I believe pets are among God's greatest gifts to us. They offer not just companionship but also unconditional love.
My High-Energy Dog
Several years ago, I made a rash decision to adopt a dog. I walked into my local animal shelter, was smitten by a small pup, and took him home.
Within 24 hours of arriving home from the shelter, I knew I was in trouble. My new dog was in perpetual motion, and I had no idea what I was doing. Those first weeks were absolutely draining as I struggled to control his energy and properly care for him.
It got so bad that I even considered returning him to the shelter. However, I felt I owed it to him and myself to at least make an honest effort before giving up.
I called my vet and dog trainers at my local pet stores for advice. The shelter had connected me with some other great resources, and I contacted those, too. In addition, I surfed the internet like crazy for ideas on how to control my new pet's high energy levels and how to tire him out.
What ended up working was a combination of good advice from professionals and some good ol' trial-and-error. Every dog is different, but here's what has worked to keep my dog's energy level manageable and maintain my sanity in the process.
How to Wear Out a High-Energy Dog or Puppy
- Take your dog for long walks.
- Let your dog sniff around outside.
- Throw treats into the grass.
- Play games.
- Teach commands and tricks.
- Let your dog look out the window.
- Offer things to lick and chew on.
- Give your dog tons of TLC.
- Take trips to parks and nature.
- Visit new places.
1. Take Your Dog on Long Walks
Everyone knows that dogs need to be walked, but there are ways of structuring these excursions so that your pup burns energy and learns discipline at the same time.
Build Up to Longer Walks
When I first brought my pup home, our trips were short because I had to teach him how to walk on a leash. Gradually, our walks became longer. My vet told me to take him for two short walks every day—one in the morning and one in the evening—rather than one long walk per day.
This helped a lot. I would take him for a 20-minute walk after I woke up and another 20-minute walk at night. (Of course, I also took him out in between to do his business.) Sometimes I extended each session to 30 minutes so he ended up walking for 60 minutes every day.
Once my mutt was older, I would often take him for one long 40–60 minute walk per day rather than two shorter walks. This worked best with my work schedule and helped tire him out. On weekends, I usually take him for longer walks because I have more time.
Since my mutt appeared to have little to no socialization skills with other dogs, my vet suspected he came from a puppy mill and had been separated from his mother too early.
I signed my dog up for classes with an excellent trainer at Petco. He taught him how to walk better on a leash, using his own dog as a model. His dog was very calm and gentle, and my dog followed his lead. The four of us went on many walks together, and this helped my pup become more comfortable on a leash and feel more at ease with another dog.
This same trainer also organized some group dog walks with other dog owners. This gave my pup even more practice being on a leash and getting along with other canines, while also making the walks more interesting.
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Establish a Routine
I notice that, like humans, dogs thrive on consistency and routine. A regular walking schedule may reduce your pup's anxiety and help keep him calm.
During Covid, my work schedule was very inconsistent. I found it more challenging to have a regular walking schedule for my dog. I had to be intentional about getting back into a routine.
I noticed that my dog was much calmer when he knew what to expect. I also noticed that he fed off my anxiety, so if I could create a consistent routine for him, it would put both of us at ease.
Find a regular walking schedule that works best for you. Establishing a routine will give your pup consistency and help constructively manage his energy levels.
2. Let Your Dog Sniff Around
I initially wasn't sure how much I should let my dog sniff during our walks. I felt that too much stopping to smell the roses (literally) would defeat my goal of trying to wear him out.
Then I learned that allowing him to sniff outside provided him with mental exercise—a way for him to work his brain. Smell is a dog's most powerful sense, and he uses it to gather important information about his environment.
Taking my dog for long daily walks and allowing him to sniff his environment have hands down been the most effective strategies for tiring him out.
Smelling Is Like Social Networking for Dogs
A dog's constant stops to smell and sniff may seem superfluous, but this is actually an important activity called a "scent walk." In addition to their 300 million olfactory receptors, dogs also use special sensory cells in their nostrils to process the molecules and chemicals in a scent. Their brains convert these into messages, memories, and emotional responses.
Another component to dogs' special smelling powers is their unique vomeronasal organs, which can detect pheromones. When dogs behave strangely in the presence of another animal's secretions, this is called a “flehmen response,” which is triggered when they process pheromones and other volatile molecules.
All this is to say that sniffing is the primary way that dogs collect information about other animals in their environment. By smelling a tree, they can learn about other dogs in the area that stopped to mark this spot. In a way, when your dogs sniff during walks, it's kind of like they are scrolling through their Facebook newsfeeds. Smelling keeps their minds stimulated and activates them enough to also burn energy and help tire them out.
