If you've been around dogs at all, you'll probably agree with me that the correct answer is: it depends. Aside from breed and age differences, each dog is an individual, and it's our job to find the right balance of mental enrichment and physical exercise to meet his needs and thus allow us to live more harmoniously together.
This year, I've worked with several dogs with higher than usual exercise needs. Their owners don't call me asking, "How do I exercise my dog?" Rather, they call because they're experiencing doggie behaviors that are hard to live with, such as excessive chewing or barking, or rough play with jumping and nipping, or frequent pestering for attention, or herding the kids into the corner of the yard, or great escapes for hours of carousing in the neighborhood, or surfing for laundry items and countertop goodies.
Sure, we can and do use positive reinforcement training techniques to teach more acceptable behaviors. But if the dog is brimming with excess energy and we don't provide acceptable outlets, the dog will find ways to burn off that energy and make his own fun, and we may not like his choices.
Folks living with a high-energy dog may feel they need to provide endless fetching, or jogging for countless miles, or swimming the English Channel, or playing with other dogs until he drops from exhaustion. Yes, in moderation, these activities are helpful indeed, as long as your dog enjoys them, is physically fit for such activities, and the weather is not so hot as to make it dangerous for the dog. But rather than going non-stop at the exercise, I recommend toggling between the aerobic activity and moments of focused, calm training so the dog learns how to smoothly transition between high arousal and calm.
It's also important to remember that continually providing rigorous aerobic activity for your athletic and high-energy dog is likely to build an Olympian athlete that becomes harder and harder to quench.
Instead, we need to find the right balance between physical exercise and plenty of brain activities, keeping the individual dog in mind. Some dogs will surely need more romping, swimming, playing, and fetching than others. And when possible, we should take into consideration the dog's natural breed tendencies when seeking acceptable activities, to satisfy their genetically-driven desire to engage in specific behaviors. For example, you may not have a flock of sheep for your herding dog, but you could consider a sport like Treibball.
You may be surprised to learn that reward-based training sessions can tire out a dog, too. I can't tell you how many clients report that their dogs nap deeply after one of our lessons. And it's not that I'm running them ragged by any stretch. But engaging their brains can really wear them out. So remember to include short training sessions as part of your overall exercise regime.
Activities that encourage the dog to engage his nose are also extremely enriching and tiring. A big chunk of the dog's brain is devoted to olfactory processing, so that's pretty meaty mental enrichment. Some scent activities to consider:
Treasure hunts for hidden treats, chews, and favorite toys
Hide and seek
Sneakily tossing fetch toys into tall grass or woods to promote a more methodical search and fetch (instead of flat-out, high-speed chasing of balls on open ground)
Food scatters in the lawn (no need to feed their daily rations for free from a bowl)
Meandering hikes with ample opportunity to explore all the fantastic odors in the environment
Barn hunt sport (especially nice for terriers)
Food puzzles (also known as interactive toys) are another fantastic outlet for doggie energy. There are literally dozens of options available. I wrote about two of them in this article, and plan to expand on this topic in the near future. Again, rather than feeding daily rations from a bowl, which may take just a few seconds to consume, use that food in various food puzzles for multiple enrichment opportunities during the day. This is especially useful at times when you need the dog to be contentedly engaged in an approved activity, like when you're on a Zoom conference call, or are preparing dinner, or just need some chill-time yourself.
I sincerely feel for people who are grappling with a dog who has very high energy needs. It takes time to provide them with appropriate outlets, along with some creativity to enrich their days in more independent ways. Sometimes, it can be helpful to farm out some of these exercise and enrichment duties if you're having a hard time managing it on your own. For example, some dogs may be excellent candidates for doggie daycare. Even just one or two visits a week could help. There are also professional dog walkers and joggers, as well as adventure hiking services.
If you're not sure what constitutes good, safe exercise that's appropriate for your individual dog, please have a conversation with your veterinarian to get their guidance.
Bottom line, when you find the right balance of mental and physical enrichment, life is much more pleasant with your dog, and he'll be much happier as well. So don't discount this important topic if you find yourself struggling with a dog that is getting into lots of mischief or is just plain unpleasant to live with.
Poker is very stimulating for some dogs. ;-)
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120