This one’s for you if:
- Your dog chews up your valuables, digs up your garden or has some other irritating habit
- Exercise somehow only makes your dog MORE hyperactive
- You want to deal with your dog’s issues but don’t know where to start
If any of these apply to you, let me show you the basic morning routine that I recommend to anyone with an exuberant dog. Let’s call it the Chill Out routine. It’s a simple way of structuring exercise, play, training, and breakfast that is designed to:
- Prevent that thing where Sparky gets more amped-up after exercise
- Actually wear your dog out
- Keep your dog occupied and therefore out of trouble
- Make your dog more likely to sleep, instead of destroying the house, when you’re at work
I’ve written about the individual elements of the Chill Out before, but this is the first time I’ve gone into detail about exactly how to put it all together. This is a three-step plan you can put into action tomorrow morning.
Don’t get me wrong: this won’t solve problems by itself. Got an annoying dog? You still have to actually train him.
The Chill Out is not a miracle cure.
It is step one.
It’s the foundation upon which training and behavior modification build. Without this foundation in place, training is harder. See, your dog has some basic needs: exercise, structure, brain work. The Chill Out neatly ticks all those boxes. When dogs do not have these needs met, that’s when problems start – destructive behavior, bouncing off the walls, etc.
When exercise makes hyper behavior worse: the sixty-to-zero problem
You know your high-energy dog needs lots of exercise and mental stimulation to be well-behaved. So like the good responsible dog owner you are, you take Sparky out to do something tiring: a long walk, jogging, catching a Frisbee, etc.
But when you get home, Sparky’s even more energetic than he was before you started. Instead of napping, he goes nuts – jumping on the kids or looking for sofa cushions to eviscerate.
There’s a missing piece of the exercise/mental stimulation puzzle: proper transitions, or cool-downs, between times of high-energy activity and times of doing nothing.
The cool-down doesn’t get as much coverage as its rugged and charismatic costars, Exercise and Brain Work, but it just might hold the key to getting your dog to chill the eff out.
People tend to exercise their dogs right before moving on to non-dog things: they take the dog for a run in the morning, then get the kids ready for school and leave for work. Take the dog to the dog park after work, then come home and tune out with Netflix.
The dog finds their activity and quality time with their human abruptly over.
Many dogs can handle the sudden switch from exercise mode to rest mode just fine. They go from “sixty to zero” in seconds, no problem. These dogs may be low-energy, or they may be older and more experienced in living with humans.
But young, sparky, high-drivey dogs?
Even the most intense workout can leave them revved-up and ready for more. They need to take this energy out on something. These dogs simply are not capable of decelerating so quickly. When forced to do so, they crash and burn.
They need a structured way to come down from the exercise “high” and transition into calmer behavior. So the Chill Out is designed to help your dog switch gears (how much mileage can we get out of these car metaphors?).
Your dog’s food bowl is making your life harder
For Average Joe Dog, the acquisition of food doesn’t take up nearly as much energy as it should. A wild canid spends a good chunk of its day hunting or scavenging. And most domestic dogs were bred to work full-time to earn their keep.
Compare that to how most pet dogs live now: every morning, a bowl of chow descends from the heavens (i.e. the kitchen counter), Sparky mindlessly snarfs it down in five minutes, and then he’s on to a busy day of… nothing much. Sounds nice, but for high-energy dogs, this sucks. Just like the rest of us Earthlings, dogs were born to sing for their supper. They still have the instincts for it. Which they might instead use to herd your children or dig up the lawn.
The easiest solution to this dilemma? Puzzle toys. I’ve written a whole thing about this. Click here to read the Beginner’s Guide to Puzzle Toys. The Cliffs Notes: puzzle toys are hollow objects you fill with food. It takes time and effort for your dog to extract the goods.
And hey, forgetting the philosophical “dogs need to work” stuff for a moment, there’s an even simpler argument for puzzle toys:
The more time it takes Sparky to eat, the less time he has to get into trouble.
