What comes to mind when I say the word exercise? Maybe a walk in the park, lifting weights at the gym, or a swim in the ocean? Webster defines exercise as “engaging in physical activity to sustain or improve health and fitness.” This definition means different things to different people. For one it may mean weight loss and increased longevity. To another it may mean increased relaxation or a way to manage a chronic illness.
Recently, the New York Times described exercise as, “The closest thing to a wonder drug.”
Why am I carrying on about exercise? Because the extensive benefits we reap from it are available in equal measure to the dogs in our lives. And yet with all the definitions being thrown around, the true effectiveness, proper use, and benefits of exercise for dogs may be lost in translation; especially for families dealing with dogs with separation anxiety.
There’s a long history of recommending exercise for common behavior problems in dogs. You have probably heard the saying, “A tired dogs is a good dog.” And while there’s merit to this suggestion, it’s often over-zealously promoted as a single solution for very complex problems. Take separation anxiety, for example.
Dogs with separation anxiety can’t be “fixed,” no matter how many times we take them to the dog park to exercise.
Does that mean you don’t need to exercise your dog if he has separation anxiety? Absolutely not! With so much information at our fingertips it can be hard to sift through it all and find solutions that really work. But understanding what separation anxiety is as well as the benefits that come with exercise can help clarify that exercise is not a cure-all for separation anxiety, but a crucial supplemental piece of a multifaceted approach.
First let’s look at what separation anxiety is and is not. It’s not a manifestation of boredom, lack of training, or anything the dog’s owner has done or failed to do.
It’s a panic disorder brought on by any number of different circumstances.
Dogs that panic when separated from their owners need training and support that addresses their needs in a variety of ways. These include customized training support by individuals who understand and empathize with the family’s circumstances along with environmental modifications and medical support, if need be. Exercise, when used in conjunction with these other approaches, serves as a way to enhance and solidify the training. One way to examine how this occurs is through the effect exercise has on the brain.
When dogs (and humans) exercise there’s a spike in certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals are like Miracle Grow for all the neurons in the brain that carry information from one place to another. Research shows that consistent exercise helps build and strengthen these neurons like the branches and roots of a tree, solidifying the information we take in from our environment.
Additionally, a good physical workout isn’t the only way to exercise our dogs; mental exercise is just as important. Both kinds of exertion stimulate a dog’s brain, and when we stimulate the brain physically and mentally at the same time, dogs (and other animals, including humans) have an easier time remembering and picking up a new task.
This is important to a separation anxiety dog, because although we are not training a new task, we are essentially trying to rewire the dog’s brain with new information and help him feel comfortable when left alone. Think of it as a new branch on the tree: climb up the old one and feel panicked, or choose this new branch to climb and feel more at ease.
We can use exercise along with our training to help set the dog up for success. And as the old adage goes, “use it or lose it.” Research also shows that if we stop exercising, our learning advantage may fade away.
Another way we can use exercise to help a dog with separation anxiety relates to the effects exercise has on anxiety itself.
Animals and humans who exercise often experience a decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercise can also reverse and protect people and animals from the detrimental effects of large amounts of stress.
The anxiety and stress of a dog with separation anxiety is not something to be taken lightly. Exercise may help to relieve this anxiety, and consequently put the dog in a better position to absorb our training.
No, exercise alone will not cure your dog, but we can use exercise to help solidify the procedures and learning opportunities that eventually will make your dog feel safe, secure, and comfortable when left home alone.