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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

<Back to behaviour articles

This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Will exercise cure bad behaviour?

One of the main reasons that any of us get a dog is for the companionship of an animal that likes many of the activities that we enjoy. One of the most visible of these activities is taking our dogs for a walk. In fact, many of us consider it an absolute necessity, even if we have a large gardens. It is believed by most dog owners that dogs not only enjoy but need several walks a day in order to be happy. One of the first things I am reassured of by owners of problem dogs is that the dog gets “plenty of walks”, but the bad behaviour has persisted. While I am not denying that dogs enjoy a walk with their owners, I think it should be pointed out that more exercise in the form of daily walks is usually not the answer for behaviour problems. For the dog, a walk with the owner fulfills a social interaction that social pack animals enjoy. The dog leaves “messages” as to his presence in the area. These messages, in the form of urine marking, are then read by other dogs in the area. Male dogs in particular hike their leg in order to place their urine as high as possible on upright surfaces in order to cover the marks of other dogs and, therefore, raise their own status. Females, too, are known to attempt to place their urine against vertical surfaces to show others both their presence and position. Females in season will often urinate more frequently in outside areas in order to proclaim their physical state and willingness to mate. There are some very important business meetings going on here but not much exercise!

This being the case, it is obvious why certain types of “walks” would not be particularly fulfilling for most dogs. Running next to a jogging or cycling owner comes to mind. This type of exercise is good for the cardiovascular system and keeping a young, active dog fit, but does not fill the social needs of the slow, “sniffy” walks which all dogs love. I would suggest some “cross training” for the young active dog. Maybe jogging which ends with a slow walk home in order to check for business cards! Don’t forget that as the owner of the dog, you are responsible for cleaning up all messes!

Another type of outdoor interaction between dog and owner is chase games. This type of exercise is enjoyed by the dog because it allows “the chase”, “the kill” and retrieving the kill to the den. This is a very natural sequence for a dog but this behaviour can make life miserable for you and dangerous for others if out of control when out on a walk. This sequence of behaviour is “predatory” and is usually directed towards joggers, cyclist and/or sheep.

Walks will be enjoyed by all if you can redirect this behaviour into socially acceptable chase games. Particularly good chase toys are frisbees and balls suitable to the size of the dog. Sticks are not good choices because of mouth injuries which could be inflicted and stones can (and do) break or wear the teeth. Owners probably get into the habit of using sticks and stones because the dog will not bring the item back. If this is the case, read some of the previous chapters on important status issues with the family dog! Another good retrieve item is a rag with a knot tied in the middle, or you can buy special toys for the same purpose. These toys are meant to be shaken by the dog and many dogs will use lots of energy with such items.

There are also wonderful teaching opportunities while out on a walk with a dog. These games can be pre-trained in the house to cut down on distractions, and then used to make the owner more interesting to the dog when on a walk. One such game is to teach the dog to search for the out of sight owner. Have one member of the family restrain the dog while another member hides somewhere in the house. Tell the dog to “Go search!” in an excited voice and then go with him to make sure he finds the hidden person. Big praise and rewards when the person is found. As soon as he understands the principles, use the same command while on a walk. Family members can be hidden behind a tree, bush, etc. This keeps the dogs mind busy and on the family and may be used to distract him from running off.

Just a few more words, on a serious note. Your dogs’ behaviour, particularly when you are in public, is your responsibility. No matter what you think caused the problem i.e. the people behaved fearfully towards him, the other dog growled or the child should not have been allowed to touch a strange dog. If your dog behaves aggressively towards other people or other animals, it is your responsibility. You may be able to come up with all types of reasons for his bad behaviour but these are not excuses.

Dog owners who walk their dogs in public places are also responsible for any fouling done in those areas by their dog. The population pressure of both humans and dogs is growing all the time. If dog owners hope to keep walking their dogs in these urban settings, it is vital to respect the requirements of others who live in the same area. There are all types of merchandise available to facilitate picking up dog droppings but a simple plastic bag inverted over your hand will do. If you are going on a walk with your dog, never leave the house without one!

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