A tired dog is a good dog, right? Most people would definitely agree with this common phrase. Although it may sound strange, I disagree. I am often told that no matter how much love, attention, and exercise a new client is giving their dogs, they never seem to settle down. A concept I try to convey to people is that they are not looking for just a tired dog but rather a calm dog. You may be wondering, “what’s the difference?” and believe it or not there actually is quite a big difference.
While some dog owners run their dogs for miles and play fetch for hours, what is the actual effect on the dogs? The dogs are physically exhausted and they hit the hay pretty hard giving the owners a blissful 2 hours of quiet time. That is all fine and dandy, until the dogs wake up fully charged and ready for round 5. We often get called in when owners become tired of this endless cycle. One of the biggest problems I see is that the dogs are becoming these Olympic caliber athletes and are taking longer and longer to get to the same level of tired on a daily basis. A month ago 30 minutes of fetch would have had Chewie sleeping on the floor, and now 40 minutes barely gets him panting.
More often than not, the recommendations that I make are not to physically work the dog any more but rather to get the dog thinking more. I often tell clients that they will have to do a little bit less playing and instead practice having the dog remain calm for a good portion of the day. When you start working on calming your dog instead of tiring them out, you will notice that they will naturally become calmer throughout the day the longer you do it.
Let’s focus on the walk. Instead of going on 10 mile hikes or 5 mile jogs to get your dog tired, teach the dog how to properly heel right next to you. Take control of the walk and work on slowing the engines. When I am walking dogs I am looking for it to have almost a meditative feel. Slow the mind, relieve the stress, and give them a simple task to focus on. I often hear from owners that the dog came home from a long walk almost more amped up then when they started. The reason is the fact that the dogs are allowed to sniff, chase, mark, and bark at whatever they please.
There are a couple reasons the heel command can help your dog become a calmer partner in life. First, you are the one who is now leading the walk which takes a lot of mental stress off of the dog. When a dog is even a foot ahead of you, they are no longer concerned with how you feel about anything. They are in their own little world focusing on whatever they please. A dog can feel your energy through the leash, if you are tense they will be tense. However, your dog will only adopt your calm energy if he is actually thinking about you when encountering things.
A perfect example of this is squirrels. I’m not super excited when a pass one, but the majority of my client dogs start out excited when passing squirrels. If they are freely walking, untrained dogs will rarely check in with the handler for permission before attempting to chase the squirrel off. However, when heeling none of those same dogs make their mad dash toward the target. The reason is that when a dog is at your side they are way more likely to take your feelings into consideration. Instead of trying to figure out who these people are, are those dogs friend or foe, or what the heck is that garbage truck thing they can take cues from you and see if any of the above is even worthy of your attention. After a short amount of time dogs will begin to trust you and your judgement to navigate the world.
The second reason that heel can make your dog much calmer is that it gives them an active job to think about. Staying even with your heel, keeping your pace, and focusing on the road ahead is a lot for a dog to think about. Typically the more active the dog the slower I will walk. Going fast is easy for most dogs and is exactly what they want to do anyway, going slow is much harder and requires more focus.
Calm obedience training will also go a long way for you when trying to get your dog to not be so wild and crazy. When training for calmness I train at a slow pace, use a calm gentle voice, and don’t use treats. Treats can help you achieve some great results when teaching a dog new tricks and behaviors but they are intended to get a dog really excited about performing. That is the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve with a hyperactive dog. At Suburban K9 we strive to help dogs become calm respectful family dogs. We praise verbally and with physical praise and tailor the amount of praise we use based on the dogs excitement level.
In my opinion there are a few things that every dog needs to be happy, healthy, and calm. Every dog needs a daily training walk, 30-45 minutes a day preferably in the morning. Keep the dog in heel position and you will undoubtedly see some improvement. Next would be some calm training sprinkled into their day, quick little 5-10 minute sessions just to get your dog thinking whenever you have time. Lastly about 30 minutes of really fun and exciting games like fetch, frisbee, or agility workouts. Simply spending your time with your dog a little bit differently can give them everything that they need and still leave extra time to catch up on other things.
– Nelson Medrano