“A tired dog is a good dog!” You’ll hear it everywhere. Got a large, athletic dog with no job to do, except hang around the house? Get the dog tired and you’ll have a well-behaved, happy dog. A hard run before you leave for work, another when you get home, and the dog settles. Does this work? Does it have a down side?
A job for a dog needs to engage both brain and body. How does a dog think? We can’t entirely know the answer to that, but we know dogs have instincts that would help them survive in the wild. They also have drives that have been shaped by selective breeding to enhance talents that humans have desired. These include herding livestock, retrieving, indicating game in the field, searching by scent, chasing by sight, and other pursuits. Different terms are used for these behaviors, but basically they are “hard-wired” in the brain.
If you need to change a behavior a dog is doing because of genetic heritage, your best chance is to channel that behavior into a similarly satisfying outlet for the dog’s instinctive urge. Chasing something and fetching it works for a lot of dogs. We’ll use it as an example here because it’s flexible and fits many dogs, but of course there are other mind-and-body pursuits you may find for your life with your dog instead. Your dog’s thing might be therapy dog visits, educational work with children, earthdog trials or any number of other pursuits.
Dogs who crave complex problems to solve can track, trail, or air-scent to the target. These tasks are not only satisfying to the dogs but are extremely useful to humans. When dogs know they are performing a needful task (and dogs DO know), they feel just as happy and fulfilled as humans similarly blessed in life.
In retrieving, tracking, and searching; dog and handler work together. Your dog is fulfilled and you are a part of it. It’s not as easy as turning the dog loose in a field or dog park to pursue wild things or scuffle with other dogs, but look at the advantages:
1. Scent work is hard work! It’s tiring for the dog, sometimes even more so than the same length of time spent running. If your dog needs an outlet for energy, searching the back yard for something you place there makes a good one. You can even do searching tasks in the house.
2. The dog who needs an activity mostly to keep busy can search for a toy, treats, or even dinner. Keep meals served in this manner light, since a dog should not be extremely active on a full stomach. If you feed multiple small meals a day rather than one big one, this is not difficult to arrange. You can also make the physical work easier and the mental work harder by hiding the object well, but in a small area for the dog to search.
3. Dogs doing mental exercise along with their physical exercise are at lower risk of injury. If the dog is in pain or not feeling well, you are right there to see the problem and interrupt the activity to help the dog. Hard running without handler attention can result in torn feet, toxic exposures, contact skin allergy reactions, structural injuries, worsening of any illness, and even occasionally sudden death. As dogs tire, they become more prone to injury. If they are interacting with other dogs when tired they can also be more easily triggered to fight.
4. When dogs exercise their minds along with their bodies, they’re getting smarter! Working under your direction, they’re becoming more bonded with you, too. You are the one who takes the dog interesting places to do these interesting things, and sets up the fun games around the house. The dog thinks you are awesome!
5. Unstructured exercise has effects on the dog’s other behavior due to the chemicals involved in the body. The dog just mindlessly running after anything that moves likely feels something like a human “runner’s high.” This is addictive. People tend to consider it a “good addiction,” but people choose whether or not to do it, and can be fully informed of whatever they might be doing to their bodies.
Dogs go with their feelings when we don’t direct them with training and handling. They can’t make a connection between what they did an hour ago or yesterday, and how their hips hurt now. They can injure themselves because they tend not to feel as much pain when highly excited.
With wild activity, dogs can also push an injury that would have healed with restricted activity into one that will require surgery. Since the dog is running like a maniac, the human can’t believe the dog could be hurt. Thus the dog doesn’t see the veterinarian in time to get put on restricted activity and heal the injury at a minor stage. Failure to recognize such injuries leads to all sorts of other problems, including anxiety and aggression.
When you and your dog do things together, there will be pauses in the action and chances to take stock of how the dog is doing. Work with your dog on control exercises, too, including training to stay. For their own well-being and to be good companions, all dogs need to know how to behave with composure. Training and working with your dog should always include this ability.
Dogs need to learn to exit a crate or other doorway calmly, to hold still for collar and leash to be put on and taken off, to ride safely and quietly in a car, and never to exit a car without permission. All of this will aid your active times together and naturally fit into the training you do with your dog. Whenever the dog seems like a runaway horse; stop, think about how to slow the dog down and insert control points, and then start training toward that goal. Training will be safer—and so will your dog’s life.
