When pet owners complain about the problems they are having with their dogs, well-meaning but uninformed friends and neighbors often tell them their dog simply needs more exercise. All too often, however, the answer does not lie in physical exercise alone. With a little understanding of dog behavior, owners may find that fixing the issues underlying the undesired behaviors are easier than they thought.
Prospective dog owners contemplating purchasing that puppy or adopting the adolescent dog may not consider that the dog’s needs extend past feeding on a regular basis, providing shelter and the occasional trip to the veterinarian. Although dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, the instinctive behaviors hard-wired into dogs’ genetic code which pertain to survival are still very similar to those of its ancestors. The most frequently seen behaviors that relate to instinct are those that involve hunting, killing and eating (prey drive), cooperating with the pack to either increase the probability of eating or for safety (pack drive) and responses to a real or perceived threat (defense drive). Left to their own devices, dogs’ innate instincts often result in behaviors that their owners find inappropriate or unacceptable. By understanding and channeling those instincts into acceptable behaviors, owners can reduce their frustration with their pet and, at the same time, improve their dog’s mental and physical well-being.
While most owners are aware that physical exercise is necessary to maintain good health, a focus on physical exercise alone, without addressing the dogs’ need for mental exercise as well, results in an improvement in stamina and increased energy. Without a suitable outlet for this increased energy the unsuspecting pet owner may find the dog has even more ebullience than before and that the “problem” behaviors have not improved. Dogs which are sufficiently exercised, both physically and mentally, are less likely to be considered “problem” dogs by their owners.
Before starting physical exercise with a dog it is a good idea to make an appointment with a veterinarian to ensure the dog is in good health. The type or amount of exercise undertaken with a dog will depend, in large part, upon the dog’s age, physical structure (conformation), general health and prior injuries. As with any fitness program, it is important to begin slowly and increase the frequency and duration of exercise gradually. The type of exercise can vary from day to day, but, like their owners, dogs are more likely to suffer injuries if only exercised on weekends. Regular exercise is good for both the pet and owner.
Some of the more common ways to exercise a dog are walking, jogging or biking. While walking may not provide sufficient exercise to an adolescent Labrador or Golden Retriever, it is the perfect exercise for many older dogs or smaller breeds. Common sense should be employed when exercising any dog. In warmer weather it is critical to watch for signs of overheating. Exercising in the early morning or evening hours are safer when the temperatures are high during the day. However, because physical exertion raises body temperature, dogs can suffer from heat exhaustion even if the outside temperatures are not high. High humidity increases the risk of elevated body temperatures. If the pavement or the road is too hot for a person to comfortably touch, it is also too hot for a dog to walk on. In cold weather there are other concerns. Snow and ice can accumulate between the pads of the feet causing lameness. Cold, dry air dries out the nasal membranes and reduces the effectiveness of panting. In extreme cold short-coated dogs may not be able to keep core temperatures up and many dogs are susceptible to frostbite of the ears. When weather is not conducive to outdoor exercise, a good way to exercise a dog inside is using retrieving and a long hallway. Dogs of all breeds and ages can be taught to retrieve a ball or toy.
Mental exercise, using the dog’s natural instincts, is an important component of a dog’s emotional health. It often tires a dog faster than physical exercise and has a dramatic impact upon the dog’s general behavior.
For dogs left out during the day, their normal ration of kibble can be strewn in the yard forcing the dog to “hunt” its meal. (Again, use common sense — if the backyard is full of ant hills this is not an appropriate way to feed a dog.)
Indoors, a dog’s natural instincts can be utilized in several ways. To stimulate the activities involved in hunting and to teach a dog to use its nose, an owner can play “go find” with dogs of any size or breed. If the dog doesn’t have a solid sit/stay, a leash can be used to tether the dog to a doorknob or solid piece of furniture. A treat is placed in plain sight in front of the dog and the dog is released with a “go find” command. As the dog begins to catch on to this game, the difficulty is increased by placing the treat behind a piece of furniture. In short order, the treat can be hidden in a different room, out of sight. (Hiding the treat on a bookshelf is not a good idea unless the owner wants the dog to develop its abilities to climb furniture.)
Another way to use hunting behaviors is to take a rag, place a dog treat in it and loosely knot the rag around the treat. As the dog gets better at dissecting the treat from the rag the knots can be made more secure and harder to take apart. More than one treat and one knot can be placed in a rag to keep a dog occupied for a longer period of time. For dogs that are not prone to ingesting inappropriate materials, a variation of this game is to use an old stuffed animal which has had the potentially dangerous plastic parts removed. A small slit is made in the animal and a dog treat is placed inside. The stuffed animal can then be tossed away from the dog with a command to “kill it.” (Associating a command with the toy reduces the likelihood of the dog dissecting other objects.) These games can be combined with “go find” to increase the difficulty for the dog.
Food can be put inside Buster Cubes®, activity balls or other similar toys as a method of feeding a dog. The dog then learns how to manipulate the object so that kibble falls out through the holes. (For overly enthusiastic dogs, this may not be a good indoor activity.)
Other problem solving games can involve placing the food dish or a toy under a box or other obstacle where the dog has to learn to pull on a rope to remove the dish or toy from under the box or obstacle. While some dogs may need help initially to figure this out, after they have been successful once or twice, most dogs can figure out even more complicated tasks after a short period of time.
By being creative owners can design a number of ways to mentally challenge and stimulate their dog. With each new game, it is important to start at a level where the dog is successful before increasing the complexity and difficulty of the task.