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Ways To Keep Active Dogs Busy

By Kayla Fratt

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For many of us who own active dogs, simply taking them for a daily jog isn’t a viable option; life and the poor construction of human knees get in the way. Besides, daily jogs really just condition your dog’s body to run further and faster. If you’re training for a marathon, like I do once a year, this is great! But what if you just need to meet your dog’s energy needs without spending an hour trotting down the trails?

There’s a kernel of truth to the idea that a tired dog is a happy dog. In reality, a fulfilled dog is a happy dog. For many dogs, an off-leash romp through the mountains will certainly do the trick! But don’t focus too much on tiring out your active dog. A weight vest for a walk or a doggie treadmill is great for conditioning, but won’t really fulfill most dogs.

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There’s a kernel of truth to the idea that a tired dog is a happy dog. In reality, a fulfilled dog is a happy dog.

Living with active dogs requires a careful balance of exercise, mental enrichment, emotional connection and communication, and structure to help the dogs learn how and when to relax. I live with two extremely high-energy border collies: they’re both working dogs that would be the stuff of nightmares in a sedentary suburban home. 

Rather than simply trying to tire them out, I focus on fulfilling their needs. Each dog and family will reach a different “ideal,” but I’ll describe what works for us here.

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Food puzzles

Dogs spend a lot of their time basically doing nothing. Food puzzles help alleviate that boredom without taking up more of your precious time. You can use anything from old cereal boxes, egg cartons, or paper mailers to fancy plastic brain-teasers. All that matters is that your dog’s mealtime becomes a fun and interesting game rather than a boring bowl-feeding exercise.

Daily “dog time”

It’s hard to overemphasize how important it is to let your dog have some time every day to do what they want. I usually attain this by taking my dogs for off-leash hikes, but I know not everyone lives near off-leash friendly trails. Instead, a quiet riverfront trail or even an abandoned lot can serve. Get your dog a back-clip harness, a 20+ foot long leash, and just let them sniff and move their bodies how they please. As long as what they’re doing is safe, I encourage you to let them do it! Digging, chewing on sticks and even barking at birds can be fun for your dog and isn’t inherently bad dog behavior. It’s amazing how much easier it is for my dogs to settle in for a nap after sniffing around in nature versus when we go for a jog through the concrete jungle.

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As long as what they’re doing is safe, I encourage you to let them do it! Digging, chewing on sticks and even barking at birds can be fun for your dog and isn’t inherently bad dog behavior.

Daily training OR hard exercise (usually not both)!

Active dogs will benefit from some real exercise or mental training almost every day. I generally alternate between a run or hike (which also checks off the “dog time” box above in many cases) and training. The training can focus on scent games, tricks, relaxation or working through behavior challenges. When the weather is bad or I’m not feeling great, I might do indoor workouts. Agility class, a good game of frisbee or a dock-diving tournament can also meet this need for us.

Pacifiers

Part of living with active dogs is also helping them wind down while beating boredom. That’s where stuffed Kongs, West Paw food toys, bully sticks, antlers and Licki Mats come in. After a good training session, dog time or exercise, it’s time to help your dog wind down. Settle them in with an afternoon snack and put them in a cozy corner to help them sleep.

Relaxation training

This closely ties in with the pacifiers mentioned above. A very important key to success with active dogs, aside from meeting their needs, is to help them learn how and when to relax. As I type this, my two border collies (one age seven and in the prime of his life and another age five months and in full crazy-teen mode) are curled up and snoring. The only way I’m able to stay sane is that I’ve taught them through relaxation training to just fall asleep when nothing else is going on. Dogs need a lot of sleep — think 14+ hours per day!

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A very important key to success with active dogs, aside from meeting their needs, is to help them learn how and when to relax.

Most dogs learn the rhythm of exercise or training, then pacifier, then nap quite easily if you’re doing a good job of meeting their needs and helping them settle. With puppies or new dogs, I usually use an exercise pen or tether to reduce their ability to ping-pong around and rev themselves up more. Once they have fewer choices to make, most dogs are able to make the correct choice. As they are better and better at relaxing, they earn more freedom.

In the end, living with an active dog isn’t about constant movement and trying to exhaust your dog. The reality is, you’re not likely to succeed in that race. Focus on fulfillment and helping your dog learn a sustainable rhythm. Finally, if you really need help with a walking, training and fitness schedule, consider finding a trusted helper to meet your dog’s needs.


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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