Is That Pile of Leaves Good for My Dog to Sniff and Play In?

Winte- Err, fall is coming, and with that comes lots of things — colder weather, pumpkin spice lattes, and big piles of leaves among the most iconic of these. Now, a big ol’ pile of crunchy leaves can be 15 seconds of sheer delight (or terror, if you live in the imagination of Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes fame), but it might be worth thinking twice about letting your pup loose on that mound of leaf litter, and there are a few reasons why.

Top Reasons to Keep Your Dog Away From the Fallen Foliage

1) For starters, you don’t know what’s in there— a seemingly innocuous pile of leaves could be hiding sticks or branches with sharp or broken off ends, broken glass (in the city), or other unpleasant things that might cause an injury. Not to mention other living things — there’s a chance that ticks or even venomous spiders (depending on your locale) might be hiding out in the warmth of the leaves!

2) Fall tends to be a time when the weather is colder and rainier. Damp leaves at the bottom of the pile are likely to become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria (like Staphylococcus) which can cause allergic reactions (in the case of mold) or bacterial infections.

3) Does your dog interact with the world mouth-first? This may be another issue, like red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves can be toxic to dogs, as can fallen chestnuts; however, the ASPCA says chestnuts are non-toxic. A. rubrum is the most common native tree on the East Coast, and is an incredibly popular decorative tree all across the USA because it is cheap, hardy, looks great, and grows just fine in most places.

All in all, is it tremendously hazardous to let your dog run around in a big pile of leaves? Not necessarily, but it never hurts to be a little cautious. Make sure your dog is up to date on their flea and tick preventative, be careful and alert, and your dog can have a romping good time this fall!

Your Pup’s Nose Knows

While I have your attention, let’s talk sniff breaks, and why they’re actually very important for your dog. I’m sure everyone at some point has seen a dog up to its neck in someone’s flower bush while the flustered owner pulls and pulls to try and get Rover back on the move. How can you stop that from being you in the future? Why is Rover so insistent on stopping at every tree you pass?

To first answer this question, it’s important to understand just how powerful a dog’s nose is. For every scent receptor in our nose, a dog has about fifty. Biologists estimate that a dog’s sense of smell is 10 to 100 THOUSAND times more powerful than ours. Their sense of smell is the #1 way they interact with the world. Sniffing a bush tells them about every dog that’s been by recently, and so much more!

Letting your dog take time to sniff is very important for their mental stimulation! It falls under the umbrella term of enrichment, something used by zoologists to describe exercises that encourage an animal’s natural behaviors, stimulate their brain, and keep them alert and active. Tug of war and fetch are other great examples of enrichment, as is training. Oftentimes, the actual act of walking is low on the priority list for things to do while out on a walk! Imagine if you were to go for a walk through the park, but had to keep your head down and watch the path — you wouldn’t appreciate it as much as one where you got to look around, see the flowers blooming, and watch birds flying by; that’s what it’s like for a dog when they don’t get to stop and smell the flowers!

Additionally, sniffing around your neighborhood can be very helpful for your dog to understand who else frequents the block— this way when you run into your neighbor out with their dog, both of them will know that the other has been around, and they will likely get off on the right foot (or paw?).

Two dogs sniffing leave covered ground.

The “Let’s Go!” Command for Sniffing Etiquette

But say your dog really spends a shocking amount of time at each tree, and you have places to get to that might be even more exciting, what can you do?

Here’s where training “Let’s go!” can be super helpful. Start in your home or backyard, somewhere they’ve sniffed out thoroughly and won’t be distracted. Have them on leash, walk around a bit, then stop and have them sit. Wait for a few seconds (between 5 and 10, I like to vary the interval up a bit each time, something like 5, 7, 6, 8, 8, 5, 10, etc.), then say “Let’s go!”. When your dog gets up and walks with you, praise them and give them a treat.*

Work on this for 15 minutes every day until they’re doing it without needing a treat, then transition to doing this outside. Eventually, when you say the magic words after 45-60 seconds of solid sniffin’, your dog will pop right up and be ready to keep going (until the next tree, of course).

*This can also be a great time to work on the “focus!” command.

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