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.
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?