Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Importance of Exercise

The dogs stop to pose during a hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Exercise, along with good food and training, is one of the most important things in a dog’s life.  Unfortunately, many owners fail to fully capitalize on the benefits of thoughtful exercise.  As society in general has become less active, so have our dogs.  We no longer spend as much time outdoors and many of us have realized that it is not safe (or legal in many areas) to let our dogs roam around outside unsupervised.  Luckily, appropriate exercise promotes your dog’s bond with you, increases your relevance in his life, encourages training and provides your dog with the mental and physical stimulation that will help him settle and behave the rest of the day.  A nice side effect of a thoughtful exercise program for your dog is that it can help you get in better shape too.    

There are certain types of exercise that are better than others.  Great ways to exercise your dog include:
  • Running or walking (preferably off leash if your dog is reliable and you have a safe, legal area to do this; if not, on leash)
  • Structured play with you AND rules (you and your dog play together outside, you run the game and make the rules)

There are many positive benefits to exercising with your dog.  When we train a dog, we want to be one of the most important things in his life.  For most dogs, exercising and playing outside are the biggest highlights of their day (other than mealtime).  We want to be involved in leading and directing these activities because it will make us an even more important part of their lives and help them look to us for leadership and direction.  If you put your dog outside (by himself or with another dog) or pop him on a treadmill you are missing out on this important bonding opportunity. 

Exercise through walking or running also provides important mental stimulation for your dog.  Not only is he listening to your cues (speed up, slow down, wait at the corner), he is also being exposed to new environments, sights and smells – even if this is the same route you walk most days.  These environmental stimuli will help to satisfy his natural curiousity (wearing him out mentally) while providing ongoing socialization and training opportunities and making him more confident.  New routes provide even more mental stimulation and training opportunities.

Now, walking at human speeds is admittedly a little boring for most active dogs.  Two things you can do to really improve the activity for your dog is to walk very briskly or even to run in short spurts.  Now maybe you are saying to yourself, “Hey, I’m no athlete!  I’m not a runner” and I totally understand.  Until five or six years ago, I didn’t run either.  In fact, I still can’t quite call myself a “runner”.  You don’t have to a runner to shake up your next dog walk, just include five or six 30 second jogging intervals into your walk and watch how your dog lights up.  (I’ll discuss how to start running with your dog in a future note.)  I am always amazed at the way my new foster dogs light up when I run with them for the first time.  It’s like they are realizing, “Hey, she runs too.  How cool is that!!  We must be a pack.”

Maybe you have limited mobility or don’t have a good place to walk or run with your dog.  That’s okay, aim for constructive play.  Games of fetch or tug where you make and enforce consistent rules provide you dog with exercise and training opportunities at the same time.  Teach him to drop his toy on command (or have a second toy handy while he’s learning this skill), then ask him to perform a behavior like sit or lie down before you throw the toy.

NOT great ways to exercise your dog include:
  • Letting him run around outside alone – in a fenced in area or not
  • Unsupervised play with another dog
  • Boisterous play where your dog is running the game
  • Running him to “tire him out” without applying rules, structure or providing mental stimulation
  • Using a treadmill (unless recommended by a veterinarian for rehabilitation purposes of course)

Interestingly enough, dogs left alone outside may fall into one of two categories.  If the dog is not in a fenced enclosure and has the right temperament, he may run off and be gone for long periods of time.  Of course, he is at risk of being hit by a car, being shot for chasing livestock or wildlife (whether he really is or someone just thinks he might) or any number of other risks while he is gone.  On the other hand, many dogs when left outside alone don’t do much of anything.  My crew will sit outside the door and wait for me to come out.  They get very little exercise unless I am there to lead the fun and games.   

Unsupervised play with another dog increases you dog’s bond with the other dog, but not with you.  This can make training more difficult since he will be more concerned with the other dog than you.  Also, unsupervised play can lead to rough or inappropriate play that the dogs come to think of as normal.  If they then try to play the same way with other dogs, it can lead to issues.  Finally, there is always the concern that dogs, like children, may accidentally hurt each other.  Play can escalate to out of control levels or a dog may catch his teeth in another dog’s collar leading to a strangling risk.  By all means, let your dog play with other dogs but make sure you are there and supervising the fun.

Some dogs can become overstimulated by the wrong sorts of play.  If your dog gets overexcited, jumping and nipping when you try to play fetch or tug, letting him play out of control can actually make the situation worse.  If this is the case, you need to step in and make sure you are running the game.  Ignore your dog and refuse to play until he provides you with a polite behavior like sit or down.  Keep a longline on him if necessary to make sure you can take the toy back when you want it.  Teach him to drop a toy and leave it so you can control the game.  Teach him that he has to sit or lie down between throws for you to keep participating in the game.  Make sure you are starting and ending the game and put the toy away between games so it is “your toy” that you choose to share with him. 

Have you ever looked at your boisterous dog and wished you could pop him on the treadmill for 30 minutes while you watch your favorite show?  Maybe you’ve seen it done on tv and thought, “Hey, I wish I could do that with Rowdy!”  Except for rare occasions, I don’t recommend putting your dog on the treadmill.  Exercising your dog by walking, running or playing with him offers many more benefits than just wearing him out.  Popping your dog in the treadmill (or out in the back yard by himself for that matter) misses out on these benefits while carrying risks.

There are certain risks inherent to using a treadmill for dog exercise.  Treadmills require training and direct supervision during their use.  You can never walk away from a dog on a treadmill.  At this point, the two of you might as well be walking together outside and enjoy the changing scenery (the exception of course is if your dog is undergoing some form of physical therapy for which the treadmill is recommended).  Additionally, treadmills can put additional strain on your dog’s joint due to their action and the constant speed.  On a treadmill, your dog cannot speed up or slow down to a rate that is comfortable for him based on his gait or fatigue level like he can outside.  If not closely supervised, this can put excessive stress on his cardiovascular system and his joints.  Used inappropriately, treadmills can result in injury or even death of the dog.

Many people who let their dogs run loose outside or ask about putting their dog on a treadmill are looking for a way to wear out an over active dog or to exercise a dog with poor leash manners.  Unfortunately, many of these dogs aren’t just lacking exercise (which many of them are!) but they are also lacking appropriate leadership, training and direction.  For these dogs, providing additional exercise to wear them out physically without addressing the other issues present simply results in highly conditioned canine athletes.  These same dogs then require even more exercise to wear them out next time!  These dogs learn best when they have a structured exercise program and then additional training at home that helps them learn to walk politely onleash, settle and respect appropriate boundaries. 

So grab your leash and your walking shoes and head out the door for a walk and some structured playtime with your dog.  It will be good for your dog, mentally and physically, it will be good for your relationship, and it will be good for you too!


  1. I like to play hide and seek for treats and use puzzle balls when they eat. I also include a treadmill walk for my dogs when it's raining. It doesn't matter which treadmill they use as long as they're comfortable with it and you're supervising at all times.

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