No matter where you walk there is always a fallen tree, a rocky outcrop or a small stream providing opportunities for walkers and dogs to clamber along, scamper up or leap across an obstacle. Not only making a walk more interesting and fun, but also improving balance and co-ordination which is valuable for dogs and owners when heading into the hills.
For dog owners, there is an additional advantage to searching out nature’s own obstacle course because your dog is going through a huge learning process. Importantly, the dog realises it is not being ignored because the owner has put away the map, compass and mobile phone and is getting engaged. So many dogs misbehave on walks because their owners allow them to, and the dog thinks; “Wow – I love going on walks as it means I don't have to keep doing all that sit and come stuff my owner makes me do at home”. As soon as an obstacle appears, the owner has to interact with the dog and that will mean reminding the dog to come and sit - and if it does, that then the reward is to clamber across the tree trunk, paddle across a stream or scamper up some rock.
Once you have the dog’s attention you can of course really fine-tune what the dog is learning. What speed do you want the dog to move? Do you want the dog jumping up the rock, or placing its feet one by one? Crossing a stream can be a jumping game, a swimming game or even a stand-only-on-the-stepping stones game.
This may all sound like fun, but if you teach the dog to slow down and to move carefully there are real benefits to the dog’s mental health too. These types of exercises have been used for many years by animal behaviourists around the world to encourage dogs and other animals to calm down and relax and behave less instinctively. This makes these types of activities, when performed slowly, particularly good for more lively impulsive dogs that just want to do everything now and then move onto something else. I trained my border collie to walk over the top of old car tyres without touching the ground, and to do it slowly. After only about five minutes she was so tired from the concentration required, that she went to sleep. Of course, being a border collie, after a few more sessions she got really good and managed the activity without feeling tired!
You can begin this training at home, as I did with my dog and then search out logs on walks to repeat the game. If you fancy practicing walking on lead then search out some trees and weave between them, without getting the lead tangled up by the dog taking a short cut around the opposite side of the tree to which you have walked. By gradually extending these games from the garden out into the countryside, your dog will be learning self-control and the ability to negotiate obstacles as well as stay by your side. This means you are well prepared for many of the obstacles you may discover on any walk. So if you happen to find yourself with a tree trunk, rocky outcrop or stream blocking your path, you and your dog can negotiate it without even breaking your stride if necessary.
Photos: Roger Hiley, loweswatercam.co.uk