Okay, okay, I hear you. All I ever seem to drone on and on about is mental stimulation in training. But what about physical exercise?
The reason I spend so much time talking about mental stimulation and mental exercise is because I think it was one of the aspects of dog ownership that is most frequently neglected. Physical exercise (which I will shorten here as just “exercise” but it is still important to keep in mind that there are other types of exercise your dog needs besides just physical) seems to me to be a given. Unfortunately, I have been noticing more and more, that for many, it’s not.
All you have to do is walk into any veterinarian’s office to see that exercise is something that many dog owners are neglecting. Which, if you think about the country as a whole, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the table below, which lists the obesity rates for people by state.
2010 State Obesity Rates
|District of Columbia||22.2||Massachusetts||23.0||North Dakota||27.2||Washington||25.5|
Yikes! A recent study conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that 53% of dogs and 55% of cats were overweight and 21.4% of dogs and 24.9% of cats were classified as obese. Strikingly, 93.4% of pet owners identified pet obesity as a big problem. However, many of these pet owners had no idea that their own pets were overweight. The correlation isn’t hard to match up. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, how can we take care of our pets?
Of course, just like you, your pet needs proper diet and exercise which is such a simple formula. Simple, but not easy, like many things dog. In the bustle of our daily lives, sometimes it’s hard to make time to exercise ourselves, let alone exercise our dogs. And our dogs are oh so happy just snuggled up on the couch with mom or dad after a long day at work that it can be hard to separate yourself from their warmth. I know; I’m guilty as charged.
It’s very difficult for me to get up off the couch after I have sat down from a long day at work. That’s why I pretty much don’t do it. When I get home, I immediately set about getting whatever housework I need done, done. Right away. Because I know if I don’t, I’m doomed. I put down my purse, give Joe a kiss and head down to the basement to fold that pesky laundry or into the kitchen to finish the dishes. If I sit down, it’s game over. One of the things I do almost as soon as I get home, is take the dogs out to play, while I still have some energy left over. It also, conveniently, puts me in a better mood, even if I have had a particularly stressful day at work.
That’s not to say I’m as thin as I once was. I used to be a runner; I would run up to nine miles a day, every day. I rode my horse constantly; I was working at a barn, doing heavy lifting and sweating. I was 5’ 7” and weighed 108 pounds soaking weight. And then, of course, I grew up. My metabolism slowed, I got a sedentary job; I just…slowed down. Exercising became more of a chore to me than the fun it used to be. But that’s where some of us differ from our dogs.
Dogs like to exercise. It is most certainly one of their favorite pastimes, besides eating, of course. It doesn’t take much, if any, work to enthuse your dog about exercise. Even the most sedentary of breeds enjoys a good romp every once in a while. But for those of us who have the less sedentary breeds, we have our work cut out for us in the exercise department.
While running up and down the steps cleaning, doing laundry, dishes, dusting, etc. may be a good enough workout for me (which it probably isn’t, but I like to tell myself it is), doesn’t mean it’s good enough exercise for my dogs. They need a little more. They’re herding dogs; they were born to work all day long. Exercise for the more high energy breeds like German Shepherds, Border Collies, Cattle Dogs, Sheepdogs, etc. needs to be measured in hours, not minutes. And that’s tough.
What’s even more difficult is deciding what the right exercise program is for your dog. Because, unlike some would have you believe, exercise, like training, is not a “one size fits all” formula. The exercise that is right for your dog depends on breed, age, size, temperament and health.
The most important thing to keep in mind when designing your pup’s exercise plan is that the exercise needs to be fun. Remember what I said about feeling like exercise is more of a “chore” for me than it used to be? I think that’s what has happened all over the country, with all kinds of people and consequently, their pets. Exercise shouldn’t be a “chore”, not for you and not for your dog. Exercise is fun, it should be fun. It releases all kinds of happy chemicals to you and your canine partner’s brain, but if you set about it with the wrong attitude (like me), you will end up miserable, no matter how hard the adrenaline is pumping. Mind over matter, mind over matter. For me, horseback riding was always my way of exercising and having fun at the same time. I also really enjoy skiing. Unfortunately, since my injury, horseback riding is no longer an option for me, and skiing isn’t a year round possibility, nor is it particularly affordable. I recently discovered the wonderful world of the Kinect, and I am, fortunately, starting to have some fun exercising again. Now that the weather is getting nice, I am starting to work outside more, take the dogs on walks, and hopefully, get back into shape. If you, like me, find yourself having trouble exercising your dog because you feel too tired or too busy, take a step back and reevaluate the “fun” factor in your dog’s exercise. I can almost guarantee you, if you find a few activities that you both enjoy, you will be finding all kinds of time in your day to have fun (i.e. exercise) with your dog.
