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Why exercise may not be the answer to your dog problems

Exercise to cure dog problems?

A fit body attached to an unsatisfied mind doesn’t make for a well behaved dog, but a satisfied dog might be just be enough to have a well balanced dog.

Each week I consult with a number of dog owners often dealing with hyper active, over excited, anxiously unsatisfied dogs that often are receiving as much as up to 30 hours exercise a week. So I have to go back to basics and ask where did the idea come from that exercise cures dog problems?

Of course if we are to believe the TV dog whisperer Cesar Milan or Victoria Stillwell it is sold to us as a cure all but I can save you a lot of time and tell you that, it is far from it.

Now I know that by now there will be people screaming at the screen “no!, dogs dont get enough exercise as it is“, but I am not talking about the dog owner who never does anything with his or her dog, I am talking about those that pour hours of exercise into their dogs and the dog problems never seem to lessen.

First understand that, a dog will increase its fitness a lot faster than you will. This means that, if you walk your dog for an hour a day and your dog is better behaved, this will be short lived. His or her fitness will increase dramatically and by week three you will likely need to increase the exercise by 50%.

This is a bit of a long Blog post, I wanted to try and give you as much information on this subject as possible so it could be a great excuse for a good coffee and sit back and relax.

And please share your thoughts with us below, we are always interested in your thoughts on our stuff.

So try and imagine as I sit in behaviour consults with people who have out of control dogs that get many hours exercise a week, asking myself “why?

So what I decided to do was create a list of what I feel you do need to have a well balanced dog:

  • Some daily exercise
  • Some mental stimulation
  • Some effective management
  • Structure and Boundaries
  • Drive satisfaction specific to your dogs needs
  • Satisfactory food intake
  • Pack engagement
  • Communication

Reading the list above it certainly looks like a lot doesn’t it? Well that depends on your specific dog and that dogs “expectations”.

Expectations?

When you walk up to a store and ask for an ice cream, you will have a certain expectation of how much Ice Cream you will receive, it may even detail it on the menu “1 scoop”. Now if you then ask for an Ice Cream and got half a scoop, you will likely not be pleased as your expectations have not been met.

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BF Skinner @ Harvard U, circa 1950

This situation may leave you feeling ripped off, short changed, robbed or even maybe feel punished, right?

When we are training dogs, one of the quadrants of reinforcement detailed by BF Skinner is known as negative Punishment, simply put “when a dog expects or predicts a reward and that reward is withheld or removed, that is negative punishment“.

So you “expected” 1 full scoop of Ice Cream, but you received half, thus making you feel punished. This will in many of us, possibly depending on your level of “Ice Cream Drive”, will see us protest, speak up, complain or even take action.

So imagine if you have a dog that “expects” that you will take him or her for a 2 hour walk every day, 3pm – 5pm, and you don’t. Your dog, through an expectation that you may have created and reinforced now feels punished, ripped off, short changed etc. and you can expect in many dogs to see them take action.

Some may bark to help you remember its walk time whilst others may grab the leash, but some may display behaviours that you don’t like and you know what, some of the behaviours displayed may seemingly have nothing to do with the walk. These are knows as displacement behaviours and can really only be identified or understood by looking at the surrounding events.

Below is a super cool video that is incredibly valuable when learning about reward systems, I wont spoil it, but it is very worth watching.

Structure and Boundaries

Now let me give you some other examples; You go to your local off leash park three days a week, and as soon as you arrive your dog has his leash removed and he or she is off, romping and playing with the other dogs, to their hearts content.

This is great fun to watch and your dog is having such a great time.

The next day you are walking through town with your dog and your dog spots a dog across the road. He gets all excited at the premise of running right over there to play, but you of course cant let him off leash to be run over. Your dog feels like your robbing him of this play opportunity and starts to jump and scream at the end of the leash in which you fight to keep a hold of him, dragging him away from the other dogs view.

Of course you could not of let him off leash to race across the road, none of you know that dog and you don’t want your dog run over, but of course your dog expected quite a different outcome right?

This jumping into the leash, screaming and performing is not on, but where did your dog develop such an expectation? If you take a read through an article I wrote in March 2015, you will get a better picture of how I avoid these problems. The article is here and its is called Socialise now, play later?

