Who Is The Walk For, Anyway?

An old dog teaches her human companion new tricks.

Posted Jun 03, 2009

My big dog is 12 years old and recovering from an illness that weakened her muscles. She's my buddy, so when I heard that using an underwater treadmill might help her gain back some strength, I wanted her to have that opportunity. So off we went to visit the physical therapist at the veterinary teaching hospital.

Mimi paddles in the water, and I watch like an anxious parent. Jackie, Mimi's physical therapist, gives me tips for helping my dog at home. "Sniffing is good," she told me. "Standing and sniffing trees can be as good as walking."

"Really?" I responded. "I tend to pull her to move along: let's get walking."

"Yes, but think: She wants to sniff, and who is the walk really for? It's for Mimi."

She's right. So I take my beautiful briard for a walk to the park, and we stand while she sniffs trees almost to her heart's content. It's her walk.

As Mimi examines the tree, I watch parents race by, pushing toddlers in strollers. New research on front-facing strollers suggests that it's better for development to have babies face the parents who are walking with them -- just like those old, slow baby carriages, buggies and prams, with a child tucked inside staring at mom, riding backwards.

My generation of parents abandoned carriages and strollers. We were Snugli Carrier moms and dads, with slings on our stomachs, babies close to our faces. And when they got too heavy, we rode them on our hips. And when they got really heavy, they walked beside us. They wanted to pick up dandelions and dirt, touch the tree bark, or just observe. They were slow when we wanted to get moving. But after all, who was the walk for?

Toddlers use sensorimotor activity to learn and grow. They use their eyes to see the leaves of Fall, red and yellow, and their hands reach down to collect them. They listen to the ducks and run after pigeons. And they listen to words and make sense of it all. They, like my dog, take in the smells around them. They run and skip, they stumble, and sometimes they just stand there, waiting for something.

One little hand reaching for leaves, the other hand holding mine, walking with my daughter years ago. If I slowed my mind and really paid attention, I could see the world through her eyes, without needing to move on. She was exploring, and the walk was for her, but I learned, too.

I've watched the strollers pass me by, as Mimi sniffs her trees. Moms and dads, pushing strollers of toddlers who could walk but they don't, facing away from their protectors. Babies moving forward; but the world flies by before they can touch it or really see it. Is it scary to be propelled into the unknown, with no parent visible for comfort?

Mom, or dad, wants to run, but an opportunity is lost. The child sits, not walking or reaching, not exploring at his or her own speed, at an age when this is important for development. And this parent, running, running, is not focused on this child, or on the trees and pond, ducks and flowers that surround the two of them. Who is this walk, this run, for? Sometimes, at least, for the child?

And don't even get me started on the $300 strollers manufactured for dogs to ride in -- someone is unclear of the concept "walking the dog!"

Mimi stops to sniff the trees. It's good for her to stand, good for her muscles. She makes me stop, too, to see the trees, and the walk is good for both of us.

Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.