Dogs and Exercise

The benefits of good exercise for dogs and people are well known. Exercise improves physical fitness and releases endorphins and opioids in the brain, promoting an overall feeling of wellbeing.

When my dogs first get outside they take care of all their business before they truly put their noses down on the ground to sniff and catch up on all the neighborhood news left by other dogs, animals or people. I would love to see the rafts of air my dogs’ smell – a rich tapestry of scent that guides their noses and bodies on sometimes erratic trails to an unseen source. This is the ‘sniffy’ part of the walk where my dogs get to explore and investigate the world around them. Once they have gained as much information as they can, it’s time for me to lead the walk. There might be more forward and uninterrupted movement than my nose-driven dogs would like, but it’s important for them to build up strength and stamina with some physical exercise. This is the way I ‘share’ walks with my dogs, and understanding each other’s exercise needs makes walks more enjoyable for us all.

Dogs and humans have lived side by side for thousands of years but that doesn’t mean that our homes are natural environments for our dogs. The kind of sensory stimulation that a dog particularly enjoys can’t be found in the average living room – it’s out in the open air.

The walk is the highlight of the day for most dogs. Exercise helps maintain muscle tone and mass and promotes healthy skeletal development. It raises a dog’s metabolic rate so that toxins are flushed out of the system more efficiently and helps the digestive system work more effectively, keeping weight down. As well as toning muscles and reducing fat, a good workout is a powerful de stressor for both dogs and humans and stimulates the production of serotonin and other powerful endorphins in the brain. These are the chemicals that give dogs and people pleasure, promoting calmness and reducing stress.

The Reward System is a group of neural structures responsible for reward-related cognition and includes desire (otherwise known as the Seeking System), pleasure (the Consummatory System), and positive reinforcement. Homeostasis is a physiological state where the internal environment is regulated in order to maintain a stable, relatively constant level of a given characteristic. Achieving this state is highly reinforcing and engages the Reward System.

The emotional system is concerned with the ultimate goal of an action.  The mammalian brain contains a foraging, investigatory, curious and expectant seeking system that leads an organism to eagerly exploretheir environment. When this system is aroused, the animal or person feels invigorated with a feeling of anticipation and is motivated to actively seek out rewards and experiences. This is what makes walking and sniffing so exciting for dogs.

Exercise also engages the reward system because it provides dogs with sensory stimulation by exposing them to different environments, satisfying their inherent need to work and providing opportunities for them to socialize with other dogs and humans. Varying the types of walks you take with your dog will enrich her walking experience even more, which will prevent future problem behaviors. Teaching your dog various cues for these walks will add predictability and give her the confidence to explore.

When it comes to exercise, quality is just as important as quantity. Taking the same route to the same park twice a day and letting your dog off the lead to run free in the same area becomes repetitive. Even though smells change throughout the day and there is always something new to sniff, changing the location of a walk can be invigorating. Environmental enrichment should provide both positive mental and physical experiences for you and your dog.

The brain is the most under-used “muscle” in pet dogs. While dogs need appropriate physical exercise, many people fail to enrich their dogs’ lives with mental and cognitive stimulation. This becomes most evident when a dog is going through adolescence, and when most people are challenged with adolescent canine behavior.

If dogs are left to their own devices, they will do what dogs love to do best. They will scavenge, hunt, roam the neighborhood, mate with other dogs, mark things that are important to them and protect things of value. These behaviors make perfect sense to dogs but are not appropriate in the human world. Lack of positive and appropriate enrichment encourages dogs to seek their stimulation elsewhere, and leads to the development of stereotypical behaviors such as incessant barking, inappropriate chewing, hyperactivity, and intense licking.


Training, exercise, food puzzles, dog sports and other activities provide physical and mental stimulation for dogs of all ages and is especially beneficial for dogs that have behavioral issues. Solving puzzles can be intrinsically rewarding. Dogs that voluntarily work on puzzle toys or other enriching activities are much more fulfilled because just seeking for something is intrinsically rewarding. Nose driven games like scent work and seeking games engage the entire cycle of the Reward System.

In Temple Grandin’s amazing book, Animals Make Us Human, she outlines how important enrichment is for all animals. “Everyone who is responsible for animals – farmers, ranchers, zookeepers, and pet owners –,” she writes, “need a set of simple, reliable guidelines for creating good mental welfare that can be applied to any animal in any situation… The rule is simple: Don’t stimulate rage, fear, and panic if you can help it.  Do stimulate seeking and also play.”

Walking might sometimes be an exhausting prospect for you especially after a long day at work, but as soon as you attach the lead, put your walking boots on and step out of the door, you are not only improving you and your dog’s physical and mental fitness, you are enriching your lives together.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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