Monday, 10 January 2011

Exercise and Lack of It

In one thing Cesar Millan is entirely right: the fundamental element in the life of a happy, well behaved dog is exercise. I marvel at the simplicity of this fact as well as at the number of dog owners who seem to be completely oblivious to this. Having had Eddie and Cassie out of action with a paw injury each for over a week now, it is becoming increasingly obvious how the lack of exercise is influencing their behaviour. Each dog's behaviour is affected in different ways, depending on their personality, but affected they are.

This morning this fact struck me as I was walking Eddie. Eddie cut his paw pretty badly running on a Devon beach on Boxing Day. He had to have sixteen stitches put in under general anesthetic. For the first ten days he was on minimal exercise, a very short walk to the little park we like to call the "poo park" to do what is done there and back again. Not much more than twenty minutes of walkies a day. On a leash of course. The last few days I have increased the walks, and today he had his stitches out. Indeed, he got to go for a whole forty-five minute walk. The longest walk he has had for two weeks, but still on the leash. No running for another week or so to let the scar tissue get stronger.

Normally I walk my greyhounds a fair bit. You often hear the statement: "People think greyhounds need a lot of exercise, but actually they are 45mph couch potatoes". Yes, it is true that compared to other breeds, greyhounds do not need a huge amount of exercise, and they are capable to sleep a whole lot, with some gusto. They certainly don't need to run every day. However, they are large dogs, with bodies built for speed and for their wellbeing they need decent walks and should be given the opportunity to have a good run now and again. In my experience the more often the better, but a couple of times a week is enough. Some dogs, especially older dogs, loose the urge to run quite so much, of course, but a short runabout always seems to please a greyhound. They are sprinters, so they have no particular wish to continue running for too long, unless they are hunting (more of which elsewhere). So although many greyhound adoption organisations claim two 20 minute walks a day is enough for a greyhound, I prefer to give mine more, much more. They have a short walk, about twenty minutes, before breakfast, a long one to two-hour walk in the middle of the day, and another short walk in the evening, either before or an hour or so after their dinner. In the summers when the days are longer, the shorter walks get extended. In total the dogs have between two and three hours exercise on a normal day. It keeps them calm, relaxed, and happy at home (not to mention sufficiently toileted). It also keeps them "well-behaved" as we humans see it: quiet, non-aggressive, obedient.

So Eddie's drastically cut exercise regime is a big change for him, not only is he under-stimulated, but he is also unhappy about the disruption to his routine. As a result here has been the expected restlessness, mainly manifesting itself as pacing and following me around. He is quite a clingy dog these days anyway and he needs to get his kicks somehow: there is always the possibility I may be doing something interesting so shadowing me keeps his mind busy. In addition, however, and this is, I think, where people often fail to make the connection between lack of exercise and behaviour, his aggression levels have also risen. Being on the lead all the time is, of course, likely to increase tension and protective aggression when meeting dogs, and Eddie likes to assert himself over other dogs, especially small ones that run about, at the best of times. But he has also started barking - very clearly a bark alerting to possible danger - at imaginary foes when no dogs are in sight. Instead the targets have been people, something very unusual for Eddie, who I have never seen displaying aggression to humans. Saying that, they have been "funny looking" people - a lady with a big skirt and another with a shopper trolley. Perhaps they looked like they had large dogs near them. The first one was in a place where he had encountered the recent scent of his arch-enemy Blue the evening before. Perhaps Blue had been there that evening too.

Blue is the only dog which elicits full-blown aggression in Eddie, even at some distance. Having been attacked by Blue several times, some attacks drawing blood, Eddie now pre-emptively growls and barks at Blue, neck hair raised, chest out. I am not sure, but he seems intent on attacking first this time around. Needless to say we avoid encounters with Blue. I'll comment on Blue's behaviour in another post.

To return to Eddie's lack of exercise, he has been quicker to bark in general, at the things he usually barks at: prey (squirrels, cats, foxes) and other dogs running and playing, but these instances when he has barked at people have been very different, especially since he has virtually no guarding or protecting instinct (greyhounds don't). These odd cases, then, appear caused by the fact that he is under-stimulated, whether it is because his mind is over-active, because he is looking for trouble in general as entertainment, or because his anxiety levels are raised. It is the sort of behaviour which appears to me, in a fairly placid dog like Eddie, to be in a large part determined by levels of exercise. I assume that in dogs in which aggression to people or other dogs has other causes (fear, stress and so on) these underlying causes also have to be addressed if the aggressive behaviour is to be addressed, but giving the dog sufficient stimulation would, I am in no doubt, make that task much easier. I definitively subscribe to the notion that "a tired dog is a good dog" - a well exercised dog simply hasn't got the energy to get into mischief.