6. When you and your dog exercise minds and bodies together, you’ll get more good places to go. Join with other people who have similar training goals. Learn the skills to continue becoming a better dog handler—there is no limit, absolutely none, to how good you can get at it. There will always be more to learn. That’s part of the fun. Getting together with other dog lovers and seeing your dog doing things he loves to do are some of the other parts.
The places you get to go with your dog for structured dog activities tend to be safer than where you might wind up going just for the purpose of tiring the dog. More people can check the grounds for safety, the group can get property owner consent to work dogs there, and the other dogs will be under the control of people you know.
To find a group of like-minded dog people, you might start by contacting volunteers in local dog clubs. The American Kennel Club website, www.akc.org, lists AKC member and licensed clubs by state. Even if the activity isn’t one the AKC offers titles in, active dog club members tend to know about other active dog groups in the area. One person may suggest another for you to call, and soon you find the right group. When you have dogs and a specific dog activity in common, likely you’ll fit right in.
Tired in a Good Way
Finding a sport or job to do with your dog may seem harder than taking the dog out for a hard run once or twice a day, but is it really harder? The trained dog’s training spills over into everyday life, making the dog easier to live with. The various aspects of training for any structured activity mean you have some things you can do indoors on days when getting outdoors isn’t an option.
When dogs learn, they also learn how to learn—so it becomes easier to teach them all sorts of other things. Everyone who spends time around your dog will appreciate the training you can do to give the dog more composure and control. Your dog will be able to settle down indoors without being exhausted first. The ability to learn that you create through your work with your dog stays with the two of you through the life of the dog, and all sorts of future situations you couldn’t possibly predict will be easier to handle.
When choosing a dog for yourself, think about what activities you want to fit into your life. Go observe those activities and the kinds of dogs doing them. Get to know some of the people. Volunteering to help out will give you a good taste of what that activity is like. Make sure it’s not such a radical lifestyle change that you just won’t stick with it.
Pick the kind of dog who can happily fit into your lifestyle, and train your dog accordingly. Your lifestyle will change somewhat with the addition of any dog, but there are big differences in the amounts of mental and physical exercise required by different types of dogs. Having your own fenced yard helps. It can’t replace training, though, and probably isn’t safe for unsupervised exercise.
What a fenced yard does do is give your dog a clean place to run out and potty several times a day with minimal effort from you. You can easily pick up the area daily so the dog’s time out there is spent in a clean environment. And you can set up training exercises to do together in the yard. All of this has the dog off-leash moving freely around but safely tucked inside a fence with you supervising.
If you don’t have a yard, it takes more legwork from you to get the dog out to eliminate. The dog doesn’t have the freedom to run a couple of laps around the yard on each potty trip, either. To keep life interesting and active, you could use a long line to include a variety of quick training exercises on these outings. Retrieving, send-away exercises, recalls with and without drops, seek-backs to items you drop (maybe on a previous walk to make it even more interesting), stays, full-attention heeling and other synchronized movements with your dog are all ways to keep your dog thinking.
Whether or not you have a fenced yard for training, a high-powered dog of the type that causes people to say “A tired dog is a good dog” will need activity beyond home. A good way to start is in a basic training class for puppies or adult dogs and from there find one or more other groups training for something you want to pursue with your dog. Keep that dog engaged, mind and body. That’s much better than tired!
Scott Cook, a professional K-9 Trainer of 45+ years, has been an avid Canine Enthusiast since childhood and it is worth mentioning that he successfully trained his first dog (a rescue dog with behavioral aggression issues) at the age of 11!
His passion, enthusiasm and love for the dog is evident in his many years of experience as well as his hunger to learn more and it is all this that has made him what he is today! He has had extensive training in the area of canine behavior and training! His studies have included 2 summers in the kennels of the New Skete Monestary, 1 year mentoring with Dr. Ian Dunbar, 1 year mentoring with Ed Frawley, and 2 years association with Michael Ellis!
He is a current Professional Member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and owns and operates his own dog training business with 45+ years of professional Canine Training experience in his kitty! You are in good hands with Scott!
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