This post is more a personal story, but I hope others can learn from my revelation.
Last week two of my dogs got into a fight with each other. I don’t know what was said, but they were both extremely upset, and we had some minor injuries. There had been tension between them before, but this was the crescendo.
So of course, I am addressing the issue. Building the confidence of the weaker dog, and letting everyone know they are loved. I consulted a veterinary behavior specialist, and in the process of writing the (14 page!) history, realized one aspect of the solution to the problem.
In cases of inter-dog aggression, solutions are hard, long, complex, and labor intensive. Yet, when I was filling out that behavior history form, I had an epiphany.
In vet school, I completed a senior year rotation in behavior medicine at Purdue University. My school, University of Illinois, did not have a behavior specialist on staff, and I wanted advanced training in the subject. I had taken the behavior electives in vet school (from visiting professors) and wanted even more. I saw clients with the specialist at Purdue and learned a lot.
The first thing he would often recommend for any kind of anxiety was daily walks. Twenty minute walks. Three a day.
Yes, that is an hour of walking. Every. Day.
I saw the shocked looks on pet owner’s faces. The denial. “It’s not possible.” Then he would explain why it was integral to the treatment plan.
Walks are more than just exercise. Not that exercise alone isn’t a great reason to get your dog out walking. Exercise increases endorphins – those feel-good chemicals that are responsible for “runner’s high.” Endorphins reduce stress and promote a feeling of calm, long after the exercise is over. Further, our dogs are pretty much couch potatoes. We work 8 hours a day while they sleep. We come home for a few hours, then go to bed. More sleep. Getting out and moving just helps get their blood pumping, joints lubricating, better for the body overall. Dogs need an outlet for their energy, even if they do not act “high energy” inside.
Besides exercise, walks are great mental stimulation! Sniffing that power pole and learning who peed there is fascinating. Seeing the neighbor dogs (hopefully in fenced yards) and barking “hello” back is exciting. Peeing on the signpost and boldly wiping your feet is rewarding. Nibbling some grass or finding gross things to try to eat before mom or dad takes it away can be downright awesome!
Better yet, it’s time that you are spending with your dog. Don’t take your phone. Just walk. Listen to the birds. Look at the trees. Breathe in the (hopefully) fresh air. Talk to your dog (I know I’m not the only one!) about how fluffy she is. Talk about who has the stinkiest bottom. Or who is toughest. My one dog struts proudly every time I tell him he’s a pretty boy on our walks. Make the walks positive. No yelling (OK, I might have yelled when my dachshund found the chicken bone in the street and tried to swallow it!). Keep it about love and fun.
So, I remembered that behavior specialist’s suggestion and started going for walks. We get at least one 30 minute walk a day, and if it isn’t too hot, we get two. I walk all three dogs together (it’s not as horrible as it sounds). I’ve been doing this for a week, and I am already noticing major improvements in my dogs! Nothing else has changed, just the addition of the walks. My dog who used to go pout in the bedroom during the evening is out with us again, wanting love. All my dogs are interacting more with me and each other. They are bringing me stuffed babies to play. There’s a general calm in our house. Requests for tummy rubs are more frequent. Most importantly, everyone is interacting well with both the humans and the other dogs.
I trusted the behaviorist knew what he was talking about when he suggested daily walks, but I had underestimated the power of healing they could bring. I’m now a walk convert.
If your dog is having any kind of anxiety – separation anxiety, self-injury, between two dogs, whatever – try going for walks. Don’t skip a day. Get two in if you can. Obviously if your dog is older, obese, arthritic, or not used to walking, ease her in slowly and gradually.
Simply walking your dog will not resolve behavioral problems, but it will start you both off in the right direction. You’ll both be glad you did – my dogs are most certainly glad I tried it!
Web-DVM guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian. See more of her articles at her blog at VetChick.com