There is a concept in nutrition called “balance over time.” It means that we don’t have to eat three perfectly balanced meals a day so long as we achieve balance over the course of a week, or month. Nutrition is a funky science; not everyone agrees with this concept. I adhere to this principle in feeding my dogs (last night they ate raw ground turkey and fresh cracked whole eggs from my chickens, tonight they’ll get bone-in chicken parts and organs, and tomorrow we’ll probably be back to turkey but with tripe instead of eggs) and it has worked well for me, as it has for my raw feeding mentor who’s been at it for close to two decades now. But I don’t write blogs about nutrition, so let’s get to the point, shall we?
Balance over time applies to care and training too.
Yesterday my dogs had what I call a “bad dog day” (translated: I was too busy to provide for them the way I like to). They got their frozen kongs that occupy them every morning while I write or work with online clients, and were expected to pretty much lie around after that while I finished the mountain of work that had accumulated over the weekend. You know what happened? They did lie around. They didn’t fuss. Even Felix only brought me a toy once or twice. The reason they can have an occasional day where they get little exercise and mental stimulation is because this isn’t their normal. Saturday they ran their hearts out on the beach. Sunday we trained agility. Each day they got kongs. So Monday when I needed them to be lazy, they were capable of it. Idgie being eight years old is capable of more of these days in a week than 20 month Felix. It isn’t important that I provide them with a perfect balance of enrichment and exercise every single day; like their meals I need to achieve balance over time. Just like a body will break down eventually with malnutrition, behavior problems like excessive barking, aggression, destruction, and general naughtiness start to pop up when the exercise/enrichment balance isn’t met.
How much exercise is enough?
There isn’t a hard rule here. I like to look to my dogs’ behavior to tell me whether they’ve had enough or not. Are they experiencing REM sleep during the day while I work? Are they barking at every noise, or are they calm? Can they wait without barking while I train another dog? Each of them have behaviors that clue me in for them as individuals, too. If Idgie has not had enough exercise she will bark at the resident old dog, Tundra through the baby gate that always separates them. If Felix hasn’t had enough he will find something to destroy; usually paper. (I head this off by handing him junk mail to shred on the regular). Like most dogs, it’s about quality more than quantity so a quick leash walk around the neighborhood won’t do the trick quite like an off leash romp in the woods.
What about enrichment?
Mental stimulation is something we owe our dogs on a daily basis. They are intelligent creatures who deserve to use their brains. As the saying goes, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. This goes for your dog; don’t inadvertently “train” non-thinking, dull dogs by letting their minds go soft from inactivity. In general, the smarter the breed you choose to live with the more of this stuff they’ll need. What constitutes “smart” is up for debate but if your dog never dreamed of chewing up a shoe or counter-surfing, I’d argue he is probably a lovely companion and also not the sharpest knife in drawer. On my worst dog days mine still gnaw on a frozen kong for about an hour; allowing them to use their brain and their jaws to nourish themselves. I try to keep bully sticks around for the odd day I’ve run out of kongs, and they get a frozen marrow bone on occasion too. