Is Exercise A Cure All For Anxiety?

 

I recently wrote about enrichment not being optional and exercise is definitely part of your dog’s overall enrichment and well being. And often it is recommended as a cure all for behavioral issues. Those of you who live with dogs with behavior issues have heard it all. “A tired dog is a good dog.” And suggestions like “Just tire him out and he won’t have separation anxiety” or “Take her to the dog park before you have people over and she won’t jump or bark.” But, there’s a big difference between age and life stage appropriate exercise and intentionally trying to exhaust your dog to attempt to “calm” them. I’ve written about the Myth Of The Calm Dog and a lot of that resonates when the idea of trying to out-exercise anxiety comes up.

Exercise, for humans and dogs, definitely has its benefits. Nobody can dispute that. We know exercise can help release happy endorphins, keep us at a healthy weight, helps keep our heart, digestive and other systems healthier and for dogs, it can be a great source of mental enrichment as well as an opportunity to maintain social skills with their own species (when they’re playing with dogs).  But, does all this mean it’s a solution for issues like anxiety?  NOPE.

Exercise is not a panacea for behavior problems.

Sure, dogs who are not having their needs met, might demonstrate increased destruction, barking or attention seeking behaviors but those are very different from a dog with separation anxiety who is barking, pacing, destroying things. The anxious dog is not behaving this way because they’re bored or from lack of exercise, but because they’re having a panic attack when they’re left alone.

Whenever we look to solve a behavior issue we first need to ask, is this dog upset or not?  This overarching question helps guide us in the decisions we make for how we’re going to set up a training plan. An anxious dog has a very different training plan than a non-upset dog, even if they’re both barking. What’s driving (and reinforcing) the behavior we are trying to modify?

So, taking your dog to the dog park before a departure likely will check off physical exercise needs and social and enrichment needs but it’s not going to “fix” your dog’s separation anxiety. Just like playing a lot of fetch before visitors come over won’t stop your dog from jumping on them. Dogs jumping up to greet visitors isn’t usually caused by pent up energy. They’re jumping up (and likely being reinforced) for social greeting and attention, not because they have pent up energy they’re looking to burn. Or maybe they’re jumping up because they’re actually uncomfortable with strangers and jumping is a way to try to get the stranger to go away. Neither of these scenarios will be “fixed” with exercise.

What will help? For separation anxiety dogs, suspending absences so the dog isn’t panicking and following a specific incremental desensitization training plan to help teach your dog being alone doesn’t have to be scary. For stranger danger dogs, helping them learn, again with an incremental training plan, that strangers predict good stuff, to help them feel better around unfamiliar people. And for rambunctious, untrained dogs who are jumping to greet, let’s focus on teaching them an alternate behavior that pays off better and that we approve of more.

By all means, exercise your dog in appropriate ways. But do not rely on exercise as a long-term solution for behavior issues.

Understanding the nuances of a dog’s behavior and how best to approach an appropriate training plan is one of the greatest benefits you’ll get from working with a qualified trainer. Need help? Grab a session with me here. And be sure to sign up for my free weekly newsletter so you don’t miss out on free tips, videos, personal stories, client successes and more!

Happy training!

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