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How much exercise does my dog need?

Clients often ask “how much exercise does my dog need”?

The simple answer for most owners is: Nowhere near as much as you think!

Exercise can be good for our dogs and us too. However, I used to be someone who exercised obsessively and assumed my dogs enjoyed running with me. Thankfully I managed to see what I was doing to myself and them, but sadly not before one of my dogs died at the tender age of 6 years. Over exercise heavily contributed to painful health issues which preceded his premature death. That was a tough life lesson for me but at least it benefits the dogs I live and work with these days. By changing my exercise regime and stepping down from life’s treadmill it has enabled my dogs and I to enjoy a more fulfilling life together. Adjusting caused frustration at times but I’m so pleased I no longer have to put myself through that regime. My dogs are delighted and take exercise in the way they wanted to all along – walking, sniffing and exploring at their own pace. It may take time for some dogs to discover their natural pace when they’ve been used to rushing everywhere, hardly having time to think about other dogs they race by and barely stopping to enjoy a smell. Checking out the locality, stopping and sniffing is what dogs do; so let them do it. They need to because that is how they obtain information about their environment.

While there are people who fail to meet their dogs’ needs by not exercising them at all, a great many owners in our society are at risk of routinely over exercising their dogs, largely as a by product of the busy lives we lead. So much has become fast paced and we think that it is necessary to be constantly ‘on the go’. We tend to sweep the dog up into our own hectic schedule, feeling that we are neglecting them if we don’t give them regular long, brisk or strenuous walks. For many owners this actually becomes a daily chore or part of their own exercise routine (to save time) – walking the dog becomes a task that needs to be fitted in somewhere and rushed through.

There’s really no need for this – left to their own devices and given a suitably calm, quiet environment, dogs will rest and sleep much of the day. The best way to realise this is to study the behaviour of feral village and city dogs, – they spend their days resting, probably deciding where the best places are for food, mating opportunities and so on, conserving energy, only ambling about to check the area but rarely rushing. Instead they will sit quietly or lie around for much of the time, sleep often and only really exert themselves when there’s a reason for doing so, for example as and when they are hunting. Pet dogs do not need to hunt or scavenge for food, so if we are to replicate the active part of a dog’s natural behaviour, we need to consider just replacing the very small part of the day when their wild or feral cousins would have been locating food. Remember, much of this activity is tactical, involving nosework and problem-solving rather than running at top speed.

Take the guilt away and expectations. How pleasant would it be for you and your dog to have a leisurely stroll and feel okay about it, going at the dog’s natural pace, where you both are emotionally connected, sharing and taking interest in the walk together? Okay, if you are someone who is hurrying through life it may not be that nice for you at first. Does that tell you something? Well, I totally understand because I found it frustrating and irritating in the beginning when someone suggested to me to walk slowly with my dogs and allow them to sniff and take their time. I worked at it and now find it quite alien to rush a walk with them, that is our special time of day and we gain so very much from each and every walk. Please start to observe your dogs and try to keep quiet. We can learn so much from our dogs if we give them time to sniff and allow ourselves the opportunity to observe without interfering. What do they stop to sniff at? What do they do after they’ve finished with a sniff/smell? I When do they move on? Do you know why they move on? Where do they choose to go? This is where you may need to apply appropriate boundaries if they are on the scent of wildlife! These are all questions to ask and although the answers may not be immediately obvious, keep asking yourself them because that is how you can learn about the world from your dog’s stand point. The more you practise this way of walking and being with dogs the more you will learn about them and yourself.

Remember that we set our dogs’ exercise regimes, not them. Can you imagine if someone set up an exercise plan for you, say your neighbour, athletic friend, son or daughter? Are their needs and wants the same as yours? What are their expectations? Do they know about your dicky tummy, leg ache and recurring headaches? Do you think you can meet their goals feeling like that? Do you have more energy and enthusiasm on different days according to life’s circumstances and daily goings on?

Dogs actually are not too dissimilar to us. They come in different shapes, sizes and have different lifestyles too. The thing is that they find it harder than a fellow human to tell of their feelings but we can learn to understand their language by observing them in various situations, looking at their communication signals and posture, coming to realise from the knowledge gained when they are uncomfortable. That is when you we will have more of an idea of what type and how much exercise is suitable. The pace, distance, environment, weather conditions, who they are walked with, the dog’s age, size and breed are all factors for consideration and the dog’s responses will vary daily but we really can learn to work with our dogs and find what suits them.

The thing a dog requires more than physical exercise (which sometimes we can get hung up on) is gentle mental stimulation. For us, more often than not, walking is a form of physical exertion and we make the mistake of thinking a dog only needs the activity. In reality, they get much more enjoyment from having a leisurely sniff around, scenting which other dogs, animals and who else has been in the area and what they have been up to; we humans have five million olfactory receptors in our noses – your dog has over two hundred and twenty million! Give him time and space to use the powerful gift of smell he has been blessed with and let him use his own methods of silent communication with his own species.

Hustling and dragging him along at the end of a lead isn’t too comfortable for dog or carer/owner/handler and will impact on your relationship. Make an informed choice about how much exercise you offer your dog and what the benefits are for him; there’s really no need to take him on a long route march. Your dog is not given an option: he has to keep up to please you. Why not put the emphasis on the quality of walk and enjoy spending time with your dog in ways that make sense to him. Simply exercising to tire out dogs can be counterproductive and creates more problems of one kind or another later on. It’s important to find out what is suitable for your dog on any given day. The problem is, most owners won’t know how to gauge what exercise is best for their dog until they’re educated in canine communication and know how to spot stress in dogs.

Taking a much more relaxed approach to exercise is positive for us, as well. Feeling upbeat, happier and refreshed after exercise is far better than exhaustion. Sometimes it’s good to give ourselves a little time just to chill out, have a think, take a proper look around at our environment and just generally slow down a bit. A calm, well balanced dog will naturally run when he wants to, usually for just a few seconds, then resumes walking and sniffing so maintaining a state of equilibrium. However, those dogs who have been encouraged to over exercise for quite a while need time and help to bring them to a point where they are in a mentally and emotionally balanced enough state to choose if and when to run. Just as we may find it initially hard to slow down, so may your dog but if you can develop the practice of letting your dog exercise at his own, leisurely pace, you’ll find you benefit from it just as much as he does. Try it – you may be surprised!

I offer Educational Walks for clients, teaching how to decide on a suitable walk routine and helping you and your dog to manage situations when they occur, tailored to suit your individual dog’s personality and breed type.

Work is currently under way on a book about exercise and requirements for dogs. Within the next year it will be available if all goes according to plan.