The alarm sounds at 4:58, but Mo is already up. He hops from the foot of the bed, shakes, snorts, does some walk/stretch thing he does every morning, and hurries to the bathroom because he knows that’s my first stop.
He lets me enter and then follows halfway, and as I relieve myself, Mo starts to wag his tail, rhythmically striking each side of the door frame. WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!
I tell him he needs to be quiet. I get dressed, and we sneak downstairs. Then, in one final affirmation that we are indeed doing what he already knows we are doing, I grab his collar and he launches into an bliss-fueled tailspin.
And on our way to the park, me half asleep behind the wheel and Mo in the backseat panting on my shoulder, I wonder, as I have on so many other mornings, why do dogs love walks?
Anthropomorphism and How Dogs ‘See’ the World
Ingrained in human psychology is the tendency to anthropomorphize or attribute human characteristics to things which are not human — we do this especially with our pets.
The dog barks, so he must be trying to speak. He licks, so it must be a kiss. He sniffs the rump of another dog, so we yank his leash because butt sniffing is gross, at least to humans.
But of course, domesticated as a dog may be, he is not human. And the only way to understand what a walk means to a dog is to remove our human lenses and view the experience through his eyes, or more accurately his nose.
Why Mo Loves Walks
Humans — with our tiny, second-rate noses — will likely never understand life behind the snout of a dog¹. Imagine stepping into a forest and each tree having it’s own unique scent. Or sniffing the ground and instantly knowing that a squirrel passed by earlier…about 4AM…he had an acorn…and was headed east.
To a dog, smell is more than just a collection of scents. It’s a story. And stories are everywhere — on a stick, in the dirt, and under leaves. There are even stories left deliberately by other dogs.
He Marks and Messages
The whiz Mo takes before bed is different than the whizzes he takes on a walk. His evening whiz is a torrential, earth-soaking whiz, one of such concentration and density it kills the lawn beneath it. His on-walk whizzes, though, are a series of tiny squirts shot from underneath a lifted leg.
Recent research suggests the latter, commonly believed to be an attempt at territory marking, is actually a form of communication². Mo is depositing a message containing information regarding his sex, status, diet, mood, how often he visits this spot, as well as any recent accomplishments.
Mo was here. Ate a piece of steak last night with kibble. Chased a squirrel this morning. Didn’t catch it. Maybe next time. Ruff.
His message is then received by other dogs who come to sniff the area before likely depositing a message of their own in a process called overmarking.
He Plays With Friends
To me, dog play is weird and looks neither fun nor particularly safe. But for whatever reason, Mo adores bearing his fangs and biting the necks and legs of his playmates. Yes, sometimes he’ll frolic alongside other dogs or share a stick, but generally ‘play’ more closely resembles a fight to the death.
However, dog play is more organized and formal than it appears. Before play begins, one dog signals to the other, sometimes using a play bow as seen here:
If the playmate accepts the invitation then they mutually agree to some rules — taking turns, playing fair, considering size of the other playmate, etc. So while dog play may look dangerous, it’s not as bad as it looks.
Because Mo enjoys walks infinitely more than I do, I allow him to make important walk-related decisions. If he wants a ball, he brings it along. He wants a stick, he picks it up. He goes left at the bridge, I go left at the bridge. And maybe most importantly, I let him follow his nose.
Head to any pet friendly area and you will see humans hurrying their dogs along a concrete path or yanking the leash when the dog stops to sniff, either unaware of or indifferent to the fact that dogs care far more for scent than for efficiency.
One of the first dog training books I ever read offered this very misguided piece of advice³: You must walk the dog; the dog mustn’t walk you. If the dog wanders, rein him in. He stops to sniff, yank his leash. He stops again, beat him until he submits.
I may have paraphrased that last part, but in all honesty it was something close. Anyway, the premise for this tip stems from the wolfpack theory, which says because dogs evolved from wolves and wolves run in packs, the dog expects to live in a social hierarchy similar to that of the wolf. If you — the owner — fail to cement your status as alpha male, the dog will spend his life challenging your rank.
The problem with this theory is not only does it fail to replicate the inner-workings of an actual wolfpack — social status is rarely challenged by pack members — but more importantly dogs are not wolves.
Dogs live with humans, most have access to a climate controlled and predator-free home, and if I ever told Mo to go hunt cooperatively with his dog friends, he’d starve to death before dinner.
Now, if the dog isn’t a beta male reporting up to his alpha male human, how then does he see himself in the eyes of man? Simple: as a best friend.
We hang out
Humans created the dog. Years of domestication transformed the tolerant wolf into a tamed one. Years more and we had an animal who shared our home. Now, thousands of years later, we have a creature so attuned to us he knows early alarm + bathroom = walk — a creature who, more than anything else, wants the company of humans.
Dogs depend on us not only for food and shelter but for a relationship. Mo knows that the walk is more than just his time; it’s our time, and I think that’s his favorite thing of all.
¹A dog’s sense of smell is millions of times more sensitive than ours. The olfactory bulb, the part of the dog brain responsible for processing scent, is 40 times larger in dogs than in humans, relative to total brain size. This extra processing power carries more scent-related information to other parts of the brain, impacting a dog’s behavior, emotion and memory.
²In addition to a first-class olfactory system, dog’s have what is called a vomeronasal organ. Located above the roof of the mouth, this separate sniffing apparatus allows dogs to detect hormones and pheromones — the chemical and communicative pieces of information contained in another dog’s urine.
³Dogs require walk-related and leash training. How else will he know what’s expected of him? However, based on my research and experience, I would argue that sessions of positive reinforcement — treats when he heels in lieu of punishment when he doesn’t — are far more effective. Once the dog demonstrates obedience and understands that future walks are contingent on good behavior, let the boy run free.
Sources and recommended reading: