How Much is Enough?
Some of the recent posts have brought up the question that many of us live with on a daily basis: how much training and attention do our dogs need every day? I get asked this a lot, and as I wrote in my essay in Tales of Two Species, I suspect that there’s another fundamental question driving it (she says, speaking from experience.) How much exercise, training and attention do our dogs need for us not to feel guilty? Fess up, don’t you sometimes wonder if you are doing enough for your dog, and don’t you sometimes feel guilty about not doing as much as you should?
I am sure that many of the people reading this blog will say no, they don’t feel guilty, and for good reason. I know that many of you take your dog out to classes several nights a week, take long walks in the country with them twice a day, teach them new tricks on a daily basis and cuddle with them all night long. But I suspect that many of the readers are more like me: sometimes feeling pleased about the physical and mental exercise we’re providing for our dogs, other times feeling guilty and inadequate.
For example, yesterday was not a good day for Willie. First off, he’s on exercise restrictions: leash walks only outside, no toy or ball play outside, no sheep herding, limited play inside, no running up the stairs. Secondly, I was on campus much of the day, so he spent from 11 am to 6 pm in his crate. It’s rare he’s in his crate for longer than 4-5 hours at a time, but life isn’t always the video tape I thought I rented. I would’ve felt guiltier if I’d been getting a massage and eating chocolate all day long, but still, I didn’t like it.
I was also slammed with the grant reviews I’m doing for NIH, so I spent most of the morning and part of the evening glued to my desk. All Will got beyond times to go outside and potty was heeling to the barn and back twice (which gets him lots of treats, and he seems to love), another heeling session when I got home (I’ve tried for 5 times a day–only managed it some of the days since I committed…), a small amount of trick training in the evening, and a long cuddle time in the evening with lots of belly rubs from me or Jim. Not a great day by a long shot.
But Wednesday? Oh, happy day for Willie. A 45 minute long walk in the country (on leash, but lots of good new smells) 5 sessions of heel work with lots of treats in 3 different contexts, interactive play with 2 new toys, a car ride to his chiropractor and all morning in the office with me and Denise (who he worships), lots of trick training and cuddle time at night. I went to bed feeling happy that Will had had a great day.
All this feels especially relevant because I haven’t had just one dog in decades, and I am so aware how different it is if your dog can’t play with others or entertain themselves outside. Lassie still played with Willie twice a day up to a week before she died, and the burden of ‘entertainment’ falls completely on my shoulders now. Of course, I live in the country and have sheep for Will to work, but none of that is relevant at the moment with him on leash restrictions (9 more days to go!)
So what DO our dogs need from us if they can’t entertain themselves? I remember growing up and letting our family dog, Fudge, out the door in the morning, when she’d pick up other canine companions and explore the neighborhood until we came home from school. The idea of entertaining or exercising our dog never entered our mind. But that was then, and we can’t and shouldn’t go back to it. So, here’s some thoughts about what dogs need from us–I look forward to hearing your thoughts too.
PHYSICAL EXERCISE: Yes, dogs need it, but how much varies so very much depending on the dog’s nature, age, etc etc. Just like people, dogs are simply healthier if they get in a good long walk every day, or better yet, a chance to run and romp off leash. I would love to provide some formula of how much exercise a dog needs, but it varies so much there’s no way to do it helpfully. In an ideal world, my 3 1/2 year old Border Collie would get long (45 to 90 minute) off-leash walks in the country at least 6 days a week, along with a good session working sheep, but it’s rare that happens more than 2 or 3 days a week. Ideally? I’d love it if every dog could get 2 sessions of solid exercise in every day, the definition of “solid” depending on the dog.
A few thoughts about the type of exercise that I’d be interested in your reaction to: I think some types of exercise tend to hype dogs up rather than calm them down. Ideally I think all our dogs would profit from lots of long, off leash (or long line) walks in which they aren’t fetching balls or discs or obsessing about objects in some way. One of my clients has a problematic BC who didn’t seem to be calmed after ball play, but rather hyped up by it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t play ball, or that many dogs don’t adore it (it’s Will’s absolute favorite game to play, paws down) just that some types of exercise might be more relaxing than others. I always like to see dogs have time to make their own choices and just be dogs–sniffing here, sniffing there, while performing the kind of consistent, aerobic exercise that creates relaxation in humans (think runner’s high).
MENTAL EXERCISE: This need for this kind of exercise is my favorite soap box, in the belief that many pet dogs suffer from boredom and too few chances to exercise their brains. I’ve found, as have many trainers, that learning a new trick or working on problem solving can ‘tire’ out dogs as much or more than physical exercise. One dear friend just sent Willie 2 new Ottosson toys (am I feeling SO grateful to my friends right now! What would we do without them?), and one of them has Will completely baffled. He tried to work it, couldn’t figure it out even with lots of encouragement from me, and then lay down and slept like a rock for an hour. Stressed? Absolutely, but not in a bad way I don’t think, and good for him in the long run.
All the research on neuroplasticity and brain function makes it clear that “use it or lose it’ is relevant to the brain, and that a healthy brain can lead to a healthier body. I’m reading Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain right now–it’s another great book, and provides continuing inspiration to keep our dog’s brains busy. New tricks, new problems to solve, reviewing old training exercises little used now–surely all of these things are as good for dogs as they are for us.
NOVELTY: This is something that I don’t think many people think about it, but I think it’s crucial to a dog’s happiness and overall health. We know that novelty engages the brain in all kinds of ways that nothing else can, and leads to new connections between neurons (usually a good thing) and enhanced enthusiasm for life in general. Here’s an example: Because Will is on leash restrictions we came into town a few days ago and went on a 30 minute walk through neighborhoods that are completely new to him. Although he couldn’t go faster than a walk, he was completely engaged in new sights, sounds and smells, and slept for hours afterward. Compare that to a dog who took the same walk, same route, every day, year after year. How stimulating would that be? I’ve noticed that Will is far less engaged in our walks in the pastures above the farm house than other dogs who come to visit, and why wouldn’t that be true? Same ol’ same ol’ for him, a potpourri of smells and excitement for the newbies.
Psychologists know that experiencing novelty is one of the keys to keeping human relationships vital and preventing partners from becoming bored with each other. Why wouldn’t the same be true for us and our dogs? The good news here, and with mental exercise as well, is that a little bit of effort can have big pay offs for our dogs. You don’t need to devote an hour every evening to teaching a new trick, which provides both mental exercise and novelty. You can take your dog to a new place for 20 minutes and get the same effect as if you’d taken an hour long walk in a place that is becoming old hat. Of course, the benefits depend on many factors: a new place that is frightening to neophobic dog isn’t going to enhance your dog’s life.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE: One the books I’ve been reading on brain plasticity mentioned increased dendritic branching (connections between neurons) when caged rats were allowed to voluntarily exercise. That’s a good thing for the brain, and can lead to all kinds of positive benefits, not only enhanced mental function but also to a better ability to handle stress, for example. But here’s the kicker: there was no effect when the rats were forced against their wheel to exercise, even if it was for the same amount of time. Forced exercise may be good for physiological health, but not necessarily for a healthy brain.
I thought of this after working with someone whose dog was never off leash, and had almost no choices about what to do or when to do it in the house. Surely that’s big price to pay for having your food and medical care guaranteed. The dog (a young, sweet, soppy Golden) had begun growling at her owner when he wiped off her paws as she entered the house. The house had wall to wall white carpeting, and the dog was only allowed to lie down on a few towels scattered about. The dog’s behavior was so carefully managed that the poor thing literally had no choice about where to lie down, when to potty, where to sniff outside, and what to play with. Granted, this example is extreme, but it’s a good reminder of the value of choice. Since our dogs, most of them, are no longer able to spend considerable periods of time outside on their own, we need to be creative to find ways to let them manage their own lives for part of the day.
Speaking of our own dogs: I need to get home and get Willie some physical and mental exercise that provides novelty and choice! I could go on and on on this topic, but I’d rather hear your thoughts….
Meanwhile, back on the farm: Jim will farm sit while I’m in DC doing grant reviews on for the Nat’l Institute of Child Health and Development in NIH and appearing on the Diane Rehm show on Monday. She is a breath of fresh air, so I’m looking forward to Monday and very interested how Tuesday and Wednesday (reviews) will go. Needless to say, I can’t say anything about the grant proposals, but I can tell you that the process is interesting, exhausting and yup, novel!
Next weekend the first lambs are due! Can’t wait. Bulbs coming up (in unnaturally warm weather, is almost weird) and lambs coming. I’ll send photos of the first lambs as soon as I get them. First ones are due a week from tomorrow, Saturday the 27th.
Here’s Will with a favorite toy.. this toy has lasted for over a year, and is still one of his favorites. I love how the toy is in focus and Will’s is not. Good thing, cuz he looks downright crazy in this shot!
And here’s the view on the way to the farm when the snow was melting and the world was soggy with mud and melting snow and fog: