I remember when I got my first dog.
I mean, I had dogs growing up, but Koby was MY first dog. I got him when I was in college, and he completely turned my world upside down.
A rescue with a semi-known background, my cute roly-poly dog was reactive with other dogs and displayed aggression towards people he didn’t know. And needless to say, for a total rainbows-and-butterflies-love-is-all-you-need-to-save-the-world kinda girl, while I loved him to death, Koby was a challenge.
One of the things that I distinctly remember about my daily life with Koby was my attitude towards exercise.
The dog experts told me…
- You have to walk your dog every day
- A tired dog is a good dog
- If he’s a challenge on walks, wear him out first by throwing the ball or (my biggest pet peeve) run him out on a treadmill (thanks Cesar Milan for that gem)
- Make him heel! He needs a job
And let me tell you, those instructions were burned into my head.
So much so in fact, that I believed if I didn’t follow them to a “T” I was a horrible dog owner. I mean, what kind of dog owner doesn’t walk their dog? It’s just what you do…
When I think back to those times, and those beliefs (that really limited my relationship with Koby), I just shake my head…
Hindsight is 20/20, right?
If you have a dog who struggles with reactivity, and you’ve heard the same, here’s the honest truth…
- You don’t have to walk your dog every day
- A tired dog is a tired dog – that’s it. By physically exhausting your dog, you’ve solved nothing
- Ball play is unproductive for dogs with reactivity
- The only thing running on a treadmill does is build endurance
- Dogs don’t need a job – they need to learn to cope
Here’s the thing. There are so many misconceptions floating around when it comes to dog ownership. And a lot of them are keeping well-intentioned dog owners who perhaps are struggling with things like reactivity in a perpetual loop of bad behavior.
Think of this scenario…
An owner has a reactive dog. They walk him daily as instructed. He has bouts of reactivity on EVERY walk. The owner and the dog are always left feeling defeated.
How did that walk help anyone?
Now, if you have a dog with reactivity, this isn’t a free pass to totally stop exercising your dog.
As your dog’s owner, it’s critical that you provide them with plenty of physical and mental stimulation.
That said, there are many activities that are far more productive for dogs suffering from reactivity. You’ve just got to get creative.
Here are just a few…
- Nosework – One of the most beneficial activities for dogs suffering from reactivity is to teach them to use their noses. Sniffing is primal, and it helps calm dogs that might be a little stressed out. And the best part – you don’t have to go to a formal group class to do it. There are plenty of nosework games you can play at home (just google “nosework games for dogs” and you’ll find loads of resources). They are super simple, super fun, and they’ll activate a part of your dog’s brain that needs a little TLC.
- Hiking – If it’s possible to get yourself and your dog into nature, do it. Hiking trails provide a different experience for our dogs. One where they have to engage with and pay attention to their environment. They have to navigate where they put their feet, deal with different terrains and they have opportunities to let their noses run wild. This is an awesome way for reactive dogs to de-stress. It’s not the same old boring pavement, where the only thing to do is focus on the many triggers that are constantly whizzing by. Just make sure you allow them to engage with the environment to get the most benefit. (Keep your dog leashed for safety when exploring nature).
- Swimming – If your dog likes to swim, this can be an amazing outlet for them. It works different muscles in the body than those exercised while walking or running. The experience of swimming is different than the things they experience daily, which gets the brain working, and it’s a great way for them to relieve stress quickly and safely. Just make sure before any swimming, you warm your dog up, and be sure not to overdo it. Here’s an article for water safety if you plan to swim your dog. And if you throw toys for your dog to fetch in the water, try working in some control or brain work between reps for maximum benefit.
- The treadmill – While I don’t like treadmills for pure physical exhaustion, if you don’t have access to hiking trails or a pool/lake/the ocean, a treadmill can help. But rather than running your dog ragged, set the speed mind-numbingly slow and teach your dog to walk for an extended period. This is a great way to get them to de-stress and tone it down while giving them an outlet for physical exercise. Couple this with some fun nosework games around the yard, and you’ll have a fulfilled dog in no time.
If you are suffering with a reactive dog, here are some activities to avoid:
- Ball play – I’m not telling you to ditch your dog’s favorite ball for good. But I am telling you that using ball play as a way to exercise your dog isn’t going to do you any favors. Not only can it promote a bit of obsessiveness, but it can also cause injury if you aren’t careful (I’ve seen many a ball crazy dog tear their cruciate ligament playing fetch). If you want to play ball with your dog, mix it up. Don’t throw the ball 20 times in a row to totally exhaust your dog. Instead, make them do something – lay down for example. Toss the ball and release them to get it. Break up ball play sessions with training, self-control exercises, tug play or personal play so that the dog has to engage their brain and so that the behavior doesn’t become completely impulsive.
- Walks – Walking in your neighborhood, and battling reactivity is going to make matters worse. If you live somewhere that doesn’t afford you the ability to walk without bumping into the things that trigger your dog’s outbursts, it’s time to find a new place to exercise. Every time your dog has a reactive response, it pushes the needle backward a bit on your progress. So it’s important that you find outlets for your dog where they can be successful as you work to overcome your struggles with reactivity.
- The Dog Park – If you have a dog with reactivity that only pops up when your dog is on lead, but they LOVE other dogs when off lead, and you think taking them to the park for a little knock-down-drag-out wrestle mania with their buddies is a great way to tire them out, think again. A LOT of reactivity stems from simple over-excitement. And if your dog’s only source of exercise is rough and tumble play with others, their excitement when they see their friends is only going to grow. Not to mention, there are many more productive and safer outlets for your dog’s energy.
Listen, exhausting your dog isn’t going to change anything for you. It might lessen the reactivity when your dog is tired, but it’s not going to magically translate to the times when they are full of energy. And tiring them out with games and play that can lead to obsessive behaviors or overexcitement around other dogs isn’t going to help either.
Instead, get productive with your exercise options. Let your dog use their nose. Work training, thoughtfulness, and self-control into your daily routine and into your dog’s exercise and play sessions. And quit beating yourself up for not taking your dog for a walk. Because sometimes that walk can do more harm than good.
Note: You know your dog best. Be sure to choose activities you feel are safe and take all necessary precautions when managing things like reactivity. Always observe leash laws and if you feel your dog is aggressive in the least, or poses a risk to other dogs or people, always keep them leashed and at a safe distance away.