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Decompression Walks

When most people say they take their dog on walks, it typically looks like a brisk stroll through a busy neighborhood, on a sidewalk, with their dog on a 6ft leash at their side or pulling to get further ahead. These types of walks may be substantial exercise for the human, but it’s a different story for the dog. These “traditional” walks typically do not meet a dog’s mental nor physical enrichment needs as one might think, and they do not allow dogs to engage in species-typical behavior. These walks can also be stressful for both you and your dog, especially if they are fearful or reactive to certain stimuli (other dogs, bicycles, people, etc.). So how do you walk your dog and meet their needs? Start giving them decompression walks! 

What is a Decompression Walk?

A decompression walk is simply a walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature, as described by dog trainer Sarah Stremming of The Cognitive Canine, LLC. This type of walk is much different than your typical neighborhood walk, as it allows them choice and provides physical and mental stimulation. Giving dogs the chance to take things at their own pace outdoors allows them to find their own enrichment and exercise. Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers with innate behaviors that include sniffing, chasing, running, digging, and playing, and most neighborhood walks simply don’t allow dogs to engage in those activities. 

Not only do these walks provide physical and emotional benefits, but they can also provide behavioral benefits. Decompression walks are great for any dog but can be particularly beneficial for dogs who are reactive, fearful, or suffer from anxiety and stress. The goal of a decompression walk is calmness and relaxation. Allowing your dog to engage in natural behaviors promotes calmness and decompression, and can, in turn, improve behavioral health.

When you take a dog on a “traditional,” fast-paced walk, they rely more heavily on their eyes versus their nose. You will see their head elevated and scanning the environment for things to stimulate their mind and react to. That is not a walk that is calming nor relaxing for your dog. If these types of walks affect your dog’s behavior negatively, do not take them! On the other hand, decompression walks go at your dog’s chosen pace and are led on their terms. During these types of walks, dogs’ heads tend to be low to the ground and they primarily use their sense of smell to explore the environment. Sniffing has a calming effect on dogs, and having control over their environment is a primary reinforcer. This type of mental enrichment is crucial for tiring a dog out and it will be much easier for them to relax at the end of the day.

There are no set rules behind decompression walks and what they should look like, but there are a few guidelines that you should follow to ensure your dog is truly receiving a decompression walk. The walk should be 100% driven and guided by your dog and their nose. Your dog chooses where to go in the environment, what to sniff, when to stop/move, and how fast to go. Think of yourself as the passenger and the dog as the driver. The walk should be completely pressure-free on your dog and yourself. There should be no agenda, no training, just relaxation. Treats can be given to your dog if they offer eye contact and engagement with you, but mostly just leave them to enjoy themselves. You can also toss treats in the grass to help them engage with the environment. Don’t use cues on these walks and if you must recall your dog back to you for any reason, make sure to always reward them for it. 


Decompression walks require two main pieces of equipment: a long line and a well-fitted, non-restrictive harness, preferably with a back-clip option. A long line is a long, light, and strong rope or leash that is usually 20-50ft long. You can find long lines at most pet stores or online. Check out for customizable BioThane® lines that are lightweight, durable, tangle-proof, and easy to clean. Retractable leashes should never be used, as they can be hazardous for many reasons and do not provide the safety and freedom that long lines do.

We recommend back-clipping harnesses during decompression walks for the least restriction. Having the leash clipped to the back of the harness allows your dog more freedom, is less restrictive, and is much safer in the event that your dog runs to the end of the long line. The Ruffwear Harnesses are a great option for these types of walks and they have several back-clip designs, including Web Master, Hi and Light, and Front Range Harness.  


Decompression walks should occur in open areas at low-traffic times and must allow your dog a lot of safe space to move. Examples of places you can go would be trails, beaches, open grassy areas, or even a backyard. It is important that you do your research and make sure that dogs are allowed wherever you plan on taking them. These walks should be tiring, but not taxing.  Urban walks can be mentally draining on your dog, with noisy trucks, traffic, other dogs, and crowds of people. If you live in an urban area without an easily accessible environment, you can scatter some treats in a local park, soccer field, or baseball diamond when not in use. Allow your dog to zigzag around these areas on the long line and use their nose by searching for treats and exploring the environment. You can also check out where you can search your local area and rent safe, private spaces for your dog to be a dog. 


So, get off the concrete path and begin to incorporate these walks into your life as a daily, non-negotiable practice. Think of it as mandatory stress-relief and just be together with your dog in nature while unplugging from the rigors of day-to-day life. Not only will your dog thank you, but you may even feel a decrease in stress and anxiety yourself on the “sniffari,” too!