Category Archives: Exercise

Roadwork

Roadwork involves training your dog to trot alongside a bike, golf cart, or other vehicle. Bicycle roadwork is required for the Schutzhund AD (endurance test) for a distance of 12.5 miles, but even dogs who will never compete in Schutzhund may enjoy learning to do roadwork. Roadwork can be a great way to keep up with an active dog who requires lots of physical exercise.

Photo by Andrew Kurjata

Photo by Andrew Kurjata

It’s important not to start roadwork until a dog’s growth plates have closed completely (at about 18 months of age for most dogs), and to train the foundation behaviors well before starting for safety. This activity is best for structurally sound dogs who are under good verbal control and do not have any desire to chase vehicles.

First of all, a dog must understand how to walk nicely on leash without pulling. Teach your dog that he only gets to go forward when the leash is slack by stopping every time the leash gets tight.

Next, condition your dog to wear a comfortable harness. This is important for safety, since if either your dog or you should “wipe out” you don’t want him wearing a regular collar and potentially injuring his neck. The harness you select should have a spot for the leash to attach over the dog’s shoulders. No-pull harnesses or other devices aren’t appropriate for roadwork. To get your dog used to wearing the harness, put the harness on prior to feeding meals for about a week, then take it off when your dog is done eating. Begin using it on regular leash walks until your dog is happy and comfortable wearing it.

Finally, teach your dog the “whoa” and “leave it” cues. These are important safety cues.

“Whoa” means “stop immediately.” Start using it on walks by saying “whoa,” then stepping in front of your dog to stop his forward motion. Click and treat when he pauses. Gradually fade how far you need to step in front of him before he stops, until he is stopping on the verbal cue alone. Once he’s reliable with this, introduce the “whoa” cue at higher speeds, such as when you are power-walking, jogging, or running.

“Leave it” means “that’s not your’s” and can be used when your dog shows interest in sniffing, chasing the bunny that just ran across your path, or snatching up some tasty roadkill. “Leave it” is a basic obedience command that is taught in most training programs.

If using a bike, make sure that you wear a helmet. An attachment specifically made to hook your dog to the bike, such as the Springer or WalkyDog, is highly recommended. If using a car or golf cart, choose a sturdy 6′ leash (you’ll have to roll down the driver’s side window if using a car).

Be careful about where you run your dog. Running on pavement is hard on a dog’s joints and can cause his paw pads to become torn or worn away. Dirt or grass is best. Abandoned country roads, flat fields, bike paths, or empty parking lots are all possible places to do roadwork. In the beginning stages, check your dog’s paw pads and toenails regularly for wear and tear, and only work for short distances. Consider when you run your dog as well, paying attention to potentially hazardous weather.

When you first introduce your dog to roadwork, start off slowly. Make sure your dog is running far enough away from your vehicle that his feet are far, far away from the wheels. If he runs too close to you at first, utilize a second person to run alongside him on the opposite side as the vehicle and reward him for maintaining distance. You can even have your helper put him on a second leash if necessary. Dogs should be 4′ – 6′ away from the wheels for any motorized vehicle (such as golf carts).

Your dog’s safety should always be your number one concern, and if your dog ever begins to show any inclination to chase or bite at the wheels, pull on leash, or engage in any other behavior that may be dangerous, it is your responsibility to immediately stop doing roadwork and re-assess your dog’s suitability for this activity.

Dogs love running. However, keep your dog at a trot the majority of the time you are doing roadwork. While it’s okay to occasionally go a bit faster if your pooch enjoys it, trotting is the best speed for safety and conditioning. Make sure to warm him up and cool him down during each session.

For active, well-trained dogs, roadwork can be a lot of fun and is also a great source of conditioning and exercise. My dogs enjoy doing roadwork alongside a bike on local bike paths in the summer, and alongside the car on abandoned dirt roads in the spring and fall.

Have you ever done roadwork with your dog? Share in the comments section below!

