There is a popular saying that, “a tired dog is a good dog.” The reasoning is, if you tire your dog out through vigorous exercise, he will be good (hold still, not chew your shoes, sleep, be relaxed, etc.) because he is tired.
I disagree; a tired dog is simply a tired dog and has not learned to be calm. In fact he has learned to be in a state of high arousal or excitement until he is so tired he collapses in exhaustion. It is much more effective to use mental stimulation, paired with less strenuous exercise, so he can actually learn how to be calm.
A good parallel to this is what happens to small children when they play in a very physical way for too long. I saw this so often when my son, now in his 30’s, was little. He would run and run with his friends, get hysterical, and not be able to calm himself when it was time to stop. If you have ever been to a playground, even if you don’t have kids, think of all the crying children who have to be carried away because they are over-tired. We put our dogs in the same situation when we rev them up through strenuous exercise and then expect them to be able to calm down when we decide they should be quiet and still. But we have not taught them this skill.
Many dog professionals will tell you to train your dog to lie down and stay, and then she will be calm. You can do that, but your dog still will not have learned how to calm herself. And her moods will be more outside of her control. She will be ramped up when you want her to be, and calm (perhaps) when you want her to be. How does that help her when you are not home and there are people and dogs and cats and cars moving around outside? And if you have a reactive dog and play strenuous fetch, please expect her to bark at the next dog that goes by. In other words, if she only has what is called an external locus of control, how can she calm herself?
Can you see how relying only on training for everything with our dogs can lead to problems?
There are activities you can do with your dog that will increase his ability to calm himself, raise his serotonin levels, and decrease adrenalin and cortisol in his system. Here are a few:
1. Do treat searches in the house. The goal is to be able to put your dog on a stay or keep her in one room, and hide treats or pieces of kibble around the whole house. Start by scattering some treats in front of her, then say, “find it,” and let her use your sight and nose to do so. Each time scatter them further until she can find them out of sight, then start hiding them in one room. Gradually increase the area until she is searching throughout the house. This is a great activity for bad weather days.
2. Scatter kibble or treats in your back yard. I stand on my deck and toss it in different directions. Say, “Treat search,”and let her go sniff out each piece. Don’t worry, there won’t be any left!
3. Take your dog for a sniffing walk. Use a long leash, 8-10 feet is best. Let him decide the direction to go, how long to sniff, and how slow to walk. Relax and observe your dog’s behavior to learn a bit about what interests him or makes her happy.
Did you notice that all three of these activities involved dogs using their noses? The olfactory (smelling) nerves, in both humans and dogs, are connected to the limbic system. This is the part of the brain where our emotions are processed. Sniffing makes dogs happy and calm. So if you want a well behaved dog, give him lots of opportunities to sniff.
I do not agree that a tired dog is a good dog. But I do believe that a dog who is given lots of opportunities to sniff is a happy, and ultimately better behaved, dog.