A summary of the physical and mental benefits of both mental enrichment and physical exercise in dogs, focusing on how these elements can be used both as part of and in support of a behaviour modification plan; create positive associations to the environment and/or specific stimuli.
A combination of physical and mental exercise is essential for all dogs. Trainers should have a variety of activities within their tool box, ensuring the appropriate exercise is selected for the dog in question. Engaging in play with dogs is a popular method of providing enrichment however, may not be suitable for dogs struggling with hyperactivity. For more over aroused dogs, some obedience training exercises appealing to the more logical side of the dog’s brain may be more appropriate. Some dog’s may require support that allows them to exhibit natural behaviours and activates the senses. For these dogs a trainer may select alternate feeding methods and search games.
All these activities carry with them numerous physiological benefits. Appropriate exercise will help improve a dog’s overall physical health, reducing the likelihood of weight gain and maintain good muscular and skeletal health. Slow controlled training such as the aforementioned trick training can help engage a dog’s slow twitch muscles improving endurance, balance and overall body awareness; some practices have explored this further. Real Dog Yoga - developed by Jo-Rosie Haffenden - suggests that, this type of controlled exercise can improve muscle control, reduce stress and even stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating equilibrium and reducing tension in the body. Slow controlled methods of feeding such as search games can be used parallel to achieve similar outcomes as they promote foraging behaviours and create calmness. Alternative to these exercises, some dogs will benefit from a more active lifestyle and play will be a more appropriate choice. Play can occur in a variety of forms and has a positive effect on: muscles, tendons, the respiratory system, general performance and can be utilised to achieve physical exertion from different muscle groups. Rapid play such as biting and tugging will contract muscle groups in short bursts, whereas slower more controlled play will allow for longer contraction promoting endurance. An appropriate combination of the two will help refine motor skills and improve the overall accuracy and fluidity of a dog’s movements.
Domestic dogs live in a fairly sensory deprived environment so an exercise regime is essential for providing stimulation. Exercise will help promote calmness and provide an outlet for unwanted behaviours, supporting any training or behaviour modification. Exercise has been linked to the production of serotonin which plays a big role in reducing stress. Inactivity can create boredom, leading to stress and subsequently destructive behaviours. At this point varied feeding and search games can be used in order to counteract this. Dogs such as gundogs in particular will benefit from this type of enrichment support. Providing them with the opportunity to use their nose to search and retrieve food will fulfil natural breed desires, reducing any frustration that often manifests as unwanted behaviour. Addressing these basic needs will ensure the dog is much more biddable when it comes to training. Additionally, these exercises provide owners with a new way of interacting with their dog as behavioural issues can put strain on the dog human bond. These activities can prevent burnout and even improve owner commitment. The use of play as a support system for behaviour modification further supports this. Substances associated with joy in both dogs and humans such as serotonin and oxytocin have shown to be present during play. Play therefore helps create a long-lasting harmonious human-dog relationship. This can be of particular use when working with dogs that may have been previously fearful of people. Encouraging games at a level the dog is comfortable with can help create social bonds and more positive associations to humans. Obedience and trick training can be of use in this sense also. Utilising this form of exercise can help prevent dogs becoming over emotional or stressed as these type of tasks will engage the more logical side of the brain (the cerebral cortex), allowing them to think more reasonably and act less impulsively. This helps avoid dogs becoming overly sensitised to environmental triggers and reacting with a negative emotional response. A dog engaged in cognitive tasks will be more resilient and diminishing existing emotional responses becomes easier.
Exercise does not only promote good physical health but can also have a substantial effect on a dog’s mental health and overall mood state. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that suitable levels of exercise are essential for dogs in order for them to achieve self-actualisation and reach their full potential (providing all other basic needs have been fulfilled also). Tailoring your dog’s exercise to build on and refine skills they are already good at will give the dog a sense of achievement, confidence and accomplishment. Studies have shown that exercise activities that require a dog to search and explore have significant impact on mood and mental health. During these activities the SEEKING system is engaged in the brain, a system that in itself can elicit pleasant emotions, especially when frequent reinforcement is present. SEEKING tends to happen when an animal is feeling happy, relaxed and has the energy to explore. Encouraging a dog to practice this regularly will promote such feelings and further reduce stress in the body. Moreover, during bouts of physical exercise chemical secretions happen within the brain that are contrary to stress, fear and anxiety. In particular serotonin is released which is responsible for regulating mood, and arousal levels. Studies suggest that longer periods of moderate exercise enhance noradrenergic activity and as a result promotes healthy mind-set, reducing stress. From a neuropsychological standpoint this suggests that suitable exercise is essential in order to maintain good mental health in dogs. Play in particular can be linked to the production of oxytocin, dopamine and noradrenaline, all neurotransmitters that are responsible for positive emotions. Dogs that engage in frequent play: have lower cortisol levels, live life in a much more relaxed way and generally have a more positive overall mood state. Not all exercise needs to involve high levels of energy to be of benefit to a dog. Slower more controlled exercises containing more precise movements are much more effective in releasing habitual behaviour patterns. Slowing a dog down and allowing them time to process can start to provide them with new experiences and promote experimentation. In doing this we can help dogs better understand their environment and even teach them to respond more appropriately rather than just react. The engagement of slow twitch muscle fibres during such exercise can increase dopamine and serotonin levels further, contributing to a more positive mood and sense of wellbeing.
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