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Exercise: A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

Evidence of insufficient exercise may take the form of destructive chewing, barking, digging, pacing or self-mutilation. How can you exercise your dog sufficiently so that they can behave calmly? You don't have to quit your job and buy a flock of sheep for your border collie or take up duck hunting for your Labrador, but adjusting your schedule to allow time for canine exercise will make life easier for everyone.

To know if your dog is getting sufficient exercise, perform Suzanne Clothier's TV test. Turn the TV on, sit down on the couch and see what your dog does. If after a few minutes he or she falls asleep on the floor or settles down with a bone, chances are your dog has had sufficient exercise. If, on the other hand, you end up with three tennis balls in your lap or you have to turn up the volume because you can't hear your program over the squeaky toy, your dog would probably appreciate more exercise.

While a neighborhood walk may be sufficient exercise for the Bassett hound that lives next door, most dogs, especially young ones (age 6 and under), need substantially more exercise than a leisurely stroll will provide. A good place to start is to assume that your dog needs at least one exercise session each day that ends with some panting and a trip to the water bowl. Whether this means a walk of 15 minutes or of 60 minutes depends on the dog.

Walking, hiking, jogging and swimming are all excellent ways for your dog to stretch their legs and minds-think of all that sniffing as their version of reading the morning paper. Mental exercise is a surprisingly effective way to give your dog an outlet for their energy. In addition, you can give your dog this type of exercise by training from the comfort of your living room! If you've ever taken a group obedience class with your dog, you will recognize the wonderful silence of a dog after a training session. By making time each day for exercise, you will be better able to enjoy living with your dog as a polite companion, rather than a barking, jumping, whining, lunging ball of fur.

Below are some suggestions for indoor and outdoor games that exercise a dog's mind and body.

Indoor Games:

Tug. When played according to a few simple rules, tug is a great way for you to bond with your dog while exercising his mind and muscles. To enjoy playing tug safely with your dog, observe the following rules:

  1. You start and end the game. Choose a starting cue such as, "Get it!" or "Tug" and only play the game after giving the cue. Likewise, choose an ending cue such as, "Drop" or "Give" to end the game. Your dog should relinquish the toy at your request. If he does not, he doesn't get to play the game.
  2. Choose a special toy to play tug with, and do not allow access to this toy when you are not around. By limiting tug to a special toy, you will reduce spontaneous tugging on the leash, your clothes, and other everyday objects.
  3. No teeth to skin contact allowed, ever. If you feel teeth, let out a sharp "ouch!" and end the game. You may initiate the game again after a brief time out of 30-60 seconds. If you feel teeth again, end the game for the day. To enjoy the privilege of tug games, your dog must learn to control his mouth.

Find. This game is a great way to practice stay as well as exercise your dog. Put her in a stay in one part of the house, and then hide a treat or favorite toy in another part of the house. If your dog is not ready to stay while you move out of sight, begin by putting her in another room with the door closed. After you have hidden the toy or treat, go back to your dog and reward her for staying with a second treat. Release her to find the hidden treat or toy with a cue such as, "Okay, where is your ball/treat/toy?" Move with her through the house, encouraging her when she gets closer. In the beginning, choose easy hiding places such as next to a door or under a table. As she gets better at the game, you will need to choose more difficult hiding places such as up on a shelf, under a couch cushion, or behind a curtain.

Hide and Seek. In addition to exercising your dog, this game reinforces your recall ("come"). Toss a handful of your dog's meal or other tiny treats onto the floor and then move quickly to a hiding spot in another room. Behind the door, in the closet or behind the shower curtain are all good spots. When your dog has had enough time to eat most or all of his distraction cookies, call him to you. If he passes you, let out a little hint, such as a giggle or cough. When he finds you, praise enthusiastically and offer a high value treat.

Home Alone Games: You can give your dog a little bit of exercise even in your absence!

Buster Cube: The buster cube is a hollow plastic block with a maze inside. You can load treats into the cube and then give the cube to your dog. Your dog must bat, nose, and roll the cube around to work the treats out of the maze and onto the floor.

Kong: A Kong is a hollow red rubber toy that can be stuffed with anything from wet dog food (freeze before serving!), peanut butter, cream cheese or special Kong Stuffing. You can combine these "glues" with your dog's kibble, carrots, or other treats to keep things interesting. The more difficult to unpack, the longer the Kong will keep your dog occupied.

Biscuit Buddy: A hard rubber, purple, flying saucer-shaped toy, the Biscuit Buddy is similar to the Kong and Buster cube in that it can be stuffed with food, but different because you can vary the difficulty of the exercise by changing the size of the opening that the food comes out of.

Dissection Projects: For dogs that are easily bored, try increasing the difficulty of their home alone projects by putting the Kong or Biscuit Buddy inside of an old rag or paper bag (something you don't mind being shredded), and then placing the wrapped parcel inside of a cardboard box. If even this is too easy for your canine genius, you can also hide their project in a different room everyday!

Outdoor Games:

Fetch: Teaching your dog to retrieve a ball, stick, or toy is a great way to exercise your dog without having to cover so many miles. Just be careful that your game of Fetch doesn't turn into your dog's game of Keep Away. To avoid playing Keep Away, get at least two toys that are exactly the same and alternate tossing the two. Be sure to praise lavishly if your dog returns to you with the object and tell them how brilliant they are before asking them to relinquish the toy for another toss.

Dog Parks: Many owners are discovering the healthy outlet and socialization opportunities available at off leash dog parks. Dogs can exercise one another more efficiently than we can-10 minutes of wrestling with their buddies is worth 20 minutes of leash walking and meets some of your dog's social needs as well. Just be careful to be aware of your dog's interactions. Learn what appropriate canine social behavior looks like and interrupt the play if your dog is practicing to be a bully or to be a victim. A good rule of thumb is that if both dogs look floppy and move toward one another after breaks, the play is mutual.

More Games:

In addition to the games described above, you and your dog may be interested in learning human/canine team activities such as Agility, Flyball, Scootering, Skijoring, Search and Rescue, Dock Diving, Terrier Trials, Hunt Trials, Animal Assisted Therapy, Canine Freestyle, Competition Obedience, or Rally Obedience. For more information on these activities, check out local trainers, breed clubs and humane organizations.

By providing mental and physical exercise for your dog, you can build a mutually satisfying relationship and fully reap the rewards of sharing your world with a dog.