One huge component of living with a reactive dog is management; it’s relatively easy to carry out, not very time-consuming, and often yields huge dividends. It’s also not a very sexy blog topic. After all, how many times can you write a short essay on the value of crating your dog when strangers come over? But management is so important to our dog’s daily lives- especially the reactive ones among us- that I’ve decided to do an infrequent and irregular series of posts on management.
Today’s topic is exercise.
I always knew that exercise is important for dogs. After all, who hasn’t heard the dog training adage, A tired dog is a good dog? It’s true, of course. Many of our dogs were bred to work in some capacity. For example, Maisy is half corgi, which is a herding breed. As such, she was bred to work cattle in the field all day long. Since I don’t have any cows, she has an endless supply of energy that needs to be channeled productively. I’ve long suspected that exercise is important in both channeling that energy as well as mitigating her anxiety, but I’ve never really had any proof- scientific or anecdotal- that this is true. This week, I found both.
Earlier this year, I set some dog related goals, and one of them was to increase Maisy’s exercise. I have been quite diligent about this (despite the fact that it’s the middle of winter in Minnesota) and have been averaging 30 to 45 minutes with her every day (about 1.5-2 miles). Everything was going well until a couple of weeks ago, when her booties finally wore out for good. Maisy refuses to walk in the snow and ice without booties, so I needed to get some new ones.
Now, if you’ve ever tried to shop for dog booties, you know how frustrating it can be to get booties that have a good fit and stay on. On top of that, I wanted water resistant booties at a reasonable price. I finally broke down and made some, but not after wasting over a week looking for, buying, and then returning, various booties. And of course, we did not walk during this time.
It showed. Maisy became progressively edgier, jumpier, growlier and just all around more anxious. She was barking at things I couldn’t see or hear around the house. She was startling at sudden movements while in the backyard or on a walk. And despite her successful night last week, she did have a few bark-n-lunges in our reactive dog class this week.
It’s clear that exercise matters. And not just for Maisy: there’s a new study out that shows that regular exercise reduces anxiety symptoms by 20%. Although the study was done on humans, I have no doubt that the same general principle holds true for animals, too.
I’m not sure why exercise makes such a dramatic difference in her behavior. Certainly, as I already mentioned, it’s important to get rid of pent up energy in a socially acceptable fashion. My trainer, Robin, suggested that it’s not the exercise itself so much as the regular exposure to novel stimuli, both for the socialization components as well as providing her with interesting experiences. That makes sense to me. I get to leave the house every day for work, but if I don’t take Maisy somewhere, she spends her entire life in our house and yard. Beyond that, there’s probably some science at work; I’ve long heard that exercise creates endorphins, the feel-good hormone.
No matter what the reason, after this week, my suspicion that exercise is important for managing Maisy’s reactivity has been reaffirmed and even upgraded to a firm belief. Since it is a relatively painless thing to do, I view exercise as one of the easiest things I can do to help Maisy feel more comfortable and happier.