Have you ever noticed how many of your neighborhood dogs seem to hibernate during the winter? Their owners hibernate too. In the spring, they emerge from their home, the dog running and jumping at the end of the leash; the owner panting and trying to keep up. No doubt, both have put on a few extra holiday pounds.
I'm not here to berate anyone for avoiding the cold, I can't stand cold. In fact, the only reasons I'll typically go out in the cold are to take the dog out, to go for a run or to build a snowman. That is why I had to come up with ways to exercise my own dog during the cold, long winters in upstate New York. Next week, I'll have a run-down of my favorite winter doggie games, so stay tuned!
First, lets talk about the types of exercise your dog needs. I'm not talking about weight training vs. cardio (though I try to include some of each in my games below). See, dogs need both physical and mental exercise to keep them happy and healthy. Mental exercise for dogs? Am I completely crazy? Are you supposed to get a tutor for your dog?!
No, silly. YOU will be your dog's tutor, training partner and workout buddy.
Actually, you should already be those things for your dog. He deserves it.
Before we get into what, lets find out WHY dogs need these things.
We all know that physical exercise has many health benefits- healthier weight, decreased incidence of heart disease and arthritis, as well as fewer injuries such as ACL tear. For more on this, please consult your veterinarian and listen to their advice. You have probably noticed that if your dog gets a good long walk or a game of frisbee in, he is a little more calm once you get back inside the house. If you have a dog who is of the terrier line or any kind of sporting dog, it may take something more like a 5 mile run or hike in addition to a daily walk to expend energy. Sometimes, even two runs a day or a 5 hour hike isn't enough. What is a loving dog owner to do? There is only so much time in the day! At this point, your dog has likely expended enough physical energy, and is in need of some mental exercise if either of you is to sleep anytime soon.
It's interesting, 30 years ago it was unheard of to need to exercise your dog either physically or mentally. Wanna guess why?
You got it.
Dogs used to work.
I'm not talking about hard labor or anything, just the fact that most dogs had a purpose back in the day. It may have been guarding the house, herding the livestock, babysitting the kids, or helping to catch dinner. They got up in the morning, ate breakfast (or went out to hunt their own), went to work, and came back for dinner (or found their own) and a warm place to sleep. Don't get me wrong, life is much better for dogs in many ways than it was 30+ years ago. They live longer, most get to have a cushy bed (or three, in Roxie's case), and don't have to brave the elements except to go potty- it's a pretty awesome deal, except for one little detail
Have you ever gone to bed, gotten yourself all tucked in snug and cozy, only to lay there staring at the ceiling for 3 hours? You know how your dog decides it's time to run a Nascar style race around your living room around 9:15 some nights? SAME. FREAKIN'. THING.
As you pick up the pieces of your mind that just got blown across the room, think about your poor pup. He's trying to be a good boy, he was great on the walk, didn't chase the cat, didn't beg at the table at dinner; he just needs to run around a little. Is that so wrong?! When it involves tearing around your living room as your family is just settling down for some quality time, it's a little annoying. What your dog needs just as much as physical exercise is this mental exercise I keep talking about.
Now, what you really want to know: How do you provide mental exercise for your dog? It's easy. No, really, it is. There are many ways to get your dog adequate mental exercise:
-Practice obedience cues (sit, down, stay, heel, etc)
-Practice agility skills (jumps, wave poles, hold position, chutes, tunnels, etc)
-Play games (hide & seek, fetch, treat hunt, and soooooo many more)
I'll explain these games and more next week, but lets go back to why your dog needs this type of exercise. Remember a few paragraphs ago, when I went off on a tangent about how dogs used to have jobs? This is where that becomes important again. Those jobs that dogs used to have? They have actually been bred for these jobs over many generations. They have been bred to guard a flock, herd, or home, hunt with their people for dinner, or move a flock or herd... just a few canine trades. More on that later. So, if these dogs have been bred for years to do these jobs, is it any wonder they go a little nuts when they don't get this exercise.
My favorite example is a border collie- they have been bred to solve puzzles (moving a flock of sheep around in a field, into and out of pens). Now, if he can move a flock of sheep, why wouldn't he try to solve the puzzle of how you get those tasty treats out of the cabinet?
Do your dog a favor, and think about how much or how little mental exercise they are getting and think about how you can change that. He'll really appreciate it. I promise.
Be sure to check back next week to get the games all spelled out for you!
References: Play Together, Stay Together-Happy and Healthy Play Between People and Dogs, By Patricia McConnell and Karen B. London