You may have heard the saying, “A tired dog is a good dog!”
There’s a common perception among pet owners that exercise is the solution to any and all behavior issues. Like you can take the most unruly dog, and just wear them out and they will be tolerable. Famous dog trainers like Cesar Milan have toted the benefits of exercise for behavior issues. While exercise is essential and highly beneficial to health and well-being, there is more to good behavior than just exercise. Just like children learn which set of behaviors is appropriate for various environments, dogs must learn, too. There are places and times when it’s appropriate to let loose, to run, jump, sniff, pee, and play. But there are also times and places when you must be on your best behavior, and display self-discipline, control, and calmness.
A tired dog is a tired dog. Nothing more, nothing less.
Exercise as a solution to behavior problems
Mary Customer: “My dog is so crazy and ill-behaved!”
Joe Trainer: “He just needs more exercise.”
Mary Customer: “Maybe I should take him on an extra walk, and join an agility class, yes, that’s what I’ll do!”
While the idea of agility and an extra walk are nice, they are not practical solutions. First, I would like to define exactly what the dogs imbalance is, why it is being described as “crazy, ill-behaved,” and what role the owner is playing in it. Agility training is a sport, not a behavioral solution. It is typically a once a week class, for one hour. Realistically, one hour a week will not alter your dogs behavior. It’s the routine things, what we do every day, that has the most effect. Also, in order to do sports like agility, you must have a basic foundation of obedience on the dog, so they take direction when off-leash. It’s best to begin with solid obedience before progressing into hobby sports.
As we increase exercise, we build endurance. A well-conditioned athlete can perform with the minimum effort. So the issue becomes that the 5-mile jog routine you began is no longer producing the same fatigue in your dog. You are only conditioning him to the activity.
When exercise is not enough
It’s not unheard of for a very tired dog to still be able to muster up the energy to freak out when his owners leave him alone in the house. The level of anxiety and mental confusion in that dog was not going to be overcome with a marathon run. Every dog needs boundaries and to learn them, they need feedback on what is ok, and what is not ok. It is not ok for a dog to put human belongings in his mouth, and therefore every time a dog tries that, they need to be consistently corrected and redirected. People tend to like dogs that are appropriate for the situation. In the house, calmness is usually appreciated. There are many cues for excitement, but how can we turn those into cues for calm? Let’s say your dog goes nuts when you pick up their leash. They jump, they run around in circles, and they bark at you. The leash has become a conditioned cue for the excitement of going for a walk. We want to re-condition it for a cue for obedient and calm behavior. Dogs learn by association and repetition. Using that information, we are going to re-structure the entire way our walks are done.
A holistic view of your dog
As trainers, we must view each dog as an individual, with particular needs. One of the needs every dog has is to know what is expected of him. Let’s go back to the case of separation anxiety. How can expectations affect a dog with separation anxiety? If leadership is clear, and a relationship is balanced, the simple act of putting a dog inside a crate and leaving has changed. It becomes “My human put me here, so here I shall remain.” In the case of dogs who are young and destructive, exercise will help taper that, but only because they don’t have the energy to tear the house up. The problem is, life can change, and one week you may be just too busy to give your dog a 5-mile jog every day. The great thing about dogs is they are adaptable. If you are busy one day, ill, or have to work late and don’t have the time to provide the normal level of exercise and stimulation, your dog (ideally) will adjust to that. But they have to be taught what is and is not acceptable behavior.
- Vary your activities
- Go for a walk in a new place
- Try new exercises
- Utilize the dogs senses, including smell, such as scent detection
- Include mental exercise
- Teach a solid foundation of obedience and work it often
- Teach your dog to follow you
- Appropriate behavior for the context and situation
- Only reward behaviors that you want to see continue