The Life-Changing Power of Decompression Walks
I first heard the term “decompression walk” used by Sarah Stremming on her Cog-Dog Radio podcast. I remember finding myself exclaiming “yes” over and over and over again as I listened to her describe it. Up until that moment, I never considered that what I had been doing with my dog, and what completely changed both of our lives, had a name. But here it was and I couldn’t have felt more heard.
When Larkin turned 6 months old he stopped wanting to leave the house. He’d been struggling to adjust to our moderately busy, urban neighborhood for some time and, as the stress compounded, it all became too much for him.
I wrote more about our experience here so I’ll just say that not being able to as much as potty your dog outside feels devastating and heartbreaking.
In an effort to provide him with some stress relief, I began to experiment with alternative places to take him for walks. After a friend introduced us to some nearby trails, I started to take him on hikes as often as I could.
At first I simply appreciated a short respite from the daunting task of walking in our neighborhood. It felt good not to always be working and to just be—be together, be in nature, be relaxed.
But, as the days and weeks passed, I started to see a completely different dog begin to emerge. Gone was the puppy startled by every noise—freezing, stalling, feverishly pulling back home. In the woods he was carefree, confident, loose, relaxed, and happy. As his confidence grew, he became more resilient in other areas of his life as well, including our neighborhood.
Good days began to outnumber bad. The effects of our walks were nothing short of remarkable. Four years later, a decompression walk is still the single most important activity we do together every day.
Sarah Stremming defines a decompression walk as “a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature.” This can be done off-leash or on a long line with a back clipping harness. It sounds simple enough, yet the physical, emotional, and behavioral benefits of this practice can be profound.
Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers. Some of their innate behaviors include sniffing, chasing, running, digging, playing, and rolling in dead and stinky things, just to name a few. They see the world through their noses and their natural pace is much faster than ours. It’s not an exaggeration to say that given all of this, city and modern living can be hard for dogs.
Neighborhood walks on busy streets on a 6-ft leash, sometimes without the ability to sniff, don’t provide a whole lot of exercise or enrichment. For some dogs, these types of walks can be downright stressful and taxing.
Similarly, the notion that “a tired dog is a good dog” is a bit misguided. Not all exercise is created equal. Some activities, such as prolonged ball and Frisbee fetching or uninterrupted play in dog parks or doggy daycares, actually increase arousal and stress.
Decompression walks allow dogs to be dogs and to engage in natural behaviors in a way that is calming and decompressing. Freedom of movement allows for choice and exploration. Freedom to sniff and explore provide both physical and mental stimulation.
For dogs who experience fear, anxiety, stress, or reactivity during their daily walks, decompression time can serve as a vital stress relief and an important way to improve their behavioral health.
Decompression walks don’t have to look the same for every dog. If off-leash is not a possibility for you, try a long line. Some dogs need to learn how to keep a long line loose, so it’s a great opportunity to work on engagement and check-ins in different environments.
If you can’t do a trail or a beach, try any grassy area. A baseball or soccer field, cemetery, golf course, even a back yard can be utilized for decompression walks. If your dog doesn’t do well during busy times of day, aim for early mornings or late evenings.
Sometimes all it takes is for us to think outside the box, or outside our neighborhood block. What you will find might surprise you. Decompression walks changed our lives and they might just change yours too.