When you have a dog that struggles with reactive behaviors like barking, lunging, or growling at common triggers, a neighborhood walk can quickly turn into a stressful nightmare. Most people needing help with their dogs struggle most when they live in busy neighborhoods, apartment complexes, or metropolitan areas because many of their normal walking routes are so flooded with people, dogs, loud noises, moving vehicles, and other distractions that their dog doesn’t yet have the skills to navigate. But, what are you supposed to do? Dogs still need mental stimulation and exercise, right?!
Firstly, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture with your reactive, aggressive, or fearful dog. Are they actually enjoying their daily walks if they’re just encountering stressor after stressor each time you head out into the neighborhood? Each time your dog has a reactive response, cortisol levels spike, their heart rate elevates, and adrenaline goes pumping through their body. Some of these reactions can have lasting effects on your dog’s nervous system, and leave them feeling dysregulated for hours or even days afterwards. Does that sound healthy or relaxing to you? Definitely not!
Until you can help your dog make progress with working through how they respond to triggers through working with a qualified trainer or behavior consultant, it’s often better to reduce or even entirely eliminate how you normally walk your dog to allow them a chance to relax and actually have an opportunity to get quality exercise and mental stimulation. All we do when we force our dog to walk through areas full of their triggers is continue to set them farther back in their training, and make the road to behavior change ahead all that much longer. If this is the situation you’ve found yourself in with your dog, don’t panic! Here are 8 alternatives to a neighborhood walk that will still give your dog appropriate outlets to use their mind and move their body:
#1: Try A Decompression Walk
Decompression walks are different from a lap around the neighborhood because they’re centered more around giving the dog as many opportunities to move freely and express natural behavior as possible. Decompression can only truly happen with reactive dogs if you give them an opportunity to express natural behaviors entirely away from their triggers, meaning these kinds of walks can’t be done in busy areas or crowded parks. If accessible to you, it’s best to allow your dog to decompress in nature through visiting low traffic hiking trails or rural properties with a lot of natural space for your dog to explore. For those who don’t have easy access to nature for regular exercise, try to find quiet parks or open green spaces in your urban area, and make note of “off times” to plan your decompression walks. Most metro areas are busiest during pre-work hours and in the evenings when people return from the office. Decompression happens best when you allow your dog free movement, meaning we tend to recommend they are done either off leash (where legal and when safe) or on a long line to keep the dog leashed but allow them to explore more freely. Not sure how to use a long line properly? Check out this tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8r-ISeVJgU&t=1s
#2: Download Sniffspot
Sniffspot is an amazing app geared towards the reactive dog owner! Sniffspot allows people who own private property to rent out their spaces (for a small fee) so that you can bring your dog on a private adventure! If your dog needs a quiet, private space to explore and exercise, try testing this app out and see if any spots in your area fit your needs. You can filter results to show spots that are fully fenced, of a certain acreage, and whether they have private entries or potential exposures to triggers like people, dogs, or domestic animals. It can be such a relief to allow your dog to explore somewhere new, and you have the peace of mind knowing you’re using a private space to let your dog exercise and enjoy themselves. And no, we aren’t getting paid to advertise this. It’s just an app we really love!
#3: Plan An Indoor Enrichment Day With Your Dog
Not every dog necessarily needs a walk every single day to meet their needs, so long as we are compensating in other ways to enrich them. Yes, even your energetic or high drive breeds! It’s completely possible (and sometimes preferred by your dog) to spend a whole day just doing mental brain games around the house and working for their meals. Burning mental energy is just as, if not more, tiring for your dog than marching them down the street for an hour a day, or going in the backyard and playing dozens of repetitions of fetch. A few ideas for a day of indoor enrichment include:
Feeding meals or treats out of puzzles
Make your dog a treasure box
Scatter feed your dog’s meal in the yard
Stuff and freeze a few enrichment items like:
West Paw Toppls
Soda Pup Toys
These items can be filled and then frozen with soaked kibble, canned dog food, peanut butter, plain unsweetened yogurt, mashed bananas, pumpkin puree, or any other soft, moist food your dog loves.
Give long-lasting chews for your dog to work on like:
Himalayan Yak Chews
Play Hide and Seek With Your Dog
Play Tug of War With Your Dog
#4: If Your Dog Likes Other Dogs, Have A Playdate At A Dog Friend’s House
Plenty of dogs are reactive or aggressive towards strangers, but do really well with familiar people and dogs. There are many reactive dogs who are actually dog-social and dog friendly, contrary to popular belief about reactive dogs! While a dog park would not be a good fit for a dog who’s fearful, reactive, or aggressive towards strangers, it may be possible for you to coordinate a doggie playdate with a familiar person and their dog. This could be a family member, friend, friend of a friend, etc. If your neighborhood walks are currently too stressful for your dog but they need an outlet for some social play and physical exercise, try coordinating play dates with a friend.
#5: Have A Training Session
Having training sessions with your dog to learn new behaviors and practice old ones is a sure-fire way to burn mental energy and tire your pup out quickly. Sometimes all it takes is 10 minutes to get a dog who’s ready for a nap on the couch after a training session! You can practice anything you’d like with your dog, like obedience, life skills, or even just teaching them a cute new trick. Trick training is a great way to build your relationship with your dog, practice your mechanics and timing, and build your dog’s confidence. A well-planned training session can exhaust your dog just as much as an half-hour trek through the neighborhood in no time! Need some inspiration to get started? We have an entire playlist on Youtube dedicated to trick training tutorials, check it out: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLyMNENGNV1cabAjO_kkeh8-Put3TnBJMY
#6: Play With A Flirt Pole In The Backyard
Flirt poles are a fantastic way to get your dog moving and burn some energy while not having to go anywhere. It’s also a great way to practice impulse control and work on building your relationship with your dog. A flirt pole essentially looks like an oversized cat toy: there’s a stick, a line, and a “teaser” toy attached to the end, almost like a fishing pole. You can bring your dog to an open space in the house, or out in your yard to have a play session with chasing down the flirt pole to tire them out and let them satisfy their biological need to chase and catch “prey.”
#7: Learn About Fitness Training For Dogs
What about dogs who need some physical conditioning or fitness training? There are tons of exercises and solutions out there to work on your dog’s coordination, muscle tone, etc that don’t require you leaving your home and taking your dog on a long, brisk march down the enrichment street. If you’re concerned about whether an exercise is right for your dog or not before trying it, simply reach out to your vet and ask about their opinion.
#8: Try Indoor Or Backyard Agility
Teaching your dog basic agility exercises as a means of and exercise is a great way to get them mentally and physically tired and satisfied. There are tons of varieties of agility sets out there, from indoor-centric sets to full backyard courses. You can even learn how to DIY your own agility obstacles if you are crafty. Agility is a great way to combine training and physical exercise into a cooperative activity both you and your dog can participate in together. Of course, make sure your vet is comfortable with your dog participating in agility activities at home, and always ensure the obstacles and courses you ask your dog to complete are adjusted to be safe for their current physical condition, coordination, and activity level.
Having a reactive or fearful dog can be a challenge. But, giving yourself the permission to skip the neighborhood walk and do an alternative activity instead can be a great way to give yourself some relief from the day-to-day stressors of encountering triggers with your dog. The more you can manage your dog’s experiences and prevent the rehearsal of reacting, the easier it will be when working with a professional to modify their behavior in the long run. Don’t give up!