Exercise for dogs isn’t always the answer


You have probably had it drummed into you that dogs need daily exercise. A tired dog is a good dog, walks offer mental and physical stimulation, walks emulate the primal dog hunt, etc., etc.

Walking does of course give your dog mental as well as physical stimulation but not as much as you might expect. Adolescent, hyper, over-excitable and active dogs can sometimes be over-exercised as they are often the most difficult to live with and the common thought is that the dog needs more exercise to release this energy and help it to “calm down”.  In fact, what can happen is that the dog produces more and more adrenaline and cortisol the more high-energy exercise it has, which will in turn make the dog’s mental state more out of control and unsettled.  The reason this happens is that most dogs which behave in this manner, are already mentally unsettled in the first place and need more relaxation and calming exercises instead of adrenaline-producing ones. The other potential problem of offering more and more exercise is that the dog becomes extremely fit and needs more and more to maintain the same levels of tiredness. More exercise may help for a while, but the dog soon returns to its hyperactive state and will need even more exercise to compensate.
Your dog’s genetic make-up will affect his stress levels and behaviour, possibly more than many of us appreciate, so changing your dog’s behaviour isn’t always completely under your control.

On the whole, it’s not a lack of physical exercise that has caused problems to develop in many of the dogs I help.  Dogs generally receive far too little training with not enough brain engagement. The problem is more a lack of proper balance between mental and physical stimulation.

So firstly, I would say that, if you don’t have time or the freedom to walk your dog daily especially at the moment, given the lockdown and social distancing measures, try not to worry about it. There are other things you can do with your dog that will be just as satisfying for him, as long as you do something and don’t allow your dog to become bored.

Intellectual games can help to stimulate your dog without over-excitement. Ian Dunbar, a world-renowned behaviourist, vet and trainer, says that 10 minutes of an intellectual game like hide and seek is the equivalent of an hour’s walking in terms of mental exercise. Games like ‘Find the Treat’ in cups or around the house are great, hide and seek with you as the reward, snuffle mats, ‘licky mats’ and a multitude of other home-made and manufactured games are available to help you to keep your dog happily occupied.

It is vital to a dog’s mind to learn that sometimes they can just lie around and do nothing at all so keep this in mind. Dogs sleep, on average, about 14 hours a day, so doing little shouldn’t be too difficult for them! Dogs that are very excitable can be some of the hardest to live with. Providing lots of physical exercise is relatively simple, but many owners struggle with establishing acceptable rules and boundaries, and have little time for training and entertaining their dogs in other ways. The wrong balance of physical and mental exercise can lead to stress and unacceptable behaviours like destruction, whining, rushing around and attention seeking. In the worst cases, dogs like these end their days in rescue centres.

Obviously, all dogs get stressed and over-excited sometimes but it’s about teaching them to cope with these times and how to relax after stressful episodes.

Every dog has its own character and only a close study of their body language and behaviour can tell you if your dog  would benefit from less exercise and learning to relax, but the following questions might give you an indication.

Answer yes or no to the following questions.

1. Does your dog rarely lie down at home when you are busy and leave you alone?
2. Does your dog chew unsuitable things when left alone or if you aren’t paying enough attention to him?
3. Does your dog bark for attention at you and/or at other dogs/people when out on lead?
4. Does your dog have a sensitive stomach and/or diarrhoea often?
5. Does your dog sometimes seem “stubborn”?
6. Does your dog bother you to play constantly?
7. Does your dog never seem to wear out?
8. Does your dog sometimes not sleep all night and/or wake you in the night?
9. Does your dog get rowdy with other dogs and play rough a lot of the time?

10. Does your dog take a long time to calm down when guests visit?

If you answered Yes to more than 4 of the above, there’s every chance that your dog could do with learning to relax. Here are some thoughts on how to teach relaxation.

Settle

This is an idea that I have borrowed from Sue Sternberg who invented what she refers to as ‘The Nothing Game’.

You will need a lead, a blanket or mat for your dog to settle on and a quiet indoor area such as a bathroom or bedroom. Bathrooms are great because they are quiet and have a ready-made seat available! Once your dog becomes more proficient you can try the exercise where there is more noise and activity.

To train:
Take your dog into the bathroom wearing a collar and lead.

Gather up the lead between your hands, leaving about 12” so it is not tight but allows only a small amount of movement.


Sit down next to the mat, either on the loo or on a chair, put the lead between your knees and wait.

Do not look at, touch or speak to your dog. If he jumps up at you the lead will prevent him from getting too high. If he chews at your feet or legs, you could try tightening the lead a little until he stops and then releasing the tension.

You will have to be VERY patient and ignore everything your dog does.

When he finally lies down, drop a treat between his feet. If he stays there, bend over and drop 4 or 5 more in quick succession. Sit up again. He will probably get up at that point, and you must continue to ignore him. He is only to be acknowledged by dropping him a treat when he is calmly lying down. If he isn’t lying down, continue to ignore him until he does.wait again.

When he remains settled, lying down, and calm after the fifth treat, sit up and wait one second. If he remains down after this, drop another treat. Sit up again and count to two seconds before delivering the next treat. Then three seconds, four seconds…and so on. If at any time he gets up and moves around, just stay quiet, completely ignoring him, and continuing to hold the lead as before until he lies down gain.

You will need to be very patient to teach this. DON’T give your dog any commands. He needs to work it out for himself otherwise you will always have to command him.

To finish a session, give your dog a release command such as ‘Go on’ but only when he is calmly lying down, so choose your moment. Then you can get up, take off the lead, and walk quietly away. Ignore him for a while so he doesn’t get excited and run around.

At any time generally during the day, if you see your dog lying down and quietly resting – even sleeping – drop a treat by his nose. It seems counter-intuitive to interrupt the peaceful moment with a treat, but we want him to learn that we reward his calmness…not ignore it!

In conclusion, dogs do of course, need exercise, but it doesn’t always have to be long walks and high energy activities. As dog guardians, we need to create harmony between physical and mental exercise to keep our dogs healthy, and the better you understand your own dog’s needs, the happier and more balanced  he will become.