Is a Tired Dog a Good Dog? (or a Happy dog?)

This is a cliché we’ve read and heard numerous places, including in on-line articles from prominent veterinary schools.  If veterinary schools and a wide variety of respected trainers maintain this is true, then does that mean it IS true?  We should take a step back and ask “where’s the evidence”?  And what do we really mean by “good” and “happy”?

There is no general agreement about what constitutes a good dog, and even less agreement about the criteria necessary for a dog to be called happy.  To some people, a good dog is a dog that doesn’t cause problems – he doesn’t bark excessively, dig, chew, or pester for attention.  Several sources in fact have claimed that exercise produces “amazing” results in preventing or resolving problem behavior.  However there is no direct evidence that exercise – in the form of physical activity – by itself can have miraculous effects.

You may be saying to yourself  “Forget the evidence, I’ve seen exercise work to prevent problems!”  And you may well have seen a decline in your dog’s annoying behaviors if you step up the exercise.  Our two dogs Ashley and Coral do seem to sleep more after their walks, and if they are sleeping they can’t be doing annoying things like digging holes in the yard. 

But there are numerous examples of exercise not making a difference in problem behaviors.  When Ashley was younger and much more active than she is now at 13, a friend at the time, who was a long distance runner, took Ashley and two of his dogs on a 15 mile run in the mountains of southern Colorado.   When they returned, Ashley slept for about 30 minutes, woke up, and proceeded to chew on the legs of the couch at our friends’ house.  

We’ve also seen dogs with separation anxiety whose owners had been told to take their dogs for a long walk or run before leaving for work to tire them out so they wouldn’t bark or be destructive.  Because these behaviors were fear motivated, they continued at the same rate, regardless of the increased physical activity.

The problem with over simplified sayings is that while they may sound catchy, taken to their logical conclusion they often don’t make sense. If a tired dog is a good dog, then it could be said a dog that is passed out from exercise must be the absolute best dog.  Now we know that sounds stupid, but that’s the point – if the dog is too tired to do anything, is that equivalent to being a “good” dog?

Certainly physical activity is usually a good thing for dogs, and not enough of it, along with a lack of mental stimulation, can cause dogs to find unacceptable outlets for their physical and mental energy, resulting in what we label “behavior problems”.  Most dogs, like most people, probably don’t get enough exercise.  But what constitutes quality exercise?  Is an hour on a doggie treadmill just as good as an hour at a dog park or a walk with the owner? (the same question could be asked about people – compare an hour on the treadmill at the gym with a walk around the lake with a friend). 

Both activities could burn the same number of calories, and some authorities might see no difference between the two.  But there are qualitative differences.  Walks and the dog park include social interactions and mental stimulation the treadmill doesn’t. 

We need to think more carefully about what sorts of enrichment are best for dogs.  In the 1980’s when the federal government first mandated an “exercise” requirement for dogs in research facilities, single housed dogs were put on treadmills to meet this requirement.  Later research (Suzanne helped conduct one study) found that what was more important than physical exercise for well being was social contact with other dogs (Hetts, S., Clark, J. D., Calpin, J. P., Arnold, C. E. and J. M. Mateo. 1992.  Influence of housing  conditions on beagle behaviour.  Appl. Anim. Beh. Sci. 34: 137-155)

The bottom line is that a general recommendation for “exercise” as a problem prevention or resolution technique, over-simplifies what dogs really need.  We hear people all the time say how smart their dogs are.  If that’s the case then dogs need an overall enriched environment – that meets their needs for physical, social and mental stimulation.


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