Dogs and Maslow, part 3. Dogs and Exercise

Next up, exercise! I’m skipping food, as I covered this in a previous post (Dogs and Diet).

So, we all know that exercise is vital to a dog’s wellbeing, but unfortunately, I see a lot of dogs having the wrong sort of exercise. I always feel like the fun police saying this, but the cardinal sin of doggy exercise is repetitive ball/stick/frisbee throwing! There are a couple of issues with this. One is that the dogs can become obsessive about the game. They can become addicted to the dopamine that’s released when performing repetitive activities (in this case, running, fetching, returning), and react with signs of stress when ball play is interrupted or ceases. Think of all the dogs you’ve seen jumping up manically at their owners, eyes wide, barking frantically and waiting for the ball to be thrown again.

The other issue is also stress-related. We talk about good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress), but the physiological effects of stress on the body are the same whether the stress is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When your dog bounds after that ball, it’s the prey response kicking in. And with that, comes the fight or flight hormones, like adrenalin, and later, cortisol. Adrenalin rises and falls relatively quickly, but cortisol rises more slowly, and drops more slowly. It can take days for your dogs stress hormone levels to return to normal levels, and if another stressful incident takes place in the meantime (anything that’s going to raise those hormone levels again- more ball throwing, an incident with another dog, an exciting event, a scary event, etc), those hormones, particularly cortisol, will begin rising from an already elevated level, and take even longer to reduce. The dog can end up in a state of chronic stress, and recovery from this state (once the stressors have been removed) can take close to a year. A chronically stressed dog can suffer from a compromised immune system, reactivity, poor social skills, skin disorders, stomach problems, and many other problems.

Another type of exercise that’s not going to tick all of the boxes for your dog is going for a run with you or running beside a bike. This removes most of the opportunities for mental stimulation- socialising, sniffing, etc. It should also be born in mind that dogs don’t need a huge amount of intensive cardiovascular exercise. You are also removing any possibility for the dog to make a choice- imagine if you were running and got a stitch, and were forced to continue on? Or hurt your foot and couldn’t take a minute to recover? Or had just had enough and needed a break and a drink?

So, what should we be doing?

For young puppies, (3-6 months) the rule of thumb is 5 minutes per month of life, twice a day. So that’s two 15 minute walks at 3 months, two 20 minute walks at 4 months, etc. My advice is to be conservative with exercise for the first 12-18 months of your dog’s life, when their skeleton is still developing. People often ask me if it’s ok for puppies to play themselves in the garden, on top of these walks. So long as they are playing themselves (i.e. not being chased or having balls thrown for them), that’s fine, as they are learning how to move their bodies in a variety of ways. It’s the repetitive motion of walking or running that can be harsh on their little soft skeletons.

People are often concerned that their puppies don’t want to walk. This is quite common in puppies, but as they hit puberty, and their sense of smell becomes more developed, the outside world becomes more interesting. In the meantime, don’t try and bring them too far (remember the 5 minute per month of life twice a day rule), or make them walk too quickly. Take it slowly. You can also help make the world more interesting by scatter feeding them on their walks, pointing out things that will smell interesting, or walking with other dogs or puppies. But remember, the world can be a scary place for a young dog, so if your dog seems afraid, don’t force it. If he just wants to go as far as the front gate initially, that’s fine. Let him investigate and experience things at a level he’s comfortable with, and his confidence will grow.

At a talk I attended last year delivered by Turid Rugaas, an internationally renowned trainer and behaviourist, she advised that in her experience, when given the choice and allowed to plot their own route for a walk, dogs choose to walk for around half an hour. If your dog is restless and unable to settle after a walk, it most likely means you’ve overdone the walking, and not the reverse. She also advised that these walks should be walks, not runs or trots or gallops. Cardiovascular exercise should be limited to short sessions 3 or 4 times a week.

A nice, calm walk is a good stress reliever for your dog (and you!), so try not to rush, and let your dog take his time. Vary your walks so your dog isn’t always visiting the same places. You can let your dog choose the route, and find out where his favourite places are- they mightn’t be the places you expect! My dogs love the local graveyard. Lots of foxes and squirrels live there, and my dogs can quite happily spend hours just slowly mooching around in there, noses down! They’ll circle back on themselves, go back and forth, stop to chew some spring grass or sniff the air, and just generally potter about. They’re always very relaxed and tired after these sniffpeditions, and quite happily snooze for hours!

If you live in an apartment, or your dog does not have easy access to the garden, you may need to have more frequent, shorter walks to make sure your dog has enough toileting opportunities.

Remember… for a dog, walking is not about getting exercise or getting from point A to point B. It’s about enjoying the experience, exploring and most importantly, sniffing!  Dogs’ primary sense is smell, so let them sniff! It’s great mental stimulation and your dog will be more tired and relaxed after a walk where he’s done lots of sniffing- trees, lampposts, grassy areas, bins, other dogs’ business


[Image courtesy of the CBT Partnership]

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