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The Life Changing Power of Decompression Walks

When it comes to pet dogs in suburban or urban settings, we tend to avoid giving them opportunities to just be dogs. We consider a lot of their natural behaviors nuisance behaviors - digging, barking, smelling the same smell for 15 minutes on a walk, chasing critters, etc.

What if we challenged our idea of what our dogs are "supposed" to do on walks?

The question I'd really like to push here is:

What if we completely restructured our dog's mental stimulation and physical exercise routines around their biologically programmed behaviors and just let our dogs be dogs?

My personal dogs, Rosie & Kaisers enjoying a decompression walk at Lost Lake in Friant, CA - March 2019

What is a Decompression Walk?

Trainer Sarah Stremming originally coined the term "Decompression Walk" on her podcast, Cog-Dog Radio. She defines it as, "A walk where the dog is allowed freedom of movement in nature."

Decompression Walks encourage your dog to run (ideally) off leash in big open spaces. They get to bark, romp, run, roll, chase, destroy, swim, smell, explore, climb, dig, etc. They get to lead the way. Outside of ensuring our dogs are safely staying in our visual field, there are no behavioral expectations from us.

We're there to let them be dogs.


“There is no way for me to explain to you the enormous benefit of the decompression walk. It will heal your dog, and it will heal you. You have to trust me and try it.”

– Sarah Stremming, The Cognitive Canine


What are the Benefits?

For most of my clients, neighborhood walks are overstimulating, stressful, and triggers reactive or fearful behavior because of constant exposure to other people, kids, dogs, traffic, "appearing/disappearing items" like parked cars or trashcans, or loud noises. This is super taxing on their nervous systems and is probably causing lots of trigger stacking.

This is usually where I come in and recommend we stop neighborhood walks altogether and opt to get our primary sources of exercise and enrichment from Decompression Walks. What are the benefits?

🐶 a decrease in fear and/or anxiety

🐶 a decrease in trigger stacking

🐶 increases in confidence

🐶 provides novel smells for mental stimulation

🐶 provides opportunity for physical exercise

🐶 encourages independent problem solving

🐶 encourages decision making

🐶 emotional regulation

🐶 exploration of a natural habitat

🐶 your dog gets to be a dog!

Sniffing activates the Seeking System in our dogs' brains. The primary function of this system is survival, but ultimately works in our favor because of the amount of dopamine (the "happy hormone") it allows our dogs' brains to release into their systems.

What does this dopamine release process do? It lowers blood pressure, regulates anxiety, and reduces discomfort in the body.


"In other words... it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of things they need, crave, and desire."

– Jaak Panskepp on the Seeking System, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions


Dogs can breathe in and out at the same time. When they are sniffing, they breathe in through their nostrils and out through the slits at the side of their nose in one continual breath.

Their respiration rate can get up to as high as 200 breaths per minute. For comparison, humans have a respiration rate of 60 breaths per minute during high intensity exercise like running sprints or marathon swimming.

That's a lot of physical work for our dog's hearts and lungs. Then add in the huge cognitive load of information they're taking in while they do it?

No wonder sniffing is so enriching and tiring!

What's the Difference Between A Decompression Walk and a Sniff Walk?

As we've addressed, Decompression Walks are allowing your dog freedom of movement in nature.

Typically when I talk about Sniff Walks with my clients, we're allowing our dogs some leeway on longer lines to sniff in neighborhood or manicured park settings. We stay close to home - we're not going out into nature.

Our Story with Decompression Walks: It's Life Changing

My personal dogs are Rosie and Kaiser. They both have their own behavioral challenges and came with very opposite presentations of the Five F's of Fear.

The Five F's of Fear are uncontrollable, physiological reactions to scary situations. They include:

  • Fight - facing a real or perceived threat with aggression

  • Flight - fleeing from a real or perceived threat

  • Freeze - inability to move or act against a real or perceived threat

  • Fawn - appeasing to avoid conflict with a real or perceived threat

  • Flop - collapsing or fainting in the face of a real or perceived threat

Rosie is a sweet little 40 pound bully breed mix (mostly American Pit Bull Terrier and American Staffordshire Terrier) who has always struggled with moderate to severe noise sensitivity, is dog tolerant on her best days, and has never taken an immediate liking to strange people. Rosie presents with Flight and Fawn.

Kaiser is an 80 lb German Shepherd. He struggles with severe dog-directed aggression and fear-based reactivity to people (if you and your reactive dog have worked with me, you've very likely heard of the "Kaiser Scale"). He has a generalized anxiety disorder that heavily contributes to his behavioral challenges. Kaiser presents heavily with Fight.

When we started going on decompression walks regularly in 2017, the differences in the intensity of both my dog's behavioral issues was incredible. Rosie was less sensitive to noises, Kaiser's brain could take an extra second to think before jumping into a reaction if we ran into another person or dog, their stress baselines were much lower, they slept better through the night, and they responded to training sessions with more enthusiastic participation. Both dogs starting craving more physical affection, which wasn't foreseen but I wasn't complaining about the extra puppy cuddles!

They were much calmer in their overall demeanors. They were happy. They were at peace.

I'm in - How Do I Get Started with my Dog?

Start by getting the right gear!

  • A well fitted, y-shaped harness - I usually recommend the Blue-9 Balance Harness, but any y-shaped harness will do

  • A 30+ foot long line leash - I really like the biothane lines from High Tail Hikes because they're super durable and easy to clean - Any leash longer than 6 feet should stay attached to the back clip of your dog's harness, NEVER the front chest clip or a collar around the neck

  • If you're going to be in areas with tall grass, brush, or heavy tree lines, it's a great idea to prioritize your visibility of your dog. Using bright hunting vests, reflective collars, or neon bandanas are recommended options.


Any leash longer than 6 feet should stay attached to the back clip of your dog's harness, NEVER the front chest clip or a collar around the neck.


Next, find somewhere to go!

If you're local to me in the Central Valley, pretty much anywhere along the San Joaquin River is a great option. We also have a ton of small lakes. My personal favorites are Lost Lake, Avocado Lake, and Millerton Lake.

Throwing "rivers and lakes near me" into the Google search bar is bound to yield some decent results.

You can also search SniffSpots. If you've never heard of this before, it's basically AirBnb for dog walks. People can list their yard or properties for you to rent to allow your dog off leash time. There's some pretty cool places to explore.

AllTrails or other hiking websites provide some great natural setting options tailored yours and your dog's physical fitness levels.

I also recently saw someone suggest looking at Google Earth, finding the big green patches in your area, and doing some research on what kind of terrain is in that area.


If you decide to try a Decompression Walk, e-mail me or tag me in your pictures and/or videos on Instagram! @alohomoradogtraining

Go create a well-rounded, happy, relaxed dog!


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