Unpopular Opinion: Sniff Walks Could Be Harming Your Dog

There is a new trend in the dog world called sniff walks and they may be harming your dog’s health.

Old school theory on properly walking your dog – and these ideas still linger in many dog training communities – is that your dog should walk only by your side in a heel position and stop only when you say it’s ok.

In the last few years, there has been a big push to not control our dogs as much and focus on their needs over our wants as owners.

When trying to drive this point home in regard to walking your dog, the phrase “It’s your dog’s walk” is often used.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to see this push to focusing on a dog’s needs, and providing more mental stimulation for a dog in general.

However, as a hobbiest dog trainer, I’m a bit alarmed by how this is being taken to the extreme – prioritizing sniffing over physical exercise and shaming people who also have the latter goal (mostly an online trend).

If all that a dog gets are sniff walks, especially when that is the only opportunity a dog gets for exercise, I think that can be harmful and it’s doing your dog a big disservice.

What Is a Sniff Walk?

For those of you who have not encountered this term yet, it’s not really a new thing – just a new name for it.

A sniff walk is when you take your dog for a walk and allow them to stop and sniff around as much as they want.

The concept is that dogs need to use their nose to explore their surroundings through scent and allowing them to sniff around has benefits like mental health and reducing stress.

Scientists say letting your dog sniff builds new neurons in the brain, this increasing cognitive function.

I’m 100% behind the idea of providing your dog mental exercise and helping to develop their brain.

But there is a problem.

Stopping and sniffing on a walk is not always safe or appropriate.

What is Wrong with Sniff Walks?

There is nothing inherently wrong with a sniff walk. In fact, they are awesome for your dog!

However, not every walk your dog goes on needs to be a sniff walk, or at least not the entire walk.

I hear Dachshund owners frequently lament that their dog walks slow all of the time because they are stopping to sniff every 5 feet, and they ask how I keep mine moving so I posted a video demonstrating how I do it.

Some people exclaimed, “But they need to sniff! It’s good for them!” and implied that I was being a bad dog owner.

At least one person announced that they were unfollowing me, because they didn’t like my stance that dogs should get a balance between mental and physical exercise on a walk.

Is Stopping to Sniff on Walks the Only Way for Your Dog to Mental Stimulation?

No, the two things are not mutually exclusive – it’s possible for your dog to get mental stimulation on a walk AND physical exercise at the same time.

A dog gets mental stimulation on a walk even if you’re constantly moving by experiencing new sights and smells, smelling things in the air while they walk, and putting their nose low to the ground to “skim” smells when walking.

It is true that dogs get more mental stimulation by being able to sniff something until they are satisfied, but that can be incorporated into walks for physical exercise.

Some ideas are:

  • End every walk with a 5 minute sniff break as a “reward”
  • Walk your dog twice a day – make one focused on getting your heart rate up and let your dog lead the other one by following their nose.
  • Start your walk with a 5 minute sniffari so your dog can get the desire out of their system then go for your exercise walk
  • Let your dog sniff whatever interests them for a few seconds before asking them to move along

While there are benefits to sniffing on a walk for your dog, there are also some potential issues to keep in mind.

4 Ways a Sniff Walk May Be Hurting Your Dog

There are several ways that a sniff walk could harm your dog.

I’m not saying these are reasons that you shouldn’t go for sniff walks, but they are important points to keep in mind.

1) It’s not enough exercise

Most healthy, adult dogs need cardiovascular exercise to help keep their heart healthy, joints lubricated, muscles strong, and keep them from becoming overweight.

Meandering along at a slow pace and letting your dog stop to sniff everything does not achieve this.

2) They may eat what they are sniffing

I can’t count the number of times I let my dog sniff in the grass and then BAM! they scarfed down some unidentifiable substance that they shouldn’t have.

I worry because they could have eaten diseased cat poop, something containing chemicals, or something poisonous.

While most of the time, there is no harm done or they get sick and throw up later that night, it could be worse.

Like the time we had to make an emergency trip to the vet because one of my dogs ate part of a poisonous mushroom.

If it’s a chicken bone, it could splinter and rupture a part of their digestive system.

3) It teaches them bad habits

If you only take your dog on sniff walks, they learn that they control the walk, not you.

While “It’s your dog’s walk” or “It’s your dog’s hike” are great reminders to recognize when your dog is tired, or injured, and it’s time to head home, not every walk should be dictated by your dog.

It teaches them bad leash manners.

Allowing your dog to lead all of your walks can teach them:

  • To learn to pull on the leash.
  • To dart back and forth, potentially tripping the human walking them and making the experience difficult or unpleasant for the owner.
  • That what is over there and smells interesting is more important than you are.

When your dog doesn’t find you interesting or valuable, they are less likely to come when you call or take direction from you.

It can also make training can be more difficult – training of important commands that will help to keep them safe and happy.