You may already use a Kong to feed your dog treats. That’s great! But you gotta go one step further and use it to feed him his regular breakfast. In fact, if you have a super-energetic and obnoxious dog (or a regular puppy), I’d recommend rationing out a day’s worth of food, using some of it as training rewards, and stuffing the rest into toys for breakfast and dinner. This is the single easiest, most effective way to improve your situation. Until you’re satisfied with Sparky’s behavior, no food bowls allowed.
How to put together your chill-out routine
Step one: exercise
Pick an energetic activity like a long walk, a hike, fetch, etc. Or like Merlin the border collie prefers, a long walk AND a game of fetch.
The less time you have, the more intense the activity should be:
- Strap a backpack to your adult dog to make hikes/walks tougher (not for puppies, please. Their growing bodies are not prepared for this)
- Combine fetch with an epic tug-of-war game
- If you don’t have a lot of space, play with a flirt-pole instead of fetch
- Set up a line of jumps for your agility trainee and run him back and forth
Step two: interactive brain games
We’re taking the energy level down a notch here. Switching from the mindless excitement of the previous activity to something that requires focus. Work on tricks or obedience training, or play a training game like hide-and-seek. If you’re taking a training class, this would be the time to work on homework.
Brain work is better at wearing a dog out than repetitive jogging or fetching, generally speaking. If you’re strapped for time, put more focus on brain work than exercise.
(The most effective activities combine exercise AND mental stimulation. This is one of the reasons I love dog sports. Agility training, for example, gives you the perfect combination of hard physical work and brain work)
Step three: breakfast in puzzle toys
Prerequisite: The whole “earn your breakfast by figuring out how to extract it from this weird little container” thing takes getting used to. A dog who has eaten from a bowl her whole life probably won’t have the patience for this at first. Read the puzzle toy guide to learn how to teach your dog this concept.
The night before, fill a Kong-type toy. If Sparky eats soft food, use that. If he eats kibble, mix it with a little soft food. Freeze the Kong. Then in the morning after your brain-work session, give Sparky his Kong-sicle to work on alone while you go about your day.
You can start easy, with one large Kong filled with an entire meal, and then make things harder as Sparky becomes a puzzle toy pro. The harder it is, the better. Harder means it takes Sparky more time to eat, which means less time spent barking, chewing up the furniture, or staring at you hopefully while you try to write a blog post (geez, Merlin. I’m almost finished. Five more minutes).
Ways to make things harder:
- Put soft food in a Kong and kibble in a Buster Cube (which is designed for dry, not wet, food)
- Divide the meal into several toys and hide them around a dog-proofed room
Do I have to do this in the morning?
Nope. It’s good to do it in the morning because that way Sparky will be chiller during the day when you’re gone. But if you don’t have time in the morning, you can do it whenever.
How long should I spend on exercise and brain work?
Depends on two factors: how much time you have, and how much time Sparky needs. As a starting point, try thirty minutes for exercise, followed by fifteen minutes for brain training (although your teenage pit bull or herding breed will laugh at the idea of a measly 45 minutes of work).
If you don’t have enough time in the morning, maybe take five minutes to throw a tennis ball, ten minutes for trick-training, and then rely on an assortment of puzzle toys to keep her busy. Then do a longer version of the routine in the evening when you have more time.
The specific activities and time of day don’t matter much. What matters is following the basic principles:
- Cool-downs after exercise, always. A “workout” followed by a less intense activity that engages the dog’s brain, followed by an acceptable solo activity (puzzle or chew toys).
- Feed meals out of puzzle toys. The less time you have to work with your dog, the more you will rely on puzzle toys.
There are many ways to make this work. Some dogs need a ton of intense exercise and less brain work. Some dogs (like border collies) thrive on a bit of exercise and an hour of training and brain games. Do some experimenting to figure out what works for you.
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