The psychiatrist John Ratey calls exercise Miracle-Gro for the brain. Wheel-running rats have been shown to have fewer damaged brain cells than their sedentary counterparts. Researchers have recently shown that aging people who exercise regularly have more brain cells in the frontal cortex—a brain region responsible for higher-order thinking, memory, and attention. The same people also had increased connections in a structure important for enabling the right side–left side communications in the brain. These results—which, no doubt, also apply to dogs that exercise regularly—are attributable to increased blood flow to the brain during strenuous physical activity. The takehome message: Run for your life.
The Bottom Line
The importance of accommodating a dog's need for exercise cannot be overstated. Exercise is a key part of a balanced approach to managing canine behavior and ensuring a dog's well-being. If there are logistical problems associated with exercising a dog, I work hard with owners to find ways around these obstacles. I encourage all dog owners to do what it takes to incorporate daily exercise into their dogs' routines. Pent-up energy has to be vented or it will manifest in destructive and unacceptable ways. Anyone whose children have ever suffered from cabin fever will immediately identify with the consequences of inactivity. Horse owners know that exercising horses by lungeing helps calm even the feistiest of equines. Informed cat owners know that aerobic play – encouraged by moving toys – helps neutralize antagonistic behaviors. Let's face it, exercise is behaviorally beneficial for all ambulatory species, and there's often trouble afoot when it is in short supply.
There is a long litany of dog behavior problems caused or compounded by lack of exercise. Aggression, barking, compulsive behavior . . . and that's only the ABC of it . . . the list goes right through to Z (as I describe in Dogs Behaving Badly). Underexercised dogs are likely to be more moody, aggressive, and fearful, and may develop any one of a number of compulsive behaviors, ranging from tail chasing to acral lick dermatitis (ALD). These are problems about which I am often consulted, and exercise – when feasible – is an important aspect of treatment.
Finally, exercise is a form of occupational therapy. When you take your dog for a breeze in the park, to doggy daycare, for a swim in the ocean, or for flyball or agility training, a number of social and lifestyle factors are simultaneously addressed. Environmental enrichment is a spin-off benefit of exercise. Think about it: dogs have been bred for a variety of physical activities and are social creatures. To exercise your dog is to address one of his most fundamental needs and is an undertaking that should be viewed as mandatory. If exercising involves the company of other dogs and people, so much the better. For owners having difficulty making a commitment to exercise with their dogs, ponder this: Studies have shown that people who walk and exercise with their dogs are generally happier and healthier and live longer. So, if you aren't motivated to take your dog out for his sake, do it for your own.