As a trainer and behavior counselor for dogs, when I think of the terms health and wellness, I consider a dog’s behavioral health and mental wellness, which I believe are equally important for raising a holistically well-rounded animal.
There are two main areas to focus on when considering your dog’s behavioral health and mental well-being. It’s important to regularly assess your dog’s daily quality of life and how he or she copes with any routine stressors.
For good quality of life, dogs need regular daily physical exercise. While this one is important, it might not mean what you think it does. The average companion dog does not need to run a marathon every single day or play ball at the park or hang out with doggy friends for hours on end. Unless you are training your dog for a specific purpose, even though daily exercise is important, there is no need to train your dog as a future Olympian.
What happens when you exercise for hours on end daily? You become super fit. You become stronger and can run further, faster, longer. You may get a “runner’s high,” which actually gives you more energy, rather than tire you out at the end. The same is true for dogs. And really, when people get home from a long day at work, while the dog has just been chilling out at home … most regular folks are simply trying to wear their dog out a bit after a long, boring day. So many of these people unintentionally end up with an insatiable canine athlete by pushing their dog longer and further daily in an attempt to burn energy or alleviate guilt. I am here to tell you it’s not necessary. What your dog needs from you is, sure, a chance to stretch his or her legs and get some fresh air, but more importantly, your dog also needs a bit of mental engagement and some time to connect with you.
Dogs are social creature that are designed to sleep about 18 hours a day, so it’s not so much the running through fields for hours that is missing from dogs’ lives; for most of them, it really is just companionship and a chance to use their brains and noses. You’ll do much better by your dog if you simply take 10 minutes twice daily to practice some sort of training exercise. It really can be anything, once in the morning before breakfast and work and again right when you get home from work and then take him or her for a walk. Sixty minutes a day will do on most days; you can (and should!) do more on your days off. It’s your call whether to split this into two half-hour sessions or whether to do a longer walk once a day. The rest of your evening can be spent with your dog enjoying your passive company while you go about daily chores or catch up on Netflix. If you want to get fancy, you can do a bit of armchair training during your favorite show. During commercial breaks, or every time you get up to get a snack or a drink or to use the bathroom, take two minutes to train your dog. These minutes really add up.
When you are away for long periods of time, consider giving your dog chew toy projects or food-dispensing puzzle toys to work on in your absence. They’ll happily be busy when you go out the door and will rest peacefully once they’ve finished the job.
While you’re at it, why not make some of these mini-training exercises that you’re going to incorporate into your daily routine useful for reducing stressors that occasionally arise in your dog’s life? For example, most dogs don’t enjoy veterinarian exams or grooming routines. This is an excellent training project to work on as a team, with the goal of improving your dog’s mental well-being when they must encounter these somewhat unpleasant experiences. Practice all sorts of handling techniques such as touching your dog’s toes individually while hand-feeding their dinner in order to create a positive emotional response to foot handling and toenail clipping. Once you’ve got that mastered, you can teach your dog to love to fetch the nail clippers and bring them to you before settling in for a relaxing pedicure. Another great exercise is to really teach your dog to stand and stay still while you examine or groom him or her. Even better, teach your dog to willingly offer certain body parts to you for inspection. Think beyond front paws and teach them to offer back feet or their rump, or to nose touch your hand and hold still until released with a big reward and little game for celebration.
There are so many little training games you can bring into your dog’s life so that training, the bonding that comes with it, as well as the skills that keep them calm and confident also keep them mentally healthy and well for life.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Maria Itina