The easiest way to get your dog some great exercise and wear them out at the same time is to do anything where you stay engaged with your dog. If you just put him outside or leave her alone in a room with an exercise ball, he/she most likely isn’t going to exercise. He/she is going to be waiting for you to come back. That’s what we love most about dogs, though, isn’t it?
You don’t have to be athletic to get your dog exercise and stay engaged with him either. There are tons of ways that your dog can get plenty of exercise, you can stay engaged together and even work on training all at the same time. For example, we have a run line for Smokey. It’s a long cable that stretches from our house about 100 yards back and wraps around a tree (conveniently, it also doubles as a clothesline for me in the summer). We take a mountain climbing hook, attach it to a 12 foot lead rope for horses and hook one end to Smokey’s collar and the other end to the line. We stand on one end of the run line and throw the ball. He runs after it, brings it back. We don’t have to move. Nor do we have to worry about Smokey running off and us having to go chase him. No fence and no human movement necessary. It’s also good for training. Joe and I stand on opposite ends of the line and call come, clicking and feeding treats every time Smokey comes to us. He runs 100 yards for a tiny little sliver of cheese, gets a good workout, and gets some training in as well. And his tail wags the whole time.
For the winter months, we set up obstacle courses in the house. We will put curtain rods in between door frames, set up boxes and chairs and have the dogs jump over them or run around them or get up on top of them. Our house isn’t very big, so we have to repeat a lot of the same jumps over and over, but the dogs really couldn’t care less. As long as we keep cheering them on, paying attention to them and feeding them the occasional snack, their tails keep wagging.
If your dog is better at coming than Smokey, like Shelby is, off leash play is always an option, as is swimming, a great, low level impact sport for dogs of all ages. Unfortunately, neither of our dogs really care for the water L. Although, I must of course caution you that off leash play can be terribly dangerous if your dog won’t come back reliably on cue. I wouldn’t recommend this as your primary method of exercise unless you are truly, truly confident in your dog’s recall.
The other thing to keep in mind when designing your exercise plan is your dog’s age. Most vets won’t recommend high intensity aerobic exercise until the dog is at least 18 months of age. This kind of exercise can be detrimental to your dog’s growing bones and joints, not to mention, many young puppies get tired very quickly and forcing them to keep going when they are tired can create cranky puppies, cranky puppies can be just as bad, if not worse, than bored puppies.
In addition, most vets don’t recommend long duration aerobic exercise for any dog. Yep, I know it seems crazy, but that’s the truth. Dogs were not designed to run or jog for miles on end without stopping. If you consider the way dogs work, really work, they work in short bursts of speed. Then they wander off, sniff the flowers, go to the bathroom, or dig a hole. Anyone who has had the wonderful opportunity to watch his dog just enjoying himself outside can attest to this. They sprint full speed and then a piece of grass catches their noses and they stop and sniff, walk around, then keep running. They run and fetch the stick at top speed then they lay down halfway back and start chewing on it. They aren’t being disobedient, they’re just resting. Your dog knows more about his or her limits than you do, so don’t underestimate him. Our dogs spend hours exercising, running around, but we never really work them hard for more than about 15 minutes at a time. If they stop to chew the ball after the 10th throw, we let them. I wouldn’t want someone to force me to keep at it when I was tired, that’s no fun at all. And, like all things dog, you want to try and keep it fun as much as possible. Your dog will love you all the more for it.
We have a saying in our house: “We train even when we play, because training is nothing but play, and play is nothing but training.” Variety is very important in this equation, because it’s not much fun if you do the same thing over and over. It’s not engaging, and it’s not training, and it’s not playing. Just like you mix up your puppy’s toys to prevent boredom, you should mix up your play as well. Tug, swim, jump, run, fetch, walk, sniff, dig, wrestle, chase, hide, it doesn’t matter, just keep it fun. Your dog will adore it just because you’re there.
 To see the results of the full study, please follow this link: http://www.petobesityprevention.com/big-pets-get-bigger-latest-survey-shows-dog-and-cat-obesity-epidemic-expanding/
 While I don’t address diet in this blog, I would like to quickly mention that if you are training with treats (which I hope you are) be sure to cut back on your dog’s meals to prevent overfeeding. For puppies just beginning training, you can just as easily allot some of the kibble they would get for breakfast to train throughout the day. If you are using training treats, meat, cheese, etc. just make sure to use very small pieces and cut back on meal portions. Portion control is the key to staving off obesity when training with food reinforcers.
 For more information on the benefits and dangers of exercise, please visit the ASPCA’s website and read their fabulous article on exercise: http://www.aspcabehavior.org/articles/66/Exercise-for-Dogs.aspx