Is it so intuitive that dogs need (or even want) exercise?
We don’t worry ourselves with seeing to it that our pet fish swim laps every morning. Pastured animals don’t run laps around their fields. And, to casual observers, many dogs seem perfectly content to lounge lazily on a couch all day.
Even if we accept that dogs want or need exercise, is it so clear that we, their owners and handlers, need to shoulder that burden? Maybe in a perfect world we could spend time exercising our pets, but only after all of our personal desires have been adequately satisfied. We are their “masters,” after all.
Well, here’s our formal position: that’s all nonsense. When it comes to exercising dogs, we believe in two fundamental principles: (1) most dogs both want and need adequate exercise to live their fullest and happiest lives and (2) their owners and handlers are responsible for meeting those needs and desires.
Don’t agree? Great, read on. We’ll cover the first proposition in today’s article and the second one shortly. We think our positions are supported by reasonable assumptions, empirical evidence, and solid logic. If you disagree please leave a comment and give public voice to our disagreement.
How Your Dog Benefits From Daily Physical Exercise
Westernized humans exercise for a variety of highly-individualized reasons. Studies seem to suggest the obvious, that motivations tied to body image, such as desire to lose weight or maintain one’s weight, are among the most common. Subjects also cited “health benefits” as motivating their exercise habits, and, to a lesser degree, improvements to mood and stress reduction. A very small minority also reported that they exercised just for the pure enjoyment of the experience.
As we all know, dogs don’t have body image issues. Most level-headed folks understand that overweight dogs don’t feel any better or worse about their bodies than ideal-weight dogs. So this powerful human motivation is flatly inapplicable to the canine world.
But that doesn’t mean exercise is unimportant for dogs. In fact, when you consider just how significant the other benefits of exercise are, it just makes us humans look a little foolish for being so preoccupied with body image.
Just what are those “other benefits”? Let’s take a closer look:
1. Exercise Minimizes the Risk of Canine Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Cancer
Perhaps you’re familiar with these nasty conditions? If you’re not, you should be — they are the most prolific killers of dogs in this country. And they all have direct links to the amount of exercise and activity in which a dog participates:
Among its most notable and obvious benefits, exercise helps curtail canine obesity, a crippling condition with proven ties to each of the foregoing maladies. According to the experts at the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, obese and overweight dogs are exposed to a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and cancer. And a recent study by the APOP suggests that 55% of America’s dogs are overweight or obese. In other words, more than half the dogs in this country are unnecessarily exposed to a heightened risk of developing the deadliest health conditions know to veterinary science. Chew on that for a while.
While regular exercise is not the only way to help obese and overweight dogs lose weight (proper dietary modifications can also do the trick), it is a simple, straightforward, inexpensive, and surefire solution to the problem.
2. Exercise Minimizes the Risk of Canine Joint Injuries
A regular exercise routine can also ward off less-than-life-threatening-but-still-nasty conditions. Canine joint injuries — painful and limiting for dogs to endure and expensive for their owners to repair — can also be marginalized through a safe and effective exercise routine. Dr. Steven Budsberg, Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine and former President of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, explains the link between exercise and canine joint injuries as follows:
As a surgeon, many of the joint problems I treat are related to excess weight. If pet owners could keep their pet at a normal weight, many of these surgeries could be avoided. Even more important is the impact obesity has on joints and the arthritic changes that are often crippling. Many overweight pets experience severe joint pain that could easily be prevented by proper diet and exercise.
Don’t put the proverbial cart before the horse in this regard. Some activities provide excellent cardiovascular workouts while also placing fragile canine joints under tremendous stress (a common example is taking an adolescent dog for long distance runs before her bones and their joints have fully developed). Still others can leave dogs exposed to the risk of joint trauma if performed incorrectly or without proper supervision and precautions (highly dynamic agility work comes to mind). Always talk to your vet before starting a new exercise routine with your dog and introduce any risky activities under the supervision of a trained professional.
3. Exercise Makes Your Dog Feel Good
Now here’s where things get a little bit squishy.
As we’ve mentioned before and as most pet owners would readily acknowledge, maximizing the number of positive experiences our pets have during their lives is a goal toward which every responsible pet owner should strive.
This pursuit is not nearly as easy as it sounds because (1) your dog can’t relate its internal experiences verbally, (2) non-verbal canine communication is often misinterpreted, and (3) modern science has not yet reliably tied canine facial expressions and other observable bodily expressions to specific internal emotional experiences (as psychologists such as Paul Ekman have done with respect to human facial expressions). This leaves dog owners in a bit of a quandary as they try to make their dogs happy without reliably knowing when they are actually getting the job done.
Nevertheless, there are some persuasive reasons to believe that many dogs are hard-wired to enjoy exercise:
Although analagous studies have not yet been conducted on canine subjects, dozens of studies confirm that exercise has profoundly positive effects on human mental health. And, as Dr. Stanley Coren has commented about the applicability of mental health findings involving non-canine mammalian subjects, “[t]here is certainly no reason to expect that the nervous system of dogs would respond differently than those of the other mammals that have been tested so far.”
Given their evolutionary history as free-roaming pack hunters, common sense suggests that dog brains would be structured to reward kinesthetic activity.
Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. If you own a dog who loves kinesthetic play and exercise, we don’t need to describe for you the behaviors to look for as indicators that she is experiencing joy when she plays and exercises. Sometimes they’re kinda hard to miss.
4. Exercise Helps To Manage Unwanted Canine Behaviors
If the possibility of improving your dog’s health and happiness doesn’t motivate you to adopt a regular exercise routine for your dog, perhaps the possibility of improving your own life will.
Like young children, dogs are brimming with energy. And, like children, they’re going to find a way to expend that energy. So you’d do well to provide them with a constructive way of doing so — otherwise you might not like their choices. (Destructive chewing? Hyperactive attention seeking? Excessive barking? Nighttime restlessness? Shoe genocide? Any of these ringing any bells?)
Kinesthestic play and rigorous exercise are terrific ways to soak up your dog’s natural joie de vivre and indirectly discourage destructive behaviors. As the saying goes “a tired dog is a well-behaved dog.”
5. Exercising With Your Dog Will Help You Get in Shape
Last but not least, exercising with your dog can be a fun and easy way for you to improve your health and fitness too.
Numerous studies have shown that dog owners tend to exercise more than non-owners. But these findings were limited to subjects who regularly engaged in some form of kinesthetic activity with their dogs (like walking), and excluded couch potato owners. As the New York Times’s Tara Parker-Pope explains:
But owning a dog [doesn’t] guarantee physical activity. Some owners in the study did not walk their dogs, and they posted far less overall exercise than dog walkers or people who didn’t have a dog.
In other words, dogs can help you lose weight and get in shape, but only if you’re willing to be active with them. Use their natural exercise demands to your advantage and you may find that some regular exercise has you both looking slimmer and feeling more energetic!
PART TWO: SHOULD YOU FEEL COMPELLED TO PROVIDE YOUR DOG WITH DAILY EXERCISE?