Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

A while back, I was on a dog-related forum and a member was talking about how she is taking her dog to a training class for the first time.  

She remarked, "It's amazing how the mental workout exhausts her."

This is something many dog owners don't realize. Mental stimulation provides a more lasting calm than physical exercise, especially for physical dogs.

Does that seem odd?

Physical exercise is, of course, necessary on a daily basis for all dogs. But there is a huge difference between allowing the dog to run pell-mell for an hour at the dog park and stimulating it mentally for as little as 20 minutes. The former often serves to ramp the dog up, while the latter helps him calm down.

Exercise is important, but it should be the right kind of exercise, and include a mental component. This can be obedience work, nosework, exploring new places on a walk (with structure--especially the "heel" command), or games like "find it" inside the house.

More exercise just creates a more physically fit dog, and one that requires even more exercise to tire. Ever started an exercise regimen? If you are out of shape, it doesn't take much to tire you. But keep at it, day after day, and soon you can walk or run or work out longer and farther without tiring. You hit a fat-burning plateau, and now you have to really bust your butt to keep losing weight or build muscle.

Over-exercise a dog, and you get a very fit dog who now requires 2 hours of running to tire instead of one. (This is especially true of the muscular breeds like pits, boxers, and other “bully”-type dogs.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had owners tell me “I run my dog 5 miles a day, and he is never tired!” No wonder—he’s the canine equivalent of an endurance runner.

The nice thing about mental stimulation, on the other hand, is that is has no fitness plateau. 

Think about the last time you spent an hour or more studying for an exam, or muddling over a thorny mental conundrum. I’ll bet it made your brain tired. Did you sleep well after that, especially if you figured out the problem? 

(Sometimes, going to bed before you figure out the answer, and sleeping on it, will help you solve the problem—see the link at the bottom of this post.)

Having your dog complete obedience tasks every single day, and changing those up a bit, is one way to provide mental stimulation that benefits your dog in ways beyond your relationship. Do you walk your dog every day? You should—even if he has a yard to play in. Walks are mental stimulation, even if you take the same route every day.

Philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” The smells and sights and sounds of a walk are always different for your dog, and that’s what counts (though mixing the route up and exploring new walking places is even more fun, so try it!). Throw in some sits, stays, downs, heeling, and recalls on a walk, and you are giving your dog some nice challenges.

Do you enjoy teaching your dog tricks? It's fun for both of you, and yes, it is mentally challenging. Capitalize on the things your dog already likes to do, name them, and reward them. Voila!

For instance, if your dog likes to roll over on his back and throw his legs in the air, he is already doing "play dead." Name it and reward it! Use a treat to get him to roll all the way over, and, you guessed it: you have "roll over." Does he like to stand on his hind legs and dance? Hold a treat just slightly over his mouth and tell him "dance." Now you have a new trick! One of my dogs likes to bury her face in your armpit. Call that "are you embarrassed?" and reward it when she does it. Now you have a cute parlor trick.

These things are also fun on rainy days, or when you can't get the dog out and about for regular exercise.

One final note. After a round of mentally-challenging tasks, put your dog away (in a crate, for instance) for an hour or two, with no stimulation. This allows him to "think" about what he has learned. I call it "gestating." It's good for dogs and people. 

Make the most of your day, and your dog.