The Cortisol Vacation

We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?

Photo by Liama Hal

The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.

Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.

For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.

Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.

Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.

While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.

The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!

Lure Coursing

Thank you to Lois Stanfield for those wonderful images of Layla lure coursing!

Waiting to run. Dogs run naked (no collars allowed) for safety, so I taught Layla to tolerate being restrained by the scruff of her neck and a hand on her chest while she waits for the signal to go.

Right off the line, Layla’s already well over 30mph. This is why a solid warm-up routine is so important to avoid stress on the muscles and joints.

Ever wonder why Greyhounds and other sighthounds have a slightly roached (rounded) back? This photo shows why that structure can be helpful for dogs who need to sprint.

Most dogs sniff the lure (which is a white plastic bag) when they catch it. In true terrier fashion, Layla prefers to grab and shake it just to make sure it’s really “dead.”

Can you spot what’s wrong with my dog in these pictures (hint: it has to do with her physical appearance)? Answer on Monday!

Dog-Dog Socialization: Beyond the Dog Park

I don’t ever take my dogs to the dog park. The idea of the dog park is a great one: a safe place where dogs can play together and run free. However, in reality, I find that dog parks cause more issues than they solve, so I turn instead to other options for my own dogs.

Photo by Sangudo

There are several major problems with dog parks. The largest issue I personally have with public dog parks is the lack of oversight available for who attends them. I do not know the physical or behavioral health status of any of the dogs who attend, and the risk of exposing my dog to a sick or aggressive dog is much higher than with any other means of socialization. Unvaccinated dogs or those who are carrying parasites or viruses (such as kennel cough) are all possibilities. Since my dogs are healthy and are provided with appropriate immunizations and parasite control, this alone wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, behaviorally unhealthy dogs are a much bigger risk.

The largest problem with dog parks is that owners are often oblivious to or unconcerned about the behavior of their dogs. Many owners spend time at the dog park chatting with each other or on their phones, not even watching their dog. Dog parks are not appropriate places to bring dogs for remedial socialization, yet many people attempt to do just that. Many well-meaning people also bring their new or unsocialized dogs to the dog park with no idea of the dog’s comfort level around other dogs, a doggy version of “trial by fire.” Working as a dog behavior consultant, I receive calls and emails on a regular basis from people whose dog has either injured or been injured by another dog at the dog park. These calls range from a dog who has developed fear issues after being playfully jumped by a much larger dog at the dog park to a dog who literally ripped the ear off another dog when the two got into a scuffle over a ball.

There’s a saying among trainers: “if you go to the dog park long enough, something bad will happen.” While there are certainly lots of friendly, well-socialized, and healthy dogs who attend the dog park, it’s impossible to totally protect your dog from bad experiences in such an uncontrolled environment. This may not be a big deal for well-socialized, balanced, stable dogs, who will just shake off the bad experience and continue on. Young (under two years old), fearful, or easily upset dogs may not be so blase about the experience, however. One traumatic experience can set a dog up for a lifetime of fear or reactivity, something we trainers see all too heartbreakingly often.

As if this weren’t enough, I also avoid the dog park because of what my dog is likely to learn there. The average dog park attendee is an adolescent, setting the stage for a canine version of The Lord of the Flies since there are few adults around to keep order. Rude, pushy, and over-aroused behavior is often the norm. Practicing such behaviors teaches the dog that this is how he should interact with others of his species, and now we have a canine Tarzan or bully in the making.

Recall issues (where the dog refuses to come when called, or worse yet, plays “keep away” from his owner) are common at dog parks, and are a common reason why owners call me for training help. Dogs quickly learn that coming to their owners ends the fun, and start to avoid being caught. One client recently called me after she had to spend nearly four hours trying to catch her dog! She was finally able to snare the wayward pooch after her dog darted into the smaller fenced-in entrance area to greet a new dog.

