Opening up to past struggles
When Snowy turned 6 months old, she struggled to adjust to our busy, urban neighbourhood for some time and, as the stress compounded, it all became too much for her. It got so bad to the point that we dreaded walks with her, juggling with her reactivity, anxiety, tension, and fear at some point, all together at once. She would go bonkers seeing another dog in the neighbourhood, barking, jumping on her hind legs, pulling, choking on her collar and sometimes escaping out of her harness, just to name a few. She gets startled by every noise – freezing and stalling at the sight of skateboards, bicycles, or any other moving objects with wheelust say I felt very hopeless and devastating at that point. It wasn’t something I was prepared for. I didn’t know what to do. I tried various methods, some which worked, some which didn’t, that’s a story for another day.
Discovering decompression walk
In an effort to provide her with some form of stress relief, I began to experiment with alternative places to take her on adventures, instead of our dreadful short leash walks through busy streets in our neighborhood.
We discovered a quiet and large open grass-field behind our blocks, I started to take her there for our daily walks. At first, I simply appreciated a short respite from the daunting task of walking around our neighborhood. I realized I no longer dread bringing Snowy out, it felt good for once not to always be working on the problems at hand and to just; be together, be in nature, absorb the scents and be relaxed.
As the days and weeks passed, I started to see a completely different dog begin to emerge. Gone was the puppy struggling with enjoying walks – reactivity, anxiety, freezing. In the fields, she was without a care in the world, confident, loose, relaxed and most importantly, happy. As her confidence grew, she became more resilient in other areas of her life as well, including our neighborhood.
Good days began to outnumber bad. The effects of our walks were nothing short of remarkable. Three years later, a decompression walk is still the single most important activity we cherish doing together every day. We even started a doggy daycare, to help owners and dogs, who are facing the same problems as we did. We conduct decompression walks in small packs of 4, bringing them on sniffaris around our small sunny island.
What is a decompression walk?
The term “decompression walk” was coined by Sarah Stremming, which she defines it 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 we saw physical, emotional, and behavioural benefits of this practice.
Allow dogs to be dogs
Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers. They need to be able to sniff, chase, play, dig, and roll in new smells. This can be hard to do in a home environment. Their natural pace is much faster than ours, and they see the world through their noses. Decompression walks was a way for us to let Snowy unwind and just be a dog, because it involves so much freedom and choice and allowed Snowy to engage in natural dog behaviors like sniffing, digging, rolling and herding in a calming way.
Physical and mental stimulation
Freedom of movement allows for choice and exploration. Freedom to sniff and explore provide both physical and mental stimulation. Snowy sniff way more when she is free to move, and sniffing comes with LOTS of benefits.
Fun facts: Sniffing lowers dogs’ pulse and has a pretty immediate calming effect on them. If you’re trying to wear your dog out, lots of sniffing can actually be the most efficient way. The part of the brain devoted to processing smells is about 40 times larger in dogs than humans, so letting your dog sniff is actually a lot of “mental exercise” that will leave them feeling tired and fulfilled.
Reduces anxiety & stress
Given all of this, it is not an exaggeration to say that city and urban living can be quite challenging for some dogs. Short leash walks through crowded streets may not always provide the enrichment or exercise your dog requires. These kinds of walks may be extremely stressful and taxing for certain dogs like Snowy, in turn triggering reactivity.
Decompression walks allowed Snowy to move at their own pace and to explore, allowing them to reset. They actually set Snowy up to handle the normal human world a lot better because it helped her reset to a more neutral state, by allowing her to release the stress and anxiety she may be holding onto- much like humans, time in nature is regenerating for dogs.
- It’s not just the dog who benefits; These walks were surprisingly calming and healing for me as well. Not only that, the pure joy when I see Snowy so content, relaxed, calm and happy.
Where should you go?
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 - NOMAD was a game-changer for us. 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.
Although ideally you will want to pick an open, natural setting like the woods or a beach, if you can’t, try any grassy area. City-dwellers can use large parks or sport fields.
Key features to look for are traffic - choose a place with little to no people or pet traffic nearby. Timing - 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 your neighborhood block, let your dog lead the way! Perhaps what you discover might surprise you, just like we did.
Meeting Snowy where she's at now
We have come a long way since then and I am so so proud of Snowy, I’ve learnt many things because of her, not only that I’ve built a strong and unbreakable bond and relationship with Snowy. I am able to trust her, and I’m sure she trusts me as her handler. However, this doesn’t mean we stopped learning, we’re constantly pushing our boundaries as a team and we look forward to our daily bonding time together.
Decompression walks benefitted Snowy and I in some ways and another, they might just benefit yours too! We hope that we are able to help more owners out there with our story.
So get out and explore the possibilities with your dog!
Xuan + Snowy @pomsky_snowy
*Disclaimer: I am not a professional trainer and only speak from a personal experience and research. The best methods that worked for us may not be the best methods for you and your dogs. Please consult with a professional trainer for your individualized training plans.