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Keeping Your Dog Busy

Dr. Pamela Reid, Ph.D., ASPCA VP Behavioral Sciences

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Dogs are very intelligent animals and they blossom in environments where they have plenty to do. City dogs are often required to spend substantial periods of time inactive. “In the old days”, dogs lived on country properties and spent their days exploring the grounds, scrounging from the compost, trotting after the tractor, rounding up the livestock, playing with the kids, and napping under the shade of an oak tree. The average urban dog experiences a very different reality: after 7-8 hours of sleep, they get a brief morning walk around the block to eliminate, followed by a well-balanced breakfast served in a bowl. The dog then snoozes while the owner prepares for his/her day, takes a long nap on the bed until the dog walker comes at mid-day for a 30 minute leashed walk in the park, followed by an afternoon nap until the owner comes home. The lucky dog will spend another 30 minutes walking with the owner about the neighborhood, maybe share a quick game of fetch in the hallway, have dinner and a cuddle on the sofa watching TV with the owner before bed.

Keeping Your Dog Busy


Couch potato dogs will relish this sedentary lifestyle but most dogs, if given a choice, want to be active! In fact, some dogs can’t hack the cushy city life at all and instead, drive their owners crazy, racing around the house, tearing the pillows, and digging up the flowers. Why do dogs have so much energy?

Most breeds of dogs were developed to perform specific jobs for people, such as guarding, herding, or hunting; work that demands physical stamina and mental concentration. When we choose to open our home to a dog, it becomes our responsibility to meet the behavioural needs of that dog by providing appropriate outlets for his physical and mental energy.

“No Pain, No Gain”
A tired dog is generally a good dog! Dogs need physical exercise. The average dog benefits from a minimum of two outings per day. If left to their own devices, dogs tend to be most active morning and evening, choosing to sleep mid-day. Off-leash exercise is best, provided the dog is trained not to run away or get into other forms of trouble. Being off leash allows the dog to monitor his own exercise – he can run when he feels like it and rest when he needs it. This is especially critical for puppies because their growth plates have not yet closed and too much exercise can result in orthopedic problems that plague the dog the rest of his life.

The most extensive exercise should be in the morning, after a good night’s sleep. If you wait until the evening, you’ve forced the dog to remain sedentary all night AND all day, which is a lot to ask. This is particularly true if you plan to leave the dog alone all day. A moderately sized dog, from a terrier to a retriever, should be out for 45-60 minutes in the morning and at least 30-45 minutes in the evening.

Strenuous aerobic exercise is best for healthy, physically sound dogs. If your dog has been a couch potato, check with your veterinarian before embarking on an exercise program with your dog. Off leash running and play with other dogs permits your dog physical exertion and social contact with others of his species. If you plan to frequent city dog runs, your dog should have impeccable manners with other dogs and with people. Mature dogs don’t always like the close confinement of a dog run and are more likely to behave aggressively, especially if there are rambunctious young dogs present.

Even dogs with orthopedic problems need managed exercise to keep the muscles strong so they can support weak bones and joints. Swimming is great exercise for any dog but is especially beneficial for unsound dogs, like those with hip dysplasia.

Owners with high-energy dogs can enjoy including their dogs in their own exercise programs, such as running, roller blading, or cycling. Sustained running like this is a wonderful way to expend excess energy and keep a dog fit but, just like people, it is crucial to build up your dog’s stamina for distance. Make sure you give your dog an opportunity to urinate and defecate before you get going, especially if you exercise them on lead. Keep in mind that dogs don’t cool themselves as efficiently as people – they pant rather than perspire. If you require your dog run to keep up with you, make sure he has frequent opportunities to immerse in water. This allows for rapid cooling.

Every morning, my dogs run while I ride my bike. I ride on a bike trail that runs alongside a stream so every few minutes, the dogs take a quick dip. When it’s really hot, they even dunk their heads under the water! As long as they can keep wet, my dogs are able to run for several miles, even in summer heat waves.

Training a dog to run alongside you while you roller blade or cycle can be a bit of a challenge, especially if your dog likes to chase bunnies or squirrels. Your dog must be taught that it is unacceptable to chase animals while exercising with you. Some dogs can learn this on just a regular collar, while others need to wear a training collar, such as a choke or pinch collar, to ensure everyone’s safety. There are attachments for bicycles to prevent the dog from knocking the bike over. A solid-leash device, called the Springer, is attached to the bike frame and the dog is connected to the bar. These are available from some pet stores and through pet supply websites.

For those owners averse to physical exercise themselves, fetch games are great but take care if your dog likes to catch air going after a Frisbee or ball. They often land hard and, if it happens enough, this can cause long-term damage to bones and joints. Another option is the doggy treadmills. For a few thousand dollars you can have the latest in dog exercise equipment! From what I hear, if trained properly, dogs love to run on treadmills. I’ve also heard of owners training their dogs to run on their own treadmills designed for humans. Often these treadmills have been collecting dust in the basement for years.

“Will Work for Food”
They say that if people don’t use their brains, cells begin to deteriorate. I have no reason to assume that dogs are any different. Dogs love to solve problems, especially ones that involve food.

Food toys are a great way to enrich your dog’s world. All animals enjoy spending time and effort obtaining food. In fact, it has been shown that, if given a choice between free food and food that requires work, such as searching or manipulating an object, animals prefer to work for their food. For instance, squirrels would rather be given peanuts in the shell than ones already shelled. So rather than give your dog his food in a bowl, for free, give him a puzzle to solve. Offer the dog his dinner in a Kong, a Goodie Ship, or a Buster Cube (see below for detailed instructions). Hide small containers of food around the house and release him to go find them. Take his bowl of food and toss the kibble into the backyard so he has to snuffle around in the grass to find the small pieces of kibble.

Training is another excellent way to stimulate a dog’s brain. In general dogs love to learn and even old dogs can learn new tricks. You can practice basic obedience manners, teach parlor tricks, or set up a few obstacles in your backyard so your dog can demonstrate his agility. Short sessions of 5-10 minutes once or twice a day is best. Keep it light and fun for the dog (and for you!) by using food, play, and plenty of praise and enthusiasm.

If you want more formalized stimulation, try agility or flyball training. The sport of agility involves teaching the dog to jump, climb, and weave through various obstacles. Most dogs love to use their bodies and they love to “play” with their owners, so agility is especially popular among dogs. A well-trained agility dog responds to various commands, including turning right, left, going ahead, flipping behind, sit, down and stay. Flyball is a relay race between teams of dogs – one at a time, dogs on a team will race over a set of low jumps to a special box that, when triggered by the dog, releases a tennis ball at top speed. The dog catches the ball and returns over the jumps to the owner. The first team with all four dogs across the finish line, each with a ball, wins! Flyball is a very noisy activity because most dogs tend to cheer their teammates on with frantic barking. Serious flyball competitors are pretty noisy as well and tend to resemble hockey moms or soccer dads!

In addition to obedience, agility, and flyball, there are unlimited activities for owners and their dogs, such as tracking, search and rescue, pet therapy, clicker training, freestyle, and so on. Check out the book “201 ways to enjoy your dog” by Ellie Milton (1990, Alpine Publications).

How to stuff food toys
The Kong: Mix the dog’s kibble with some small treats and something sticky, like Cheese whiz, peanut butter, or tinned dog food. Fill the Kong completely with this mixture and place it in the freezer. Frozen is more difficult for the dog to get out and it is less messy for your floors. Some dogs will lick at the Kong until it is empty; other dogs will learn to toss it around so bits of food fall out. The average dog takes about 20-30 minutes to empty a Kong. The Kong can be cleaned in the dishwasher (no detergent is necessary).

The Goodie Ship: Use any moist treat to stuff in the cookie cutter shapes of the Goodie Ship. There are different sizes and shapes of ship. Goodie Ships can be cleaned in the dishwasher (no detergent). Dogs seem to prefer the medium-sized ball ship, maybe because the toy fits in the mouth so the dog can use a lot of force to squish it and get the food out.

The Buster Cube: Only kibble and similar sized hard treats should be used in the Buster Cube and its mimics. The dog rolls the Cube around the floor, as the food falls out. The Cube is quite noisy, especially when the dog bangs it into furniture and walls, but it has a nice feature: it can be set to “easy” for the dog to learn and then “hard” once the dog has figured it out. Sometimes the dog gets so into rolling the Cube around that he forgets to eat the food! I use the Cube for my small dog because he gets substantially less food than my large dogs and, if I give him his meal in a bowl, he finishes much quicker than the large dogs. Rather than making him watch the other dogs finish up, I give him his meal in the Cube and it takes him about the same time to eat as the others.

© 2002 ASPCA

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