There is a debate among some Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB) about how much physical activity the average dog requires and whether taking dogs to dog parks and daycares is beneficial for exercise or socialization.
From my experience in a doggy daycare I saw many dogs that were on location between 8-12 hours as their owners were away at work...and by mid-afternoon many were clearly distressed, over-stimulated or exhausted.
A web-cam was in place at the daycare so pet owners could see what their dogs were up to. Most often they were napping or just wandering about, which is precisely what this researcher found to be normal. In her study, Pangal found that 60% of normal canine behavior was spent being inactive.
Ironically, pet owners frequently complained to daycare staff that they were paying for their dogs to sleep away the day; they wanted someone to play with their dogs all the time they were at the daycare. “Don’t let them sleep!” is something I sometimes heard from frustrated owners.
Over-stimulation is counter-productive, but that level of understanding is not available to pet owners unless they have access to valid information. Thanks to Pangal for making observations and compiling data in order to fill the information gap.
I think mental stimulation is often lacking in the lives of our pets, which leads to anxiety, stress and the expression of inherited (behavior pattern) behaviors or stress-reducing behaviors such as barking, digging, chewing, soiling and so on. Some owners believe they need to compensate when they return home from work by an intense period of physical exercise, to "tire the dog out" such as tossing a ball for an hour straight. It is not clear such a strategy is actually helpful.
By definition, a period of exhaustion and recovery follows a period of stress. Stressing a dog for several hours and then exhausting it in a brief period of over-stimulation does not sound like a healthy practice to me.
There is Another Way
An alternative is to arrange a lifestyle for our pets which allow them to express natural canine behaviors in acceptable ways. My dogs get nutritious meals that are substantially grain-free and are without excessive levels of protein. Good nutrition and regular veterinary care are the foundation of a normal and healthy dog.
We take an average of two 20-minutes walks each day on a nature trail where they can employ all of their senses. It is very important for dogs to sniff, poke about, dig and explore the world around them. They also encounter a wide variety of wild animals, which is a normal and healthy experience.
Once a week they visit a doggie daycare for about four hours. Several times a week they accompany me in my car for (social) trips to the vet clinic, bank, gas station, post office, parks, etc. Weekly therapy dog visits or walking visits in new neighborhoods maintain their social skills.
They have daily access to chew toys, food-filled puzzles and toys, stuffed toys for Buddha to dissect and homemade toys such as cardboard boxes to destroy. If they enjoyed chasing and retrieving that would be part of their routine, and we have tried agility and rally classes just for fun.
Training games are very stimulating, such as hide-and-seek and “find it”. Sometimes we practice basic obedience skills and make a game of it whether in the home, during walks or on social outings. As a consequence, they learned to pay close attention and develop self-control and good manners. It is because they learned good manners that they can enjoy a broad range of activities with us.
Even when our dogs were younger it was never necessary to intensely exercise them to the point of exhaustion. Doing so may only have made them hyper-aroused and reactive.
In short, we invested in great relationships with our dogs and made them full family members.
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Daniel H. Antolec, CPT-A, CPDT-KA is the owner of Happy Buddha Dog Training. He has membership in Pet Professional Guild, Force-Free Trainers of Wisconsin, Association of Professional Dog Trainers. He also sits on the Board of Directors for Dogs on Call, Inc. and is Chairman of Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Committee.