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The Importance of Exercising your Dog
Exercise should be a daily part of our routine with our dogs. But why? Is it really that important?
Exercise is a basic instinctual need that needs to be fulfilled so that our dogs may live a long and happy life.
There could be serious issues that arise when our dogs are not provided with exercise, which we will get into. There are obvious physical benefits. When our dogs exercise, they are in good shape and will prevent obesity, joint issues, and a long list of other medical problems later in life. Being in overall good health is going to help in building our dog’s confidence, however, if we allow our dogs to live in a sedentary lifestyle we can actually increase the chances of causing behavioral issues such as anxiety, insecurity, or even aggression.
Additionally, being the one that provides your dog with exercise is a very powerful position from your dog’s perspective. When we are training our dogs, we make it a point to be the one that provides them with food. Remember, food is an instinctual need required in order to survive. The food coming from us is very powerful from the dog’s perspective, as we are the ones providing them with what they need to survive. Exercise is no different. By being the one to provide them with the instinctual need of exercise, our bond will strengthen, their trust and respect in us will grow, as will their confidence.
Our dog’s ancestor is the wolf. We have learned a lot about our dogs by studying the wolf. Wolves exercise on a daily basis, they must in order to survive. They will frequently patrol their territory, they engage in play behavior with their packmates, they stalk, hunt, and kill their prey, and they migrate to new territories from time to time.
All of these are forms of exercise the wolf partakes in. Now our dog’s lives are not as dramatic as the wolf’s, as they do not live in the wild. Yet, they still need some of the same things the wolves do when it comes to exercise. That is where it is important for us to provide them with these activities. Exercise that simulates some of these activities can be very productive in fulfilling our dog’s needs. When hunting, wolves chase, catch, and bite their prey. While we may not advise you to let your dogs chase and kill all the squirrels in your backyard, we can fulfill this need through games of fetch or tug, which we will get into in a minute.
Let’s talk about some of the problems that could arise from not providing our dogs with exercise. The first of which is simply under-stimulation. There is a book by Roger Abrantes called “Dog Language – An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior.” I would highly recommend this book if you would like to increase your knowledge in understanding your dog’s behavior. I like his description of under-stimulation.
He says, “A dog is under-stimulated when it is given insufficient opportunity to use and develop its inborn abilities and satisfy its needs.”
As we have discussed, exercise is an instinctual need, and it must be satisfied in our dogs or they will become understimulated. When we encounter dogs with problem behaviors, in almost every case, under-stimulation is part of the root cause for the undesirable behaviors. Understimulation will lead to unwanted behaviors.
Signs of Under-Stimulation in Dogs
When understimulated, our dogs have pent up energy, and that energy must go somewhere. You may see things like chewing on furniture or everything else in your house. You may see your dog pacing frantically around the house. Your dog may bark non stop at every little sound or movement they see out the window. They may crave your attention when you are home and become pushy or start mouthing you. These are all a few examples of some outlets of energy when dealing with underestimation. These are also examples of anxiety, another cause of under-stimulation.
Anxiety and insecurity go hand and hand with underestimation. Your dog may whine a lot or bark when they are frustrated. These behaviors may not seem anything more than annoying to some people. But when these behaviors get continually reinforced over a period of time, they can get worse and even develop into dangerous behaviors.
We have seen anxiety and insecurity develop into a wide array of unsafe behaviors. We have seen aggression towards the owners, towards strangers, children, other dogs, etc. We have seen holes chewed in walls, couches demolished, carpet ripped up. We have even seen cases where dogs will inflict harm upon themselves by chewing on their tail or other parts of their bodies until they bleed.
These are not healthy ways for our dogs to live. When we assess dogs with these types of undesirable behaviors and talk about behavior modification, exercise is the first prescription. Obviously, there is a lot that goes into training our dogs, but productive and healthy exercise is where we start in order to address these issues long term. Bottom line, by providing our dogs with exercise, we are fulfilling their instinctual needs, and preventing unhealthy habits from forming.
2 Elements of Exercise:
Physical Stimulation & Mental Stimulation
There are two elements to exercise that should always be considered: Physical and Mental stimulation.
Physical stimulation is working the body while mental stimulation is working the mind. The two can and should be done together, but there should be a balance. I have seen dogs with anxiety that were in very good shape and could handle hours of physical stimulation per day. If you only do physical stimulation without mental stimulation, you could be increasing their ability to be anxious, as we are not addressing the mind. By incorporating mental stimulation, we can better balance our dog’s energy levels so they will be in a healthier state of mind at all times.
Some examples of physical stimulation would be going for a walk, run, or bike ride with our dogs. We can condition our dogs on a treadmill so they can walk or run.
Some examples of mental stimulation would be practicing obedience commands or hiding food or toys and allowing our dogs to search and find it.
You can incorporate both mental and physical stimulation in games such as fetch or tug. The dog is physically stimulated by running and chasing a ball and they would be mentally stimulated by performing behaviors such as obedience in order for the ball to be thrown by us.
Structure Excercise For Dogs Vs Unstructured Excercise
The next thing we want to consider when talking about exercise is structure. We wrote a whole article about structure and why it’s vital for our dogs that you can read here. We always recommend structured exercise as opposed to unstructured exercise.
Unstructured exercise as an example would be just simply letting them outside in the backyard to run around while we stay in the house. Or letting our dog loose in a dog park to run around with other dogs while we sit in a corner on our phone. I am not necessarily saying we shouldn’t be able to just let our dogs out in the backyard. But if this is your only method of exercising your dog, you may be inviting trouble.
You also need to keep in mind, these are scenarios in which we are not in control. There is no structure involved. Our dogs are free to do as they wish. Sometimes that means digging holes, jumping the fence, pacing up and down the fence line, barking at other dogs as they pass by our house, and the list goes on. These things can build anxiety and reinforce undesirable behaviors because we are not there to guide our dog’s actions. Letting our dog into a dog park with other dogs we do not know, could put your dog in a bad situation, which could develop insecurity or even aggression. And worse, this can degrade our dog’s trust in us.
Are our dogs getting exercise in these situations? Sure. But at what cost and we must ask is this a healthy form of exercise in the best interest of our dogs.
Structured exercise is much healthier. We encourage exercising your dogs in methods where you are in control at all times. I do allow my dogs to run around in my backyard, but I am out there with them to control the environment. If I allow my dogs to play with other dogs, I am there paying very close attention. If I see body language that I do not like, or the playing is beginning to get out of hand, I am in control and can put a stop to it.
When we walk our dogs, they should not be pulling us on the leash, we control our route, the pace we walk, and our dog’s behavior through the entire walk. We have an article specifically about teaching your dog to not pull on a leash you can read here. By being involved with our dog’s exercise, we build experiences. By going through these experiences we strengthen our bond with our dog. They learn that we are effective leaders, someone they can look up to and trust. This helps to build their confidence and prevents things such as insecurity and anxiety.
To recap, exercise is a crucial component of our dog’s lives. It fulfills our dog’s instinctual needs to run, chase, bite, walk, and think through various scenarios. If we do not provide our dogs with a healthy and productive means of exercise, they will become under-stimulated and their energy will go into undesirable behaviors.
We must balance our exercise between physical and mental stimulation so that we are properly balancing our dog’s energy levels in a healthy way. We want to always be involved not only in our dog’s exercise but their lives as a whole. We should always be in control so that our dogs will always rely on us.
Through exercise, we strengthen our bond with our dogs and can enjoy a long, happy, and healthy life with them.
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