Q&A: Louise Conrad, Staff Veterinarian at Ijams Nature Center

Staff veterinarian at Ijams Nature Center (2915 Island Home Ave.), Louise Conrad and her dog Gandalf will lead a "Wagging Walk" for dogs and their owners at the park Saturday, Jan. 18 at 9 a.m. She'll review basics of walking dogs in nature and answer veterinary questions.

How long have you been doing these walks?

A little over a year, once a month, on the third Saturday. It started with the idea that lots of people bring dogs to Ijams, and walks led by a veterinarian might be a good way to help both the dog and the owner to get a little more out of the walk. Also, we're trying to build a dog community.

Is your dog gray like Gandalf?

He's a Westie, so he's more like Gandalf the White. He was named by my then teenaged son, and has a natural coat—not clipped—so he kind of looks like Gandalf with his long, flowing white hair. He's actually a HABIT dog, through the University of Tennessee, which means he is qualified to make visits to different places, like nursing homes, and he's very good at meeting other dogs and other people. He really helps with the socialization, which is one of the prime things we've pushed with this program.

So the dogs can get along for a walk?

It's a great socialization opportunity, because for dogs a walk away from their own property is very exciting, with the smells and all, and they don't have the territorial issues because none of them is at home. A lot of the dogs that come on the walks are either pound adoptees or very young, and a great need for them is socializing.

Do they need to be leash-trained?

They need to be on leashes, yes, but we're not talking about a dog going who's going to win obedience trials, just a dog who can walk a bit on the leash and whose owner can haul him in if need be.

What's most important to remember when walking a dog in nature?

Unless the dog is really well trained, they should always be leashed in some manner, more for their own protection. In East Tennessee you can run into a copperhead, and how are you going to pull your dog off if he's not on a leash? And it's a pretty natural adaption for dogs to want to eat poop—out here there might be possum or raccoon poop with parasites a dog's digestion can't really handle, and that can make them really sick, that or spoiled food they can get into. It's also a good idea to travel with water for the owner and the dog so you don't get dehydrated from sun or wind.

How long is a good walk?

The length should depend on the physical condition of both you and the dog. If you're not used to walking, you should start slow and build up. Dogs need to build muscles and condition their lungs and hearts just like you do. Once they get conditioned, they can really go!

How do you stay motivated to walk your dog?

Most dogs have lot energy and they need to burn it off. If something constructive like a walk isn't offered, they'll burn it off other ways—I know bored large breeds that can eat a couch. What's true of most dogs is that if they get regular walks or other ways to burn energy, it really cuts down on behavior problems. My dogs keep going to the door, "We're bored, take us out!" and while that can drive me crazy, it really can make the whole rest of the day more pleasant for both of you if you go on a walk.

You do themes for each walk?

Yes, for February I'll talk about the truth about chocolate and dogs, and this walk I'll address overweight dogs.

What's an important point you'll make about overweight dogs?

The goal is to help walkers learn how to tell if their dog is overweight or not, by feeling their ribs. The whole point there—just like with people—is that when dogs get overweight, it causes a lot of health issues that go away if they lose the weight, with joints and aging and so forth. Your dogs will be healthier, live longer, and be happier at their ideal weight.

How come only some dogs go nuts for squirrels?

Some dogs do have the hunting instinct more bred into or out of them. My Westies, for example, are very much a "death to rodents" breed and will go after even little chipmunks—they were originally bred to kill vermin. We walk through the woods, so we don't see as many squirrels. We sometimes have a little more issue with dogs that want to go swimming in Meads Quarry, instead of just pausing there to drink a bit of water.

Can you walk other pets?

Cats may train for a leash but they usually walk a bit and then lay down. I've seen leash-trained rabbits, but they don't do distance either. I have known various wildcats people keep and have leash trained, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want a puma to sign up for one of my dog walks.

The walk is free to Ijams members and $5 for non-members; reservations can be made by calling 865-577-4717, ext. 110.