Having worked in a shelter for several years, I know getting dogs out for daily walks is crucial for their well-being. Not for the need to be tired out by the walk, but because they need stress relief from the chaos of the kennels and to keep their brain active to prevent break down. Many dog owners also feel the need to get their dogs out for long walks or a run every day...especially those really “busy”, high energy dogs but should be aware that there may be consequences.
Dogs do need exercise, and yes, getting them out for regular potty breaks will save your furniture, floors and sanity. However, running your pet or going for a regular “long walk” each day can do the opposite of what you want and instead may be creating what I call a “Marathon Dog”.
Dogs, like humans, generally don’t run for miles at a time...that kind of exercise requires training and conditioning. When I trained for a half marathon a while back I didn’t step out one day and run 13.1 miles! On my first day, I barely made it two blocks before I stopped to walk a block and alternated run/walk for about 3 miles. Within a week or two, I realized I was immediately tired but the run was actually energizing, and I could soon run a mile before I took a break. Over the next few months, I built up my physical endurance by slowly increasing the length of my run until I could easily complete the full 13 miles and felt great when I was finished - like I could keep going.
For those full marathon runners, building to 26.2 miles is a feat requiring dedication and commitment. So how does this relate to an overactive dog?
The scenario I often hear: “My dog is really active, so I was taking him for a walk every day, but that didn’t work so I started running with him. It was great at first, but it didn’t really tire him out for very long.” What started as a walk around the block, turns into a 2 mile run, then the need to add another mile and within a few months turns into 5+ miles every day and the dog still isn’t tired! See what’s happening here? Now we see a dog who not only has been conditioned to run farther and farther, but is also energized by the endorphins released through physical activity...a “Marathon Dog”!
The great news here is that we have a lot of physically fit owners who are trying to do right by their dogs. The better news is, there are plenty of other ways to “tire out” a high energy dog without building physical endurance, taking hours out of our days or putting our pets at risk of heat exhaustion in the summer or braving dangerously cold temps in harsh winter climates.
Mental enrichment will tire the mind, give the body a break (consider how exhausting it can be to problem solve and answer emails all day) and can be easily implemented into daily routines. Here are a few suggestions:
Ditch the food bowl and instead use treat dispensing toys/mats so your dog can problem solve for meals
Use training as an activity (take your dog through some basic cues before engaging and while out on short walks to work around distractions)
Let your dog SNIFF!! Slow down and let that nose work taking in data and processing it
Set up games in your house/yard - hide favorite toys and treats and let your dog enjoy finding them.
Take your dog on field trips! A short drive to the vet or groomer, walk inside and give treats and praise then back home again or take a trip to a local pet friendly restaurant or the dog park. (Even if your dog doesn’t like the park, stroll around the parking area, work on some training cues and get back in the car.) The benefits of this kind of socialization are two-fold; create positive associations to things your dog may not like as well as giving mental enrichment for your pooch.
Most importantly, remember that your dog is a social animal and really just wants to spend time with you. By working smart instead of hard, you can keep your dog mentally happy and physically healthy with a few short walks each day.