So, how do I socialize my dogs? There are many great ways for your dog to enjoy the company of his own kind that are much safer and more enjoyable for all involved.

My dogs enjoy regular playdates with doggy friends. Playdates are based on my dogs’ age and play preferences, with my older dogs enjoying side-by-side walks (both on and off-leash) with their buddies and the new puppy enjoying regular off-leash chase and wrestling games with her friends. Ask around to find play partners for your dog: friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors are all great networks to tap. If one of you has a fenced-in yard, meet there for some off-leash play. Fenced-in tennis courts, baseball fields, and other such areas are also often available at local parks. One creative client of mine rented a neighbor’s fenced-in yard when she couldn’t find any other alternatives! A well-run doggy daycare can also provide your dog with regular access to other playmates, and you can feel comfortable knowing that the other dogs who attend daycare are also vaccinated and friendly.

Finally, my dogs receive regular socialization through training classes and dog sports. While the dogs may not directly interact with one another in these venues, they are still a vital piece of the socialization puzzle. Learning to focus on you and remain calm in the presence of other dogs is an important life skill. Human children are given time to play with one another and run around during recess, but also learn to sit still and focus in the classroom at school. Similarly, I don’t want my dog getting overly excited every time she sees another dog because she thinks she’s going to get to play. A dog who squeals and bucks at the end of the leash every time he sees another dog is not a well-socialized dog no matter how friendly he is, because he’s never learned how to control himself around his own species. Imagine if a human teenager or adult acted like that! Social behavior also includes the ability to just hang out calmly with members of one’s own species.

Some dog parks are better than others, and I may be more likely to attend a dog park with lots of space and trails than our local parks where dogs and people congregate around picnic tables. However, I honestly believe that there are better alternatives to the dog park. Providing socialization opportunities for my dogs is important, but that includes the responsibility to make sure that those opportunities are always safe and positive.

So, how do you socialize your dog(s)? Do you use dog parks, and if so, what do you do to ensure your dog’s safety? How are your local dog parks laid out? What socialization opportunities does your dog enjoy the most? Please share your stories and opinions in the comments below!

Playing With Your Dog: An Illustrated Guide

Thanks to the supremely talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for suggesting this project. I had a blast collaborating with her! (Click on the image below to enlarge…)

Lure Coursing

Lure coursing is a fun sport for dogs with high chase drive, such as sighthounds and terriers. This weekend, we went to a lure coursing trial, where Layla earned her first qualifying score towards her Coursing Aptitude title. This isn’t a sport we participate in frequently, since it’s the canine equivalent of a trip to Disney World and winning the lottery all rolled into one.

Here’s what it looks like:

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Arousal, even if it’s ‘happy arousal,’ can easily turn to stress.

- Leslie McDevitt

The SuperDog Syndrome: Too Much Exercise?

We’ve been discussing exercise lately. We’ve covered how important both physical and mental exercise are, as well as why you should avoid overly arousing activities on a daily basis. Today, let’s talk about another common exercise issue: the SuperDog Syndrome.

SuperDogs are created through too much physical exercise. This most frequently happens when owners rely on physical exercise alone to create a well-behaved dog. Tired dogs are good dogs, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to keep a dog worn out through regular, intense physical exercise in order to avoid behavior problems.

At first, keeping your dog worn out through physical exercise does the trick. The dog spends his time at home sleeping or lying quietly, tired from the increased physical activity. Things are peaceful.

There’s a problem with relying solely on physical activity though: your dog will become more fit the more activity you provide. Activities that previously resulted in a tired dog will instead only take the edge off. Over time, more and more exercise is required to wear the dog out. The dog becomes a great athlete in peak physical condition. The dog becomes a SuperDog.

SuperDogs are hard to live with. They have come to expect, and even to require, massive amounts of physical activity. Missing a day is not an option. Sick with the flu? Too tired from a long week at work? Family visiting from out of town? The dog still needs exercise, or he’s going to be a nightmare.

