Most of the dog training inquiries that I get are from people who are struggling with a behavioral issue. Whether it is severe leash reactivity or just digging holes in the yard, it can be a nightmare to live with these kinds of problems. While these issues generally have several root causes, one common theme with most of these dogs is that they lack sufficient amounts of physical and/or mental stimulation. Most dog breeds were developed to have jobs, and to work for long periods of time. Many of them are now several generations removed from working ancestry, but they still maintain that strong need for appropriate stimulation. Fulfilling this need can be a challenge in today's world, especially when owners do not realize that the outlets they are giving their dog are not enough.
Let's say that you bring home a floppy, adorable Labrador puppy at 8 weeks old. You loves this puppy, and devote time to exercising her through walks around the neighborhood and retrieve games in the backyard. For awhile these things tire her out, but as she gets older things begin to change. She starts pulling on the leash more and more, making it increasingly annoying to walk her. She may develop too much interest in people and dogs that she sees, which might come out in over exuberance or as reactivity. You stop playing retrieve in the backyard because she will no longer come back when called. When you stopped being able to play fetch, her retriever instincts start cropping up in other places as she eats the leg off one of your chairs.
This story is one that I hear all the time as a dog trainer. The owner of this dog tried from day one to give their puppy plenty of exercise, but it was not enough to prevent behavioral issues from developing. This is a classic case of a dog getting plenty of physical stimulation, but not nearly enough mental stimulation. If you went and worked out at the same level of intensity for an hour every day, you might be tired, but eventually you would build up enough stamina that you could exercise for twice as long and still have plenty of energy. The same is true for your dog. When you first get her, she might be tired at the end of that mile walk around the block. It was a new level of exercise for her, so she is physically spent, but it is also a new environment, so she has been mentally worn out as well.
As time goes on, she builds up stamina and the mile walk is longer an exertion, and she has become desensitized to the sights and smells of the neighborhood. Now she has all of this excess energy that she has to do something with, so she starts to come up with new jobs to entertain herself. Maybe she decides that she wants to pull you down the street like a freight train. Maybe she decides to start chewing on the leash while you walk her. Maybe she starts building up overexcitement towards other dogs, and becomes leash reactive. All issues that can put a serious damper on your previously enjoyable walks, and ones that could have been avoided if a few additional steps were taken before the issues emerged.
Let's start with managing physical energy needs. This will vary widely between dogs. I currently own Belgian shepherd and an Australian Cattle Dog, breeds which are very demanding in this department. However, even when I had my Shih Tzu, a rather calm companion-bred dog, I respected that he still needed to get regular physical activity. Physical exercise is just as important for the health of your dog as it is for managing energy and behavior. Canine obesity is a growing epidemic, and appropriate levels of exercise are important for keeping your dog at a healthy weight. Common outlets for physical energy are going for walks, playing fetch, hiking, swimming, and allowing your dog to play with other dogs. All of these are excellent options, and you should select things that your dog enjoys doing. My Malinois loves to play tug and swim in the ocean, but that little Shih Tzu would much prefer playing with dogs and going for walks with me.
Mental stimulation is the other side of the coin. A 20 minute walk that consists of pulling, peeing on every bush, and barking at the neighbor's poodle might be mentally stimulating, but not in a good way. A 20 minute walk that consists of heeling nicely, practicing a few auto sits, and some released free time on your command is a much healthier way to expend that mental energy. One of the best things that you can do for your dog is ask him to perform obedience on a daily basis. This does not mean that you should devote an hour every night to serious training, it means that you should make obedience an integral part of you and your dog's life. Your walks should be spent with your dog heeling, nice and relaxed, and using her brain to stay focused on her job. You can practice place commands when the UPS guy comes, you can do 10 minutes of sits, downs, and recalls, and reward her with a nice long game of fetch in the backyard. Another great way to mentally stimulate your dog is to take this show on the road, and practice your obedience in different parks and pet friendly spaces.
Another great option, and one that usually combines both types of stimulation, are dog sports. I'm not talking about Air Bud, but about things such as agility and rally. Sports are great for many different reasons, and you might find yourself getting hooked before your dog does. The social aspect is great for the human part of the team, but your dog will also gain lots of experience working around people and other dogs. Many sports also capitalize on specific instincts, and can help keep your dog's mind balanced by providing her with jobs that meet her individual needs. Your Westie can practice her hunting skills in a controlled manner through barn hunt, and your hound can use his nose to his hearts content in tracking. After a good sport training session, you will have a happy, tired dog.
A good balance of physical and mental stimulation is something that I prescribe to all of my clients. The benefits of doing so are endless, and you will see a marked improvement in your dog's behavior when this is implemented. The jobs that dogs were bred to do are incredible, and many of the instincts that they retain are what make us love their personalities so much. When we can give these dogs appropriate outlets for their genetic drives and desires, we can give them happy, fulfilled lives that are free from behavioral issues. If you have a new puppy that you want to get off on the right foot with these things, or you have an older dog that you think would benefit from changes in their energy outlets, contact us so that we can help you get started on the path to a happy and balanced dog.
Sam is the owner and head trainer at Kentucky Dog Training LLC. She set up this blog to share success stories, training tips, the progression of dogs in our training programs, and other thoughts on dogs and training.