“Go on a hiking trail with a 15ft leash – the leash is important especially if the recall is not trained the way it should be for an ‘off leash’ area. And once you’re in an open space, just let them go,” says Stephanie.
Some other pointers for decompression walks include:
- Pay attention to whether your dog is enjoying the experience, learn from what they do and don’t like
- Practice letting them engage their senses through snuffle mats and sniffaris – this way they can fully let loose on a decompression walk
- Take your dog out for decompression walks at least once a week
- Some dogs need more work and attention than others, respond to your dog’s needs. If they start engaging in behaviors such as counter surfing, or excessive chewing or barking, then they might be in need of a long decompression walk in nature!
- Be patient – Most dogs will love running around free, exploring and sniffing. Let them do this!
- Set aside the time each week to keep this enriching activity in both of your routines
Is your dog an excessive chewer? Find out more on why that might be and how to reduce it, here.
Don’t stress, decompress!
There’s a lot for a dog to be anxious or agitated about in today’s society (don’t we know it). As the perfect companion to human life, we want to ensure that our furry friends are happy and fulfilled.
A decompression walk is a powerful enrichment tool that can offer some respite away from stresses and triggers. Helping pups to get back into nature – a universal remedy – these enrichment walks will be the outlet they need to feel more settled at home.