Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How Does Exercise Help Dogs?
The benefits of exercise for dogs with behavior problems are many. Most modern dogs are confined between four walls for a good part of the day and are expected to behave when dog owners come back home from a long day of work.
Dog owners wish to come home, eat, and relax, while their dogs instead are quivering in anticipation with high expectations for some form of interaction, either in the form of a walk or playtime.
Add this pent-up energy with a dog's enthusiasm in greeting the owner and you have the perfect recipe for a dog bouncing off the walls and eager to engage in some activity with their owners.
These dogs' desires often clash though with the dog owner's desires to wind down and relax, often leading to frustration. "My dog is too hyper! How can I get him to calm down? Why can't he just chill?"
Most Dogs Are Bored and Unemployed
Consider the fact that most dogs were selectively bred to perform some type of work. Whether for herding, pointing, flushing, guarding, or retrieving, dogs were made to spend a good chunk of the day engaged in some form of activity. Even small lapdogs had a job: warming up the feet and laps of many aristocratic ladies!
But how does regular exercise benefit dogs with behavioral problems? If you ever exercised at the gym or went for a nice, long jog, you may have noticed how good you felt afterwards.
What Happens at a Chemical Level?
Apparently, a wide range of neurobiological rewards takes place after engaging in moderate to intense aerobic exercise. This is why runners often describe a sensation of well-being, otherwise known as "runner's high."
The trigger for this sensation seems to stem from the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids (eCBs)—the body's naturally occurring neurotransmitters that activate cannabinoid receptors (which manage pain, anxiety, etc.) in the brain's reward region both during and after moderate to intense aerobic exercise.
Research Says Dogs Get "Runner's High" Too
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, it appears that dogs get a form of runner's high as well. After being exercised for 30 minutes, an analysis of blood samples revealed that the levels of endocannabinoids increased in both dogs and people. But what is the evolutionary benefit of such chemical changes?
Evolutionary biologist Dan Lieberman suggests that in humans, a runner's high may have been a way to make ancient hunters more alert. Indeed, everything becomes more intense, colors appear more vibrant, and there's a heightened level of awareness. Humans were made to be athletes and walk five to nine miles a day—so what about dogs?
Wild canines were also walking several miles a day prior to being domesticated, and it appears that in order to achieve a runner's high, just as in people, dogs are required to run at a moderate pace.
So what do dogs feel when they experience a runner's high? We may never know, but it appears they get a boost in painkilling chemicals. This is perhaps why dog trainers say "a tired dog is a good dog." Below is some "anecdotal evidence" for this argument as well.
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Exercise Can Help an Anxious Dog to Eat
The dog pictured above always refused to eat food upon being boarded in a kennel. You can't blame him, who would feel comfortable staying in a kennel all day around other unknown dogs and people? After boarding with me in my cage-less boarding and training center (which is a sort of doggy resort), he ate straight from his food bowl with no problems the very first day.
What did we do to make him feel less stressed? We simply played in the fresh air in our half-acre yard, we took two walks (half an hour each), and we allowed him to play fetch and romp with our other dogs.
Exercise and fresh air seemed to do the trick! I was thrilled to see him eagerly eat his meal and happily sent pictures to the owner who was worried. Now they were super happy!
Which Dogs Need the Most Exercise?
All dogs benefit from regular exercise, but some really need it regularly as therapy for behavioral problems. Here are dogs that benefit from exercise the most.
- Anxious dogs: The endorphins released from exercising help these dogs calm down.
- Adolescent dogs: Adolescent dogs may be much more manageable when a good exercise program is followed.
- Dogs affected by compulsive disorders: A dog that chases its tail or licks its paws non-stop may need medications, but a good exercise regimen along with behavior modification can work wonders.
- Hyperactive, high-strung dogs: These dogs are often erroneously diagnosed as hyperkinetic when in reality, they just are under-exercised and benefit from a structured exercise program.
Of course, exercise alone may not suffice for moderate to severe behavior problems, however, it can be a great addition to behavior modification and medications.
Caution With These Dogs!
If your dog was never exercised regularly before, it's a good idea to always see your veterinarian prior to starting them on an exercise regimen and starting them gradually. Here are dogs who need caution prior to adhering them into a new exercise regimen.
- Large breeds: Large breed dogs are prone to cruciate ligament injuries, arthritis, and hip dysplasia. These dogs should be gradually conditioned prior to jogging or biking with them.
- Young dogs: Keep in mind that young dogs are developing their growth plates and shouldn't undergo sustained running, jogging, or jumping especially on hard surfaces.
- Brachychepalics: Also, brachycephalic breeds (such as Pugs, Bulldogs, and Boxers) don't do well when they're exercised vigorously, especially on warm days.
Why Dogs Misbehave When They Are Bored
Most dogs are left indoors all day often alone for hours at a time and with little left to do. Left unemployed, many dogs will find their own forms of entertainment, which often leads to so-called "behavior problems."
Scruffy may decide to rip the couch to pieces just for fun (a replacement behavior for de-gutting the entrails of an animal), chase his tail (a good way to keep the mind occupied, so occupied that it sometimes develops into a compulsive disorder), and bark all day (a great self-reinforcing way to release pent-up frustration).
It's unfortunate that when these under-stimulated and under-exercised dogs express their boredom and frustration in such a way, they're often reprimanded on top of that, adding stress and more frustration which bottles up over time.
A Yard Is Not a Replacement for Exercise!
Now, forget about leaving a dog in the yard all day while you're at work. This does not count as exercise! It's a place where dogs rehearse many unwanted behaviors such as barking at people passing by, digging holes, marking, nervously pacing, and waiting for you all day!
If you leave your dog in the yard all day, you'll still need to walk them, play with them, and spend some time training them.
Did You Know?
Studies show that dogs lacking exercise usually have poor muscle tone and are more predisposed to injuries, brain ailments, and bone disorders. Not to mention emotional problems and behavioral quirks. Source: Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Texas A&M University, 2012
Fun and Creative Ideas for Exercising Your Dog
If you keep your dog well-exercised, you'll be blessed with a healthier, happier dog with fewer behavioral problems such as excessive barking, chewing, digging, and hyperactivity. A good exercise program will also help your dog gain more confidence. When your dog is exercised, he or she will also be more likely to snooze rather than pace relentlessly around the home looking for something to do.
Best of all, exercise is good for you, too! Ever wondered why many dog owners seem to be in good shape? Both you and your dog get a workout when you exercise. Here are some forms of exercise that are great additions to a good half-hour walk.
- Fetch toys: There are some toys that can make your dog exercise as well such as the Bubble Buddy or Fetchtastic/Go Dog Go Fetch Machine.
- Hide-and-seek: Have your dog find you in a game of hide-and-seek or do several rounds of round-robin recalls.
- Playdates: Playdates with other dogs are another great way to exercise if your dog is a social butterfly.
- Brain games: Let your dog hunt for their dinner, stuff a Kong toy, enroll them in nose-work, spend time training them during TV commercials, or invest in puzzle toys!
- Doggy sports: Enroll your dog in doggy sports such as flyball, rally obedience, musical canine freestyle, tracking, Treibball, and agility.
I hope you enjoyed all of these suggestions, now get to exercising with your dog!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli