Friday, September 16, 2022

Super Athlete Struggles

 The Super Athlete Struggle & How to Avoid It!


Our goal as dog owners is to have healthy & happy dogs that enjoy as much of life as possible.  And if you live in the USA, you can't help but notice obesity is a huge topic of concern for people and dogs.  While many of us are doing our best to think in terms of being healthy and fit plus including that vision with our dogs, the question of how much exercise does my puppy/dog need.  There are some general guidelines out there for puppies ( 5 min at a time per month of age, 5 min X 4 months = 20 min total), but the truth is this is individualized for the dog as any other basic needs.

We start our puppies out slow with a 5 min walk, then 10 min, then 15-20...the more our puppy gets in to trouble, the faster we escalate this to try to wear them out so they will sleep more.  But puppy needs for sleeping is a while different post!  Then our puppies become adolescents and we often apply that same thinking to other forms of exercise; walking, chasing balls, jogging, running beside a bike, etc.  This builds up our dog's stamina so walking a mile every day soon turns into 1.5 miles, then 2, then 3.  At this point we humans often struggle to keep up so we switch to another activity like biking so they can run.  Just to be clear, none of this exercise is bad for the dog as long as you are doing it safely with proper gear and conditioning.

The STRUGGLE begins!

The struggle starts when our dogs exercise needs start to surpass the owner's exercise needs.  Typically my walks are 1-2 miles long, maybe an occasional 3 mile hike but I don't hike this much every day.  Although I probably should!  As a disabled person that could be laid up for days, weeks, and even months in a row, I'd really struggle with a dog that needed a 3 mile hike every day to feel normal.  Often when we seem to not be able to meet our dog's exercise needs, we turn to tossing a ball for a game of fetch.  Again playing fetch with our dogs isn't the problem, but it's the way we do it.  At first we just play 10 minutes for fun, but then when we can't walk 15 min running fast chasing that ball can help our dogs be calm, right?  At least that's the common belief.  But before we know it, that dog needs their walk + 15 min of ball and it just keeps building as we keep finding new ways to help our dogs be tired.

My first Service Dog, Talia, was the prime example of this.  We live in a climate that sees lots of snow in the winter which makes taking walks somewhat dangerous for my balance issues, especially with an adolescent dog that might pull on the leash when something exciting crosses our path.  Both Cam, my German Shepherd and Talia loved to chase balls and our plowed driveway was the perfect place for such a fantastic winter activity.  Or so I thought, but I got stuck in the trap of always needing to add more.  I realized that when we went out and about in public after she played ball she was perfectly behaved, but if we went out without playing ball she struggled.  To make things easier, we just played ball first!  More and more ball!  Then spring settled in and we began walking again, but that didn't change her need to play ball.  Talia was a Super Athlete!  She had amazing muscles and awesome control so she could fly, spin, jump...she was fast.  That might be awesome for a dog competing in agility or other dog sports, but it's not so great for service dogs or even the average pet.

The STRATEGY that works!

The trick to exercise is something we are very familiar with...moderation!  How many of us would eat ice cream instead of supper every day if we could, yet we know that wouldn't be healthy.  Name your most loved activity, and you pretty much want to do it every chance you get but you've learned to moderate your participation in that activity to avoid hurting yourself.  Our dogs don't understand moderation.  Sure they might appear to moderate their food intake if you free feed, but that is nature as a dog that is hungry finds food and a dog that isn't hungry doesn't search for food.  It's up to us owners to figure out a way to moderate our dogs activities so those activities remain beneficial for the health of our dogs.

If you and your dog loving playing dog together, continue to do so but limit how long and how frequently you do so.  Cam, being an old man would still chase balls until he dropped, but his would leave him limping and sore for days.  I moderate his ball play so he chases 6-8 balls and takes a break, then if he's good we might do another session.  Azul is more of a flirt pole chasing dog, but again this can have the same over use issue that playing ball can have.  My best advice for managing this is to create a routine that can meet your dog's needs and fit into your schedule.  The routine should follow this order.

  1. Physical Exercise - fitting your dog's breed, age, and individual desires.
  2. Mental Exercise - often in the form of a training session, but I suggest this be a game based training session.
  3. Calming Activity - something you do with your dog to help you both relax after exercise.
Ideas for physical exercise include fetch with a ball, walks/hikes, tug, flirt pole and games such as Recall Ping Pong and Hide-N-Seek.

Mental exercise has a tons of options.  I want to keep the fun going, but instead of fun based on moving I want fun based learning.  There are so many games that you can play to teach your dog skills.  You want to start with a more exciting game that combines moving and thinking, then slowly move to more thinking and less moving.  Here are some of my favorite games.

The Positions Game


The Positions Game is one of my favorite games because it has endless possibilities. The video above shows me teaching basic game concept of rewards are delivered in the heel zone.  The video below is a more advanced version of Azul staying in the position between my legs and moving with me,



Games can be used to teach most everything you want your dog to learn.  If you search this website, you'll find lots of posts about games.  The Focus Around Distractions Mini Workshop is a great place to start, with Day 1 giving instructions on how to play the positions game.  Soon I'll be launching a brand new podcast that is all about games called The Playful Paws!


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