» Real (Non-Millanian) Evidence That Exercise Will Improve Your Dog’s Behavior - The Optimal Dog

Real (Non-Millanian) Evidence That Exercise Will Improve Your Dog’s Behavior

Real (Non-Millanian) Evidence That Exercise Will Improve Your Dog’s Behavior

Perhaps you’ve heard a little Mexican-American fella with a meticulously coiffed goatee and rollerblades tell you that the three fundaments of successfully managing unwanted canine behaviors are “exercise, discipline, and affection — in that order.”

Well, if you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’re a bit more skeptical than the average bear.  If you’re anything like our authors, you’re not so inclined to accept the advice of self-styled “experts” without first understanding the evidentiary basis for their advice.

Maybe, despite his fame, success, and undeniable charm, you won’t blindly accept Mr. Millan’s opinion that exercise is a critical part of managing unwanted canine behaviors.  (If this is the case, you’re in pretty good company.  To say that the veterinary and animal behaviorist communities “have issues” with Mr. Millan is to grossly understate the severity of their criticism of him.  Check out these links, which are really just the tip of the iceberg on the subject.)

That being said, maybe you’ve seen anecdotal evidence in your own home that seems to support Mr. Millan’s thinking. I know I have. I have long believed that daily physical exercise and play have been the keys to managing the often difficult behavioral tendencies of my highly-energetic adult male Rottweiler, Kody.  My beliefs in this regard are (or at least seem to be) based upon my casual observations of Kody’s behavioral responses to different exercise programs.

But, as with most of my beliefs, a nagging voice in the back of my head eventually ended-up asking “is this something that you know for sure or are you just fooling yourself into thinking so?”  I can’t really tell you why I have these thoughts — perhaps I’m too aware of the human tendency to overlook the true in favor of the anecdotal or perhaps I’m just paranoid about looking as foolish as Mr. Millan.  I can only say that this on-going internal dialogue has motivated me to dig deeper into the scientific literature to determine whether there is validity to the claim that “daily exercise helps manage unwanted canine behaviors.”

Based upon my review of that literature, I can report that there are strong links between exercise and the management of unwanted canine behaviors, although much about those links has yet to be studied.

The state of our knowledge with respect to the issue is summarized in Steven R. Lindsay’s text, The Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume One — Adaptation and Learning.  After citing numerous studies suggesting that moderate exercise enhances noradrenergic activity in the brain and increases levels of serotonin (a hormone linked with decreased levels of stress and increased feelings of well-being), Lindsay concludes that these findings are “of considerable importance with respect to the use of exercise for the management of stress-related behavior problems.”

He goes on to explain the link between serotonin production and stress-induced negative behavioral tendencies as follows:

Within the brain’s neuroeconomy, serotonin plays an important modulatory role over stress and the control of undesirable impulsive behavior.  Promising evidence in support of a functional link between serotonin production and exercise has been reported by Dey and his associates (1992), who demonstrated a significant alteration of central serotonergic activity in rats exposed to chronic exercise.

And later:

The aforementioned studies support the hypothesis that exercise, especially daily and long-term exercise, has potentially beneficial effects on the neuroeconomy of the dog. … Although the research is far from conclusive, the beneficial influence of exercise in combination with appropriate behavioral (e.g., basic training and behavioral modification) and environmental interventions is a sensible approach to the management of stress-related behavioral problems.

Lindsay is most bullish on the ability of exercise to help manage separation-related anxiety, noting in the third volume of his text that “play and exercise appear to exert a positive influence on the treatment of separation-related problems.”  He cites numerous studies in support of this claim, including particularly insightful ones conducted by Anderson and Marinier (1997), Radosevich et al. (1989), and Flannigan and Dodman (2001).

So if you’re interested in judging for yourself the degree to which Mr. Millan’s exercise advocacy holds water, turn off your TV and consider taking a look at the aforementioned studies instead.  In the meantime, if anyone out there knows of any other studies on this issue, please mention them in the “comments” section.

Have a great Thursday!

– Coach Dan

3 Comments

  1. Nathan says:

    I just read some of the criticisms of Cesar Milan. Being a more casual dog lover, I have always loved the show and thought that his techniques were more good than bad. I wonder if the criticism is the sort brought along by fame, or if he really doesn’t take the right approach. Is it controversy because there are different schools of thought, a la Keynesian vs. Austrian economics, or is it more black-and-white where he is wrong/outdated/etc.?

    As far as exercise goes, I think we can all agree that without question, exercise is a crucial element to canine behavioral training and happiness. Although we are vastly different, I always think about how exercise makes me feel – clear-headed, relaxed yet energized, less stressed. This is how I envision many naturally active animals, from dogs to dolphins, feel. I know it’s a bit short-sighted and the evidence is anecdotal, but your studies have agreed with the concept as it pertains to dogs. Thanks again for another great article Dan!

  2. Pat says:

    I have read that off-leash exercise is of much more benefit than simply walking on a leash. My dogs are never totally relaxed on-leash. They are watchful and a bit tense. Hiking off-leash, playing fetch or chasing each other in an open area seems to result in calmer, happier guys at home. That being said, they would never refuse a walk on-leash either!

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