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— February 3, 2015 —
Don’t Just Exercise the Body, Exercise the Brain
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Last week we discussed exercising your dog to reduce problem behaviors. This week, we’ll take it one step further with a discussion of our dogs’ brain. Our dogs’ brain is just like a muscle. I needs to be exercised as well.

Sometimes, like right now in Chicago, we can’t really take our dogs out for the kind of exercise we’d like. The parks are covered under a couple feet of snow and the sidewalks are covered in salt. For walks, I use paw protectors on my dogs, but nothing I can do is as good as a good long walk in nice weather. Fortunately, my dogs are older and don’t have as much energy to burn off as some dogs. Some folks have a bit more of a challenge.

I have a couple of clients who have young, high-energy dogs that need more to calm them down. For those folks, I recommend mental exercise. Mental exercise is simply the process of making your dog think. “Think about what?” you ask. Good question. Glad you asked.

Teaching new behaviors and doing ongoing training is mental exercise. Cleaning up their “heel” command in the hallway of your building is mental exercise. A long “down” on their bed while you eat dinner is mental exercise. A new puzzle toy, such as this ingenious device is mental exercise. If you have a dog that tears things up while you are at work, imagine feeding him his entire breakfast in this device. This is mental exercise and it might very well keep him busy enough to spare you a couple of pairs of shoes.

If you have been reading our Tails, then you know our dog Jelly is a therapy dog. She volunteers once a week here in Chicago at the V.A. Hospital. She does about an hour of work, but only about a half of that hour is her actually moving around. The rest of the time, she is laying down on her bed while we discuss the day’s activities. For about a half hour of activity, I can tell you that she leaves exhausted. The behaviors she has to perform, combined with the distractions of the environment make her mentally exhausted. I like to compare it to driving on a long road trip. If you are the driver, you really don’t do much physical activity, but you end up exhausted due to the mental focus required.

I once had a client who’s dog was always tired by pick-up time for her training program. We decided one day that we would leave her dog in a run, giving her less play time so that she would have energy to do the training upon pick-up. At about 5 pm, I got a call from the owner saying, “I’ve had something come up and I can’t do a lesson today. I’ll be there in a half hour. I have to go somewhere tonight. Can you wear Lady out for me?” What did I do? I had Lady do a long down on one of our training boxes for that half hour. She went home and passed out. That’s what this article is all about.

There is another component to this that I’d like to discuss. Let’s say that your dog has a particular behavior that you’d like to work on. He runs away, or digs in the yard. If you give him lots of physical exercise, thinking that this will solve the issue, you may be missing a very important component in your training. Without the mental exercise and training, all you’ve done is gotten your dog in better shape so he can misbehave even better…for longer. So now, the dog that would have been tired of digging after a few minutes can dig a bigger hole and the dog that ran away can run away further and faster. Not a very good solution to the problem behaviors, is it?

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