So, how can you avoid creating a SuperDog? First of all, acknowledge the fact that physical exercise alone will not create a calm, well-behaved, and balanced dog. Mental exercise, training, clear rules and expectations, and management are all also important. Completely wearing your dog out might work in the short term to avoid issues such as counter surfing, attention seeking, barking, or chewing, but long-term results will only be accomplished by teaching the dog appropriate behavior and preventing him from practicing bad behavior through the use of management tools.

Extra physical exercise certainly does have a place. Short-term situations that require an extra-well-behaved dog, such as when frail or elderly visitors are expected or a family member is recovering from surgery, call for increased exercise. Consider hiring a professional dog walker for the week or look into doggy daycare options for social dogs. However, anything longer than a week requires a more well-rounded plan than just increased physical activity.

What if you already have a SuperDog? Climbing out of the rut of relying on physical exercise takes some forethought and preparation. First of all, start increasing your dog’s mental exercise and make sure that you’re providing adequate training and management. Consult us if you need help with this. Then, start slowly decreasing your dog’s daily activities until you’ve reached a more normal and sustainable level (most dogs need about half an hour of physical activity a day).

Do you have a SuperDog, or do you know anyone who does? How do you provide balance to your dog’s exercise routine? Let us know in the comments!

Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

Physical exercise is necessary and healthy for all dogs. However, there are a few common problems we see in client’s dogs who are not exercised properly. Today we’ll discuss one of the biggest problems, overarousal due to exercise, and the myth that you should exercise “crazy” dogs more.

Layla adores lure coursing, and it's great exercise for her, but it also makes her overly aroused.

Arousal refers to a dog’s level of excitement and emotional control. A highly aroused dog will be very excited, with a fast heartrate and respiration and poor impulse control. He may have dilated pupils or chatter his teeth. He may pant, jump around or on you, or vocalize incessantly. He may become grabby or mouthy. Alternatively, he may become “locked on” to an activity, freezing in place and staring intently at the object of his obsession, spinning in circles, or pacing.

Highly aroused dogs are stressed. Remember that stress is not necessarily bad. When we think of stress, we often think of negative stress, or distress. However, there’s also positive stress, known as eustress. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on are both stressful activities, and your body actually responds to them the same way even though your emotional response to each is different. This point is important for us to understand as it relates to our dogs, because happily exciting events still create a physiological stress response in your dog’s body.

Why does this matter? Stress causes physical changes in the body. When you or your dog become stressed, your body releases certain stress hormones into the bloodstream. These stress hormones don’t just instantly dissipate. They hang around for awhile (the most commonly quoted length of time is 72 hours, but estimates range from mere hours to an entire week depending on who you ask).

Consider this, then. If you engage in activities that cause your dog to become aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream. High arousal becomes the new norm. Consider how you would feel if you won the lottery, rode a rollercoaster, or attended your favorite band’s rock concerts every single day. Our bodies aren’t built for prolonged periods of excitement, even when the excitement is positive.

What does this have to do with our dogs? I’m often called in to work with dogs who have trouble controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hypervigilant. These dogs are also often victims of the wrong sort of exercise. Exercise that amps your dog up is okay in moderation, but allowing your dog to engage in it every day will likely do more harm than good. This is highly individual, but is most commonly seen with ball- or frisbee-obsessed dogs playing fetch every day or highly dog-social and excitable dogs visiting the dog park or daycare regularly.

If this sounds like your dog, there is hope! Cut down on overly arousing activities and replace them with other physical and mental exercise. Save these exciting activities for special times. My dogs both enjoy the flirt pole, but only play with it a few times a month due to how highly aroused they get while chasing it. Layla adores lure coursing above all other activities, but she takes 3 full days to recover after just a few runs after the lure because she becomes so over-the-top waiting for her turn (words cannot describe the bark-scream-screech sound she makes in line). Dobby loves to play fetch, but two days in a row with the chuck-it or frisbee creates a dog who’s not very pleasant to live with.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other common exercise pitfalls as well as some great ways to exercise your dog. Have you ever had to limit an activity your dog adored because it caused him to become too overstimulated? Please share your stories in the comments below!

Exercising Your Dog

There’s a persistant myth that has gained popularity lately: if you exercise your dog more, it will fix any behavior problem from hyperactivity to aggression. We’ll discuss this common misconception next week.

Before we do so, I think we need to discuss normal exercise needs for dogs. All dogs need exercise. This includes both physical exercise, such as running or playing with other dogs, and mental exercise, such as training or working at a food puzzle toy. Dogs need both, and they need them regularly. If your dog is not receiving both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, you’re very likely to run into behavior problems. Even if you don’t find yourself dealing with serious issues, your dog probably won’t be very pleasant to live with, as a bored dog will find ways to amuse himself that you may not agree with.

Dexter the Mastiff follows his buddies on an off-leash walk. Dexter is 10 years old in this picture.

So, what is normal physical exercise for a dog? Physical exercise refers to cardiovascular exercise, which is any activity that increases your dog’s heart rate and respiration. Any physical activity that makes your dog pant (with the rare exception of stress panting) is an example of cardiovascular exercise.

Read the above sentence again: activities that make your dog pant. Unless your dog is horribly obese or otherwise out of shape, leash walking is likely not appropriate physical activity. While leash walking does provide some benefit, it likely fits more in the category of mental exercise, as the dog is given the chance to look at and sniff unfamiliar things. Most dogs need much more than a walk on leash.

People sometimes tell me that they don’t need to exercise their dogs because they have a fenced-in yard. This is one of the worst traps you can fall into. Here’s the thing: dogs don’t do a very good job of self-exercising. Sure, a young dog will run around the yard. However, think of this as venting a teakettle when it’s getting close to whistling. The worst of the pressure has been released so the dog doesn’t explode, but he still has a lot of energy bottled up inside. Don’t assume that just because you have a fenced-in yard, your dog is getting enough physical exercise.

Each dog differs as to what physical exercise activities they enjoy the most. Try a variety of activities, and look for activities that the dog clearly enjoys without getting crazed and that result in a tired, contented pup after you’ve finished. Some of my dogs’ favorite activities include running alongside a bike (make sure to get a special attachment for your bike, such as a WalkyDog spring, for safety), off-leash hikes, running in the park on a long line (a 50′ leash), swimming, tug, playing with a spring pole, flirt pole work (occasionally), and playdates with doggy friends. Activities we avoid include fetch, regular/daily flirt pole work, and visits to the dog park. Layla has been trained to run on a treadmill indoors and loves to do so, but Dobby worries about the machine so we skip this activity for him. On the flip side, Dobby loves to pull weight with a special weight-pulling harness, which Layla doesn’t enjoy, so that’s his special thing.

Most young dogs need 30-60 minutes of solid physical exercise 5-6 days a week. This varies widely, but it’s a good starting point. Older dogs may need less.

In addition to physical exercise, dogs need daily mental exercise to be fulfilled. Mental exercise refers to anything that enriches your dog’s life and encourages him to use his brain. Mental exercise can be provided by letting your dog experience new smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, by encouraging him to solve puzzles, and by teaching him new skills. We’ll discuss mental exercise further in later posts, but the important thing to remember here is that it’s necessary to give your dog choices and let him explore and be creative on a regular basis. Dogs have an incredibly rich olfactory world around them that we’re largely unaware of, and this is a great resource to tap into if you’d like to help your dog feel more content.

In future posts, we’ll discuss appropriate mental enrichment as well as common issues with exercise, including inappropriate arousal and the SuperDog syndrome. In the meantime, please tell us about your dog’s exercise needs in the comment section below. How do you know when s/he has gotten enough? Which is more important for your dog, physical or mental stimulation? What’s your dog’s favorite exercise activity?