Of course, you should be sure to monitor their activity to ensure they're not consuming something noxious that could lead to sickness.
Switch Up the Walks
To keep things more engaging for my pup, I occasionally switch up our walking routes. I know his favorite paths and usually stick to those, but once in a while I take him a different way or turn a different corner. This provides him with more mental stimulation, as there are new sights and smells for him to process.
Use a Different Harness
Some owners use different harnesses on their dogs depending on the occasion. For example, when they take their dog out to run with them, they use one harness. When it's time for regular walks, they use a different harness. The dog learns to associate the first harness with running and no sniff time and the other harness with walks and allowed sniff time.
3. Throw Treats in the Grass
You've probably noticed that dogs instinctively love grass—sniffing it, eating it, rolling in it, etc. There are a number of proposed reasons for this:
- Grass is a repository for countless smells, including the scents left by other animals.
- Marking their territory.
- Masking their scent—a holdover from their pre-domestication days.
- Bringing social information back to the pack—another genetic remnant of their wolf origins.
- Feeling bonded with other dogs.
In general, letting your dog spend time in grassy areas will automatically stimulate his/her mind and body, burning energy in the process. But you can sweeten the deal by sprinkling goodies among the green blades. My dog absolutely loves to dig his nose into the grass after I've thrown a treat in it. He won't give up until he finds it, and this gives him another chance to use that strong sense of smell.
Whether I have him off-leash in a park or on leash on a sidewalk along grass, I simply toss a small morsel of food three to six feet in front of him and allow him to find it. The better the flavor, the greater his motivation to get it. To make it more challenging, you can gradually extend the distance you throw the food. If you have him on leash, be sure to keep it loose so he doesn't choke if he sprints for the treat too quickly!
Suggestions for Treats
- Kibbles (dry dog food morsels)
- Chopped-up carrots or apples
- Frozen tiny peanut butter balls (without xylitol)
- Plain Cheerios
- Store-bought treats
Note: If your dog is rolling in the grass excessively, it may be due to allergies and/or skin irritation. Consider talking with your vet about remedies to alleviate itchiness.
4. Play Games With Your Dog
Humans and dogs (or hoomans and doggos, in social media vernacular) both love games and benefit from playing them in a number of ways—cognitively, physically, and socially.
Dogs are highly social creatures that love to interact with us. And they have a natural love for digging, burying, exploring, and running after and retrieving objects. Playing games with them is another fun and productive way to tire them out.
Some Games to Teach and Play With Your Dog
- Hide and Seek: Command your pup to stay. Once you hide, command him to come and let him find you. Challenge your canine by hiding in new places such as in the bathtub or under a big blanket. Sometimes I deliberately leave some of my closet doors open during the day so that I can quietly sneak inside them later, when we play hide and seek.
- Fetch: Throw a ball or toy and have him bring it back to you on command
- Bring me "X" (name the toy): Ask him to bring you each toy by name.
- Treasure Hunt: Command your dog to stay as you hide treats around your home. Then allow him to find them.
- Eye Contact: By holding a treat on your forehead or between your eyes, you can teach your dog to maintain eye contact with you. It's fun and it also releases oxytocin in both of you, which is why this game is sometimes called "eye hugs."
- "Hot & Cold" game: Guide your dog to a hidden treat by repeating phrases in a friendly, sing-songy voice. This game is a little harder, but it can increase a dog's listening skills while also helping the two of you develop your own special “language.”
Some Activities Your Dog Can Engage in on His Own
- Dog puzzles: These games look more like toys, but they're actually problem-solving activities. The puzzles contain slots your dog must slide open with his/her muzzle or paws to access the treats you've placed inside.
- Snuffle mats: These are cloth mats with loose strips attached to the top that provide hiding spots for treats. Dogs love exploring the fronds—designed to look and feel like thick foliage—and finding tasty rewards.
- Treat dispenser toys: These popular toys have openings through which your dog must try to extract treats by wobbling or rolling the toys around on the floor. They're great for high-energy dogs who like being assigned projects.
- CleverPet Hub: Billed as the first "gaming console" for dogs, this is an app-enabled light and sound game your dog can play while you're at work!
Benefits of Playing Games With Your Dog
- Provides mental stimulation, problem-solving skills, and listening skills.
- Teaches them bite inhibition. Many games help dogs learn to control their mouths as they grab onto toys and hands.
- Improves impulse control. Even after obedience training, many dogs struggle to contain their natural impulses. Games can help them with this.
- Last but certainly not least, they help tire your dog out!
5. Teach Your Dog Commands or Tricks
Dogs enjoy learning new things because it keeps their minds active. Like playing games, learning tricks and commands is mentally stimulating and creates a bond and shared language between owner and pet.