4) They may want to stop in an unsafe location

This point is related to point #3, but if your dog thinks they say when you stop on a walk, not you, they may stop in a location that is unsafe and refuse to budge.

Examples of unsafe places to stop are stopping in the middle of a crosswalk, stopping when crossing a railroad track, or stopping in the middle of a narrow bridge when other people and dogs are trying to pass (it becomes a confined space and cause conflicts between dogs who feel trapped).

How to Stop a Dog from Sniffing Everything on Walks

Dachshund owners often ask me how I prevent my dogs, Gretel and Summit, from stopping all the time on our walks to sniff.

I never had a good answer… I just taught them not to… but I’ve been thinking more about that.

There are several techniques I use to keep them moving along.

The first my attitude. When I want them to keep walking, I simply don’t stop.

They respond to leash pressure as a sign to move along, so once I walk past them and the leash tightens up, they know their sniff session is over.

If they don’t naturally stop sniffing and come with me, I use one of two commands.

I’ve taught my dogs the “leave it” command. At our house this means leave whatever you are giving attention to.

So when I say “leave it”, they know to stop sniffing and start walking again.

I’ve also taught them the “let’s go!” command. The command means “we’re moving now, come along.”

This command has many uses, but one of them is to get them to stop sniffing something and keep walking.

Are Dogs That Aren’t Allowed to Sniff Everything Unhappy?

Remember in the beginning of this article when I mentioned that sniff walks are a new trend? Or rather that the term is?

In my observation, this term was created as a counter-argument to the rise in popularity of dog obedience training on social media.

There are countless videos of “robotic” dogs heeling on a walk next to their owners and constantly looking up at them or staring straight ahead.

While we don’t know what is happening off camera, these videos give the impression that if your dog is not constantly in tune with your every step, and ignoring all external stimulation, you’re not dog walking them right.

Calling out the practice and benefits of sniff walks is a reminder that dogs are not robots and they need to use their natural-given, and amazing, olfactory systems.

There are many benefits to sniff walks (summarized from this Pawtracks article), including:

  • Potentially reducing in anxiety and aggression because sniffing gives a dog the information they need to understand what’s going on around them.
  • Increasing mental stimulation as your dog explores things they find interesting with their nose
  • The mental “exercise” can tire your dog out as much as walking (although it doesn’t provide the cardiovascular benefits).
  • Sniffing makes your dog happy because they are fulfilling their natural instincts

So, yes, a dog that is never allowed to sniff on walks may be unhappy.

But I believe there should be a balance.

Colleen Demling-Riler, an in-house dog behaviorist expert for Dogtopia, recommends keeping your pup walking for 70% of the time and giving him the remaining 30% to sniff and explore the environment.

Final Thoughts

Maybe, like me, you’ve felt the criticism of people who think that not letting your dog stop every 5 feet to sniff something is mean and cruel.

From what I can tell, these owners often think they are being better pet owners by always letting their dog sniff everything on walks at a leisurely pace.

But I think that only going on sniff walks is what is doing your dog a disservice and potentially harming them.

I’m not saying sniff walks are inherently bad. In fact, they are crucial to your dog’s mental health and happiness!


1) exercise and sniff walks don’t need to be mutually exclusive and

2) sniff walks are not the only type of walk your dog needs.

As stated above (by a veterinarian, not just my opinion), your dog should get a mix of the two types, but the majority of your dog walking time should be focused on moving and fitness.

I also think it’s important to point out that sniff walks are not the only way to provide your dog mental stimulation.

While this article focused on sniff walks for mental stimulation, that can also be provided through training, playing games with your dog, and providing enrichment activities at home.

Sniff walks are walks where you let your dog stop and sniff everything and dictate where and how far you go. There are many befits to letting your dog use their excellent sense of smell. But if going on sniff walks is your primary focus, you may be harming your dog.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Jessica. I’m a Dachshund sitter, President of the largest social Dachshund club in Washington State, a dog trainer in training, and I’ve been a Dachshund owner for 20 years. I have over 150,000 hours of experience with the breed. When I’m not working, you can find me hiking, camping, and traveling with my adventurous wiener dogs.


  1. Hello, Jessica,
    Great article. I was drawn to this article by it’s title. I would like to add
    another reason for not sniffing 100 % of the walk. It is a health issue.
    Our dog just recovered from a very serious bout with an intestinal infection that was caused by sniffing. It is called Clostridial Diarrhea. It is a disease
    that is hard to pinpoint where it comes from but the more research
    that is done the more evidence is leaning toward our dogs acquire the
    disease after sniffing the ground where another animal has been that carried the disease. There is a lot of information out there about this disease. The drug, metronidazole-azole, worked great with our dog.
    We have limited our dog to about 10% of her walk to sniffing. Thank you
    for your time. Cheers.

    1. Thank you for sharing that bit of information Dorcas. I was not aware it was possible to get an infection from sniffing the ground.

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