The 1 Thing You're Probably Doing On Walks That Drives Your Dog Nuts

This common habit seems harmless, but vets say it keeps you from connecting with your pet.
Vets liken this habit to "distracted driving."
Luis Alvarez via Getty Images
Vets liken this habit to "distracted driving."

Walks are critically important for dogs ― and their humans. They give your dog opportunities to get plenty of exercise, mental stimulation and socialisation. And the same goes for you: It helps you get enough physical activity, which is key to preventing chronic diseases and boosts your mental health.

Research shows people enjoy seeing their dogs happy on walks; it’s a potent stress reliever. But it’s the 21st century, which means many dog owners don’t solely focus on their pets when they’re out and about. Instead, they multitask by scrolling on Instagram, flipping through TikTok or getting lost in a gripping true-crime podcast.

Some animal experts have likened this to “distracted driving.” If you’re not paying attention to your dog and the environment around you, you could easily wind up in a dangerous situation ― or lose out on bonding with your pet.

As Dr. Katherine A. Houpt, a professor emerita of behavioural medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, puts it: When you’re out walking, “your dog’s safety should be paramount.”

Here’s why it’s so important to be present with your dog when you walk them:

You could run into triggers or risky situations

Most dogs know exactly what they want to do on a walk, which is, most likely, to sniff or, perhaps, catch up with another dog that’s a quarter mile ahead, Houpt said.

But it’s not all interesting scents and fun, new friends. Some dogs might want to battle the approaching hound, snap at a nearby child or snatch a sharp chicken bone lying on the sidewalk. Worse, they could gobble up something poisonous such as chocolate, marijuana or candy containing xylitol.

“Not keeping your eyes on your dog and what’s around is bad because various things could happen,” Houpt said.

Additionally, when listening to a podcast, your eyes may be on your dog, but you may miss important auditory cues like an approaching bicyclist ringing their bell, a skateboard zooming by or a nearby dog growling that may trigger your dog.

“Even that is probably not a good distraction when you’re walking your dog,” Houpt said.

If you’re paying attention to your surroundings, however, you can stay on top of potential triggers or dangerous encounters. If, for example, you see a squirrel before your dog does, you can distract them and avoid having your elbow whipped around. You can prevent a dog fight or avert them from walking into the street right as a car pulls up.

You can also enforce basic training by calling your dog closer to give them a treat before they have a chance to react to another dog or redirect them from an interesting ― but potentially dangerous ― snack on the ground.

“When an owner is more attentive to their surroundings, they can be proactive versus reactive to these things,” said Dr. Melissa Bain, a professor of clinical animal behavior science at UCDavis Veterinary Medicine.

You and your pet will benefit from undistracted walks.
hobo_018 via Getty Images
You and your pet will benefit from undistracted walks.

Being present with your dog can strengthen your bond

If for no other reason, it’s worth keeping your phone in your pocket while walking your dog to bond with your pet. The human-dog bond significantly influences both the human and dog’s psychological, physiological and physical health.

Walking a dog reduces negative emotions and boosts emotional wellness and life satisfaction, data suggests. It also creates opportunities for more interactions and bonding with your pooch, which, in turn, can decrease loneliness and increase self-esteem, empathy and self-regulation, according to research. The benefits of the human-dog bond are profound.

In our ever-busy, always-plugged-in world, it might seem like an aimless strut is useless. But walking is, as one scientific report points out: “a highly sensual and complex activity where, ‘[d]ifferent encounters with objects and materiality, peculiar sensations and ineffable impressions may be experienced.’”

You and your dog are exploring the world together. You’re listening to them and understanding their wants and needs in various situations. Knowing their likes and dislikes, quirks and personality, again, further strengthens your relationship, which makes it all that more rewarding.

“When owners walk their dog, the hope would be that it is a time that they can spend one-on-one with their dog, enjoying their company with one another,” Bain said.

This is all to say: Be present with your dog when you walk them. It’ll probably make you both happier, healthier and emotionally closer than whatever fleeting stimulation is streaming on your smartphone.