If you always play the same games and practice the same tricks, they may become bored. Once your pup has learned a few commands and tricks, try teaching him some new ones.
Another huge plus to teaching dogs verbal commands is that they later act as a solid foundation for recall training, which ensures that your canine friend will always come to you in the event of an emergency.
High five (or wave)
Stay (aka, wait or freeze)
"Get..." (name a toy)
6. Let Your Dog Look Outside
Like humans, dogs can get bored or depressed, especially if they have to stay indoors all day while you're at work. Being able to peer through a window connects them to the outside world and acts as a coping mechanism called “environmental enrichment.” Letting them see what's going on outside offers interesting visual stimulation, which keeps the mind active and/or relaxed.
Another reason dogs love looking out windows has to do with their natural "guard dog" instinct—they feel a need to protect and monitor their territory.
Do you have a window in your home your furball likes to look out of? Doggy steps are a great way to give your pup access to a window at a higher level if they're unable to jump.
If you have a balcony or deck, consider allowing your pup to hang out there on cool days (as long as he can't fit through the rails).
Provide your dog with a comfortable mat to lie on, especially if he/she is older, and make sure there is a bowl of water and shade available if it's warm out.
7. Give Your Dog Things to Chew and Lick
Licking and chewing on treats can keep a dog occupied for large chunks of time. Additionally, it's good for them in a number of ways (although excessive licking can signal underlying issues).
Have you ever seen a dog's eyes glaze over while they're chewing on a treat? Or maybe your dog has a favorite licking spot outside that seems to hypnotize her. There's a physiological reason for this. Scientists say licking and chewing is a "self-soothing" form of sensory stimulation for dogs that releases oxytocin and dopamine in their brains and bodies. Combined, these "feel-good" endorphins and neurotransmitters decrease stress and anxiety while creating a sense of well-being and even euphoria.
The release of oxytocin also explains why dogs affectionately lick their owners—it's a way for them to experience and express feelings of love and social bonding.
So, basically, chew toys and treats are a win-win: They keep your dog occupied and engaged—which helps dogs expend energy—and they keep them happy. An additional bonus is that for teething puppies, chewing helps relieve the discomfort in their gums as their adult canines grow in; for adult dogs, chewing is good for their dental hygiene.
Chew Toy and Treat Ideas
Bully sticks (look for the odor-free ones)
Himalayan chews (vegetarian)
Cardboard boxes (gamify it by putting treats inside for them to find!)
Rawhide chews (bison, wild boar, or no-hide alternatives)
Frozen hollow bones or Kong toys filled with food
Pig ear chews
Old socks filled with treats
Dog dental chews
Note: Talk to your vet about healthy chews recommended for your pup.
My personal favorite are frozen hollow bones and Kong toys filled with food: I regularly fill hollow bones or Kong toys with food and freeze them overnight to keep my pup busy. To save time, I sometimes fill and freeze many at once so that I can quickly grab one from the freezer when I need it.
My dog can spend up to 30 minutes licking a frozen peanut butter filled toy. He will lap up every last remnant on it and appears to be in a state of utter ecstasy the entire time.
Foods for Filling and Freezing
Peanut butter (make sure it doesn't contain xylitol, which is poisonous to dogs)
Mashed sweet potatoes
Canned pet food
Plain unsweetened yogurt
Chicken or bone broth (clog up the openings of the bone or toy with peanut butter)
Pumpkin (not pumpkin filling)
Cheez Whiz (vets sometimes use it to distract dogs during vaccine shots)
8. Give Your Dog Tons of TLC
This one may seem obvious, but there's simply no substitute for lavishing your dog with all the tender loving care and attention you can muster. It's not enough to just go for a walk, play a game, and then leave them alone for the rest of the day—your dog needs to feel a strong social and emotional bond with his/her owner. If they don't, they may experience sadness and frustration, which leads to pent-up energy and sometimes aggression.
As we discussed earlier, when dogs bond with humans, it releases feel-good chemicals and hormones in their bodies. When humans experience an adrenaline rush or a dopamine high, they usually get tired afterwards. It's the same with dogs after the excitement of spending quality time with their owner.
Of course, you may have to be gone for long periods of the day if you work outside the home (not everyone gets to clock-in remotely due to the Covid pandemic), but even so, you may be able to visit them on your lunch break. Or, just make sure you spend a couple of hours with them at night.
Ideas for Bonding With Your Dog
Here are some ideas for how to integrate valuable bonding time into your day/night even if you have a busy schedule:
- Snuggling (easy to do while reading, watching a movie, etc.)
