Going for walks is about so much more than exercise. Being off-property provides essential enrichment to dogs’ lives. The aim is not necessarily to go as far and as fast as possible, but rather to give your dog the opportunity to sniff, read and send weemails, and interact with a novel environment.
I’d say that getting special needs dogs off-property is even more important than for normal dogs. Their lives already lack at least one sensory experience so you need to give their other senses extra areas of focus.
What are your options?
Street walks: Walking around your neighbourhood is without a doubt the most convenient way to get out and about. But, and this is a big but: Being barked at by all-sized dogs from behind gates, coping with dogs who are left to roam the streets, navigating other walkers who think that it’s cool to walk their dogs off-lead (which is illegal) because their dogs are ‘friendly’, and other triggers like lawn mowers can be hugely stressful (for you and your dog). In this case, walks are more detrimental than beneficial. Adrenaline floods your dog’s system and makes it impossible for them to calm down and relax. And, adrenaline dumps like this can take up to 72 hours to dissipate. If you walk like this every day, your dog’s body remains in a high state of arousal. As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun.
If your dog is deaf or blind or both, the cacophony of noise and heightened stimulation has an even more profound detrimental effects and they may stop wanting to go out altogether. Consider whether the convenience is worth the cost to your dog’s emotional state and overall quality of life.
Park outings: You’ll have to get in the car for this outing, but there are several advantages. For example, the ground is usually even which is easy for blind dogs to navigate. The exercise is also gentle. A disadvantage is that parks and sports fields are very popular and there are usually a lot of other dogs sharing the space. This may not be a crisis in itself, but again, many people let their dogs off lead and don’t have sufficient control to stop them from hurtling into your dog’s space. For dogs who can’t see or hear them coming, this can be particular stressful and can make them quite reactive when around other dogs, regardless of how far away they are.
This is where a bright vest advertising your dog’s disability can be helpful. Bear in mind that some dogs are so far away from their humans that maintaining any control is impossible. Many people also hold fast to the “my dog is friendly” creed and think it’s acceptable to let their dogs run up to every person, every dog, and everything. This means that park outings can be as stressful as walking in the street.
Hikes: You’ll have to get in your car again and, depending on where you live, you might have to set aside a fair chunk of time for travelling. The rewards are worth it, however, as you get to see your dog enjoying all that nature has to offer. Let your dog take her time. If she wants to spend 5 minutes sniffing one bush, that’s ok. If she needs to spend some time investigating (not tormenting) a tortoise, that’s ok too. A walk that may take 15 minutes with normal dogs can take upwards of half an hour with a blind or deaf dog who needs to stop and give everything, especially any novelty, a thorough going over.
You’ll need your careful cues so you can help your dog step up and down, and be careful of obstacles or holes. Depending on where and when you go hiking, you may encounter other walkers. Again, be wary of the friendly brigade. When you see someone coming, ask them to please put their dogs on lead. Many people will do this happily. Some people are not as considerate, but there is usually room for you to go off the path and bundu bash to create distance.
If you’re going to go hiking, remember that you need to build up your dog’s fitness and stamina so they don’t get injured from over-exercise. So don’t head off on a three-hour hike the first time you get out.
Many hiking areas in Cape Town require an activity card. Take a look at the SANParks website for more information.
If you don’t have proper hiking areas, then a jaunt in the veld can also work – just make sure the grass isn’t hard and prickly and that there aren’t a lot of thorns. Streams and rivers are nice to walk along; the beach can be a good option. Some golf courses allow dogs to be walked, just be respectful of players.
(Wherever you go always and I mean always take poo bags and pick up after your dogs.)
Use a long lead (you can get them from some online dog stores) so that your dog has room to explore but you retain control – safety first, remember.
Bear in mind that you don’t need to go walking every single day. Stacey Greer has an interesting blog about what to do if regular walks are not possible or not recommended for your dog.
The pictures, by the way, are of Rosalie taking her time on a very sniffy walk. It was the first time we’d been to that spot so everything was new and incredibly interesting.
Sandy is a qualified dog trainer and behaviourist with a soft spot for special needs dogs.