In situations like this you need to know that if you are going to take your dog to the park to play with dogs, each time your dog arrives at the park he or she must not always be set free on arrival, or you will just create the problem I described.

If you ply this dog that has been, dare I say it “over indulged“, with more exercise, you will just end up with a fitter, more powerful dog that fights you on the leash, this dog of course needs more “structure and boundaries” that I mentioned above.

It would be a great idea that only 10% of the time you arrive at the park your dog is let off, the other 90% of the time may include never being let off but being walked around the area, being let off but asked to complete a 5 minute down stay first, practice recalls in this area, practice loose leash walking or any training or playing that has your dog engage with you and not the dogs or the environment.

This in turn will adjust your dogs expectation to a more reasonable one, but if you already have a dog with an unrealistic expectation, you might have to look at a more complex behaviour modification program to overcome this.

Some daily exercise

As you can read above, a good rule of thumb is “start as you mean to go on“. There is no point walking your dog every day for an hour when you first bring him home and then when Winter comes around expect him to just forget about it.

Exercise is necessary for all dogs and believe it or not, humans too. Having a dog should be a great reason to go for a walk, or even drive to the park or play outside in your yard with him or her.

Understand though that exercise alone is not a cure and trying to cure a behaviour problem with just exercise will only create an unrealistic expectation that over time you will not be able to fulfill.

When the weather turns cold or even when summer is so hot, walking might be a pain, there are other ways to stimulate your dog that can help, or you can try exercising in a non conventional way.

We use treadmills for our dogs because we want to expose the dogs to a specific exercise goal that we can measure on the treadmill. It is also useful when the taking your dog for a walk would be

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DogPacer Treadmill

difficult maybe because: –

  • The weather is unsuitable
  • You are feeling unwell
  • Your dog has a behaviour problem
  • You have a number of dogs
  • or many other reasons…

A treadmill DOES NOT replace all our dogs exercise, but we do use them for some of our dogs exercise.

Mental and physical exercise can be also done inside the home on the FitPaws equipment we have, a 10 minute session on a Peanut is a great work out for your dog, both mentally and physically. We use food rewards to “pay” our dogs to balance on the ball so they really like it due to the reinforcement schedules we use.

The use of this type of equipment can really help develop your dog into a more sound athlete and this of course will increase performance and decrease injuries. This is a video we made about a year or so ago about my puppies learning to use the ball, this is a great way to start pups but you can get any aged dog on the Peanut very easily.

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Palisades Pack by Ruff Wear

You can add a little load to your dog by walking your dog in a Back Pack. You may find that if your injured, elderly, unfit or overworked you may not be able to walk your dog for the full 2 hours he or she may need, so adding a backpack will increase the load a little meaning more exertion is required over less time.

We have a couple of different Back Packs that I like, we only use and recommend these because they displace the load evenly and correctly over the dogs body, whereas as some that I have seen load the spine, which I don’t like.

Imagine setting off on a walk with your dog and your dog can carry some snacks, toys, equipment, keys etc in his or her pack, dogs love helping, just try and stop them.

It is important though to not just throw weights in a pack and head off, if your interested in using a Backpack with your dog, shoot us an email and we will send you a FREE program to help you decide how much weight to use and how to use it.

Swimming

We teach all our pups to swim at a young age, but if your dog missed that boat, it can still be possible to teach them when they are older. Swimming is excellent exercise, and even if you have a very large breed dog that overheats easily, this will surely be a winner.

There are many add ons that you can use for swimming, such as playing fetch when your dog has to swim out to get a ball or toy, or perhaps you can recall your dog across a channel or narrow river. For us we do all of these and often as water is connected to sand, we also run out dogs on sand to again increase their muscle tone, fitness and stamina.

Some dogs/breeds do not have great buoyancy, so they can really benefit from a Life Vest for dogs, especially when boating etc.

This is a video of our German Shepherd Diesel when he was a pup learning to swim.

Some mental stimulation

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Herzhund Malinois getting some enrichment

There are some great ways to stimulate or enrich your dogs environment, when we breed our dogs, we use many specialised toys, obstacles and stimulators to enrich the puppies when they are only a few weeks old.

This has proven beneficial effects later on in life as puppies are more equipped to problem  solve and deal with stress.

There is a newish toy that I really like for dogs that spend time alone a lot. It is called the Foobler and it is a food delivery toy. A lot of people tell me that their dogs are not interested in these types of toys, and in some cases (no where near as many as you would think) this is true.

But the Foobler is different in a few ways: –

  • It is very hard to destroy (To date we have sold a few hundred and never had one destroyed)
  • It has a bell that rings when it is about to deliver food
  • It has a user adjustable timer (it will deliver food at intervals you set all day)
  • Its bright and round so it rolls and is interesting.
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Foobler is a very cool toy

If you leave a dog alone all day these toys can be very entertaining for dogs, it could be a wise investment; cheaper than chewed outdoor furniture, dug up plants, barking complaints etc.

Some dogs it is worth putting more than one in your back yard, maybe two or three and cut back your dogs evening meal so it is kind of important that they play with the toys.

The Bob A Lot is another I really like too, it has not got the electronics of the Foobler but it holds a lot of food, is fun and interactive and you can alter the difficulty level once your dog gets into it.

When I am going to fly somewhere to speak at a seminar or something, I know I will be on the aircraft for a few hours, so I make myself a music play list, I buy magazines from the Airport (extremely over priced magazines), get something to eat and drink, just to keep me occupied on the plane when there isn’t much to do.

Now I see other people doing just the same as me, because sitting around with nothing to do for a few hours would be impossible, right?

But of course this is the life many dogs face every day, a few dollars might go a long way with your dog…

dog problemsWe have a number of plush toys, mostly the Kyjen and Tuffy brands. We use these not because they are indestructible, but for a plush toy they are SUPER tough, and because they are made for dogs with materials that if your dog ingests them, they will not cause poisoning.

The Invicible has great durability and lots of squeakers in it that still squeak even if punctured.

I have a client that bought her dog a few kids dolls from a second hand store, the dog loved to play with and thrash the dolls around, fun to watch.

One day she came home and her dog was very sick, after some very expensive vet work, they retrieved an old piece of the doll from the dogs intestine. During the recovery period the owner threw away all the dolls to prevent the same happening again.

About three months later her dog bit a little girl on the arm when the little girl would not hand over her doll to the dog. Expectations…

We will often recommend people buy the Hollee Roller toy, and when you do get an old sheet off your bed and tear it into strips, stuff the strips inside the Hollee Roller and let your dog de stuff dog problems the Ball. No poison.

Effective Management

There will be a Blog post coming out soon that I am writing (this one was started three months ago) on “Bringing your baby home“, a few tips on what to prepare and also advertising the services we offer to families who are expecting (you can see those here).

In this post I promise some pictures of my brand new Daughter Mackenzie Rose Courtney, but don’t expect to see my dogs cuddling up to our baby daughter, this is a very dangerous habit to start and I have seen way too many babies hurt by dogs, some intentionally, some unintentionally but hurt, injured and worse all the same.

My dogs don’t roam the house unsupervised, I have some pretty serious dogs and although I trust my dogs with children etc more than i would trust any dog, they are dogs.

I create a relationship with my dogs and children in which the dogs at first only have contact through me and it is only later that they have individual relationships with my dogs.

When my children are old enough to speak, I will have them feed my dogs in the Triangle of Temptation program in which my children can reward the dogs with a meal only after they have responded to my child’s direction on how to get it.

When I walk into a persons house and the dog meets me at the door barking and they just usher me in saying “just ignore him“, I do, but MY version of ignoring the dog is ignoring the dog. That is very different to some peoples version of ignoring the dog.

When you ask some people to ignore your dog they: –

  • Insist on petting or playing with your dog
  • Stare at your dog trying to ascertain if your dog will bite them
  • Walk through your house stiff and aloof
  • Wave their arms and wonder why your dog plays tug with their sleeves (OK that is my mother in law lol).

But regardless, know that a dog should not meet people at the threshold of your house, it can only take one unexpected move of your new visitor and your dog may become frightened or bite them. Just because the dog did not do it last time does not mean it wont in the future.

When friends turn up to my house, my dog is directed to his crate inside my house. He likes his crate and he will go there without question and stay in there no problem. Once I have sent him to his crate I will then bring my friends in. This is not because he will bite them if they enter, he won’t, but he will feel that I don’t trust them and be alert.

All my dogs are taught this from puppies, if friends turn up, I won’t be needing my protection dogs on the guns, they can take a break in their crate, if I ask the person to come in and my dogs are by my side, this means I don’t trust this person, be on guard!

As you can imagine, I don’t get many people ram raiding my house, I think my dogs reputation of being “effective” may have leaked. So my dogs are just always crated when people come in.

Have I had an accidental bites? Not one, how could I? The dogs are crated. Once my visitors have settled in, if they like dogs I may ask my dogs come out and say hello to my guests. It is far from a “let them sort it out with the guests” mentality.

Effective management means that your dog/s will not be rehearsing behaviours that are undesirable at home; remember if you have a behaviour problem out on the street, it will never be solved if you can’t stop it at home.

Rehearsal is one of the most effective reinforcers.

Drive Satisfaction specific to your dogs needs

This means that you need to learn and or test what it is that excites your dogs the most, is it food, is it throwing a ball, is it playing tug? Once you find that your dog will need a certain level of access to this stimulus. How much? Well that depends on a number of factors.

First, if you find you have a dog with a behaviour problem, and you take two weeks off work and start playing trug (for example) with your dog, five times a day 7 days a week, understand that you are creating an unreasonable expectation that when your leave is over you will not be able to maintain.

So “how much” depends on how much time you have AND how much the dog needs. Sometimes this can come down to a situation that you have selected a dog breed that needs more prey interaction than you can deliver.

Most often I see dogs that come to me that are in “drive overload”. This means that they are not having their drive satisfied (even though perhaps owner is walking the dog 30 hours a week) and they are now desperate for drive satisfaction.

These dogs will take some time even at a game or two a day to balance out, but rather than upping the games you would be better off with better management, structure and boundaries etc. and sticking with an amount of prey satisfaction you can provide.

I had a client come to me a few months ago and she has a Kelpie, she lives in the city and she takes her dog to work, 2 days a week, its in daycare another 2 and at home for one. The dog was barking and also reactive to other dogs, motor cycles and cats.

She was told that the dog needed a job and smartly enrolled in a herding class. The dog began to behave better and each week she would go to herding and this was great.

After a couple of months though, the dog began displaying the same behaviour problems again and she was advised to take on a second class per week. Well she found it difficult because the classes were 90 minutes drive each way and the cost was adding up, but she is dedicated to her dog and did what was necessary.

It again was going well until there became the need for a third class. This was just impossible unless she started to take time off work and she really didn’t have any interest in herding at all anyway. The 2 days daycare, plus the now three classes, travel costs etc had just left it impossible.

She was made to feel like she didn’t care for her dog as she would not invest in class number three and felt guilty. When she came to see me I spent some time talking to her and what her dog liked. It turned out that her dog liked frisbee.

I designed a game (one of Training in Drive games) that taught the dog what it needed to do to get access to frisbee games. Sit, down, stay, come etc.

By her own choice the dogs owner plays frisbee in the park with her Kelpie, most mornings before work and most afternoons for anywhere from 5 minutes to 30. She takes her dog to work 4 days a week and has now skipped the daycare and the dog is still at home one day a week. The behaviour problems are non existent and the dogs obedience is great.

Understand that she can play frisbee anywhere, in more regular sessions in her own suburb and she can use it to reward behaviours that she likes/needs in her every day life. To the dog it wasnt one huge event each week that after a few weeks the dog became so into she needed to go to two and three classes a week.

Herding is a great activity, great for dogs and great for people that WANT to do it. What it isn’t is the ONLY way to satisfy a dogs drive.

Satisfactory food intake

Some dogs would simply eat so much that they would become overweight and this would be detrimental to their health. They just have a bigger appetite than their calorie burn needs.

So you notice that your dog is getting a little heavy and you cut back his food. Remember the half a scoop of Ice Cream? Your dog feels ripped off and this spawns an array of behaviour problems. You attack this with exercise and you will exacerbate the problems because the dogs calorie burn will increase.

So instead, try adding raw grated carrot to your dogs meal, or any below ground vegetable that is suitable for dogs, sweet potato, broccoli, cucumber, zucchini etc. Your dog feels full and it can take time to digest these raw vegetables. So you don’t put your dog on a diet and get negative feedback, you drop some protein out of his or her diet and replace it with raw vegetables.

I wrote an eBook called “Raw Feeding made easy” to help people tackle switching to a raw diet, which is my preferred diet for my dogs.

Communication

I use marker training with my dogs, it is a part of my training in drive system too, a very small part but a part none the less. I find it invaluable to teach my dogs to know when they are doing the right thing, when they should stop what they are doing and when they should keep doing it.

This allows me to control my dogs verbally rather than physically.

Does it work? Well I will let you be the judge, this next video shows my 5 year old daughter training her 9 week old pup, using my Training in Drive System.

Pack Engagement

I am not big on preaching to people to be better Pack Leaders, because there are enough people out there preaching that to them and if they were having success, I guess they wouldn’t need me. Instead I coach people on how to engage with their dog, and all of the previous topics I have discussed in this article are on pack engagement.

* Some daily exercise is how I move and transport my dog

* Some mental stimulation is how I face challenges with my dog and we solve the problems together

* Some effective management might mean where I house my dog when I can’t be there to help him or her make better choices

* Structure and boundaries are needed so my dog knows how to work effectively with me within the boundaries

* Drive satisfaction is how I reward my dog for super behaviours.

* Satisfactory food intake is how I give my dog the right nutrition to help him be healthy, fit and fast.

* Communication lets me tell my dogs what energy level is needed, when we are on the right or wrong track too.

So in fact the way I live with my dogs reduces the need to run rigorous exercise routines that eat up many hours a week.

It is really worthwhile to take a look at the way that you live with your dog and perhaps if your struggling with a behaviour, consider what you are doing may not be the answer. Dogs are as individual as people and what works with one my not work with another.

Dogs that are happy and feel fullfilled are better behaved than ones that don’t, figure out what your dog needs and try to set reasonable expectations for your dog and things will surely flow better.

As I asked above, please share your thoughts and comments with us, it helps us keep putting out these free articles that help people.

Steve

About Stevek9pro

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19 comments

  1. Christiane Weissbach

    Another fantastic blog! There’s so much misinformation out there and it is important that people learn much more about canine nature and behaviour. Oh, and your monkey video is priceless!!!

  2. Another fantastic blog! There’s so much misinformation out there and it is important that people learn much more about canine nature and behaviour. Oh, and your monkey video is priceless!!!

  3. Thanks Steve for a great article. The videos were great and many thanks for posting this info.

  4. Do you sell train in drive dvd have a GSD 2 years male high prey drive have been doing remote collar etc. he needs something for this high prey drive

  5. Thanks for posting this. Loads of great information in this post 🙂

  6. Great article Steve! You answered some questions I had about exercising 🙂
    Thank you

  7. Great article. My biggest battle at the moment is my dogs reactivness to other dogs. We are making progress. She’s slowly trusting new dogs again and that they won’t attack her but it’s hard when we don’t speak the same language as our dogs. Love following all your work. Great that you included videos too. Helps bring the article alive. Keep it up.

  8. Thank you so much for this great read! I hope this isn’t a silly question, but you mention that dogs will increase their fitness and expect more exercise if that is all that you are doing with them. Does this work the same way when it comes to mental stimulation? Will the dog just continue to require more and more mental stimulation (either more frequently or more challenging)?

  9. Great article Steve.

  10. Great article Steve. I totally agree and I smiled when I read Jenna’s comments as I was thinking about horses when I was reading your article, too. I don’t know how many people I have told that lunging just gets horses fitter whereas groundwork uses their brains and gets them much calmer plus it’s a better workout for their bodies as well. Is it ok to share?

  11. Hi Steve, I loved this article. I have used your training in drive with my wee dog, Maisie and she responds so well. I am regularly conscious of this idea when I get home and she is SO EXCITED and has energy to burn at that moment. My first instinct is to just get her to run it off (and often do, but using obedience in drive). I have thought a number of times that getting her to just run more will only make her fitter and actually won’t achieve much. I have trained (read: rehabilitated) a number of ex-racehorses who have been run so much and are so fit but are pretty crazy. It was my experience that through mental work and teaching them to think and using their bodies in more complex ways that the problems were managed and a safe, reliable horse was produced.

    • 100% true Jenny, like everything I guess it should all be in moderation.

      Rediculous exercise may help in the short term, but not the long term.

      Thanks for your comment.

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