- Dancing (no, the dog won't actually dance but he/she will run around you in excitement, providing exercise and stimulation for both of you)
- Home exploration (while cleaning your house or decluttering, let your dog smell things and explore nooks and crannies)
- Yard work (spend time with your dog while getting some gardening or yard work done—he/she will love the companionship as they patrol their territory)
- Plenty of walks, games, learning commands, etc.
Be creative. Whatever it is you do by yourself around the house, include your dog and make him a part of it. In the process, be sure to talk to your dog and smile often (studies show that dogs feel the love when they see their owner smiling at them).
9. Bring Your Dog to Parks and Nature Spots
If you have a large, enclosed yard where your dog can roam freely, you are very fortunate. But even so, switching things up occasionally will help keep his/her mind stimulated.
Take your furball to a dog park where he can run around and play with you off-leash, as long as it is safe to do so. Take a frisbee and have a blast! Dog parks often have a designated area for smaller pups, so be sure to look for this if you have a small breed.
Dog parks are great for socialization, but if your puppy is not yet ready to be around others, it can be overwhelming. In that case, it may be better to go to a less crowded spot, such as a large open field or the shore of a lake or river.
Dogs Love Exploring Nature
Another option is a forest or wooded area. Dogs have a natural love for exploring nature, especially breeds that were trained for hunting and foraging. Forests are full of exciting scents that will have your dog's nose glued to the ground and tail wagging. It's like they're returning to the primordial home of their wolf ancestry.
Many state and national parks allow dogs, although they typically require owners to keep their dogs on leash. They’re also very strict about enforcing that owners pick up their dog’s waste (as they should be!).
All of these options are great for high-energy dogs who need a lot of exercise and stimulation before they tire out. And as an extra benefit, you'll be getting exercise and experiencing the serenity of nature, too.
Regardless of the type of park you visit, beware of children and other canines that may be around. Also, be sure to take plenty of water with you, especially to help keep your dog cool in the summer.
10. Visit New Places
Do you like to travel to new locations? Your furbaby will love exploring them with you, and they will offer more stimulating sights and scents to take in. New, unexplored habitats have a way of revving dogs' engines. By the time you're headed home, there's a good chance your pup will be sleeping in the backseat.
Speaking of which, the car ride alone can be very exciting for dogs, as the high-velocity smells and sights fly by on either side.
Destination Ideas for You and Your Dog
Lakes, rivers, ocean beaches
State and national parks
Mountains, wilderness areas
Downtown (even dogs like Broadway!)
Forests, fields, meadows, gardens
A nearby town you've never been to
A different neighborhood in your town
Friends' backyards and/or homes
Cemeteries (many allow dogs and are full of grassy lawns)
Be creative. Since my vet is in a neighboring town where I normally don't go, I'll often leave my house 30 minutes early for vet appointments so my pup and I can walk around the area first. He loves it!
Things to Consider Before Adopting a Dog
In retrospect, my impulsive approach to getting a dog was probably due to the fact that I was still grieving the loss of my previous pet companion of twenty years. I should have waited longer before adopting another animal.
In my rush to fill that emotional void, I didn't not take into account the dog's temperament or breed, nor did I consider my own energy level and lifestyle.
The first time I placed him on my bed—before I could say Jack Robinson—he stretched out his four paws and soared into the air like a doggy version of Superman. To this day, I don't know how he didn't break a leg as he landed on the carpet and then proceeded to run around the room in circles.
During those first few overwhelming weeks, I thought about giving up many times. But I stuck with it, and I'm so glad I did. There's just nothing like the companionship and unconditional love of a dog.
If you are thinking of adopting one, I strongly encourage you to research different breeds so you can find a pup with a temperament that is compatible with your energy level and lifestyle.
I was fortunate in that I was able to make it work with my new pet, but my story could have ended very differently. Do your research, talk to your vet and other dog professionals, and gather as much information as you can before you make this important decision.
If you are struggling with caring for a high-energy dog because of your job and family obligations, please try hard to find a loving home for your pet. And know there is no shame in acknowledging your limitations—on the contrary, it often takes great courage to do so. Find a rescue organization in your area that will take your dog or help you find a suitable home.
I hope these tips are helpful to you. Our pets rely on us to care for them. Let's give them our best!
- Why Do Dogs Smell Other Dogs' Urine? - Wag!
- How Dogs Use Smell to Perceive the World - VCA Animal Hospital
- 27 Dog Tricks You Can Teach Your Pup (With Videos)
- Why You Should Let Your Dog Sniff During Walks - PetGuide
- Dogs: Dazzling Sense of Smell - (NOVA) PBS
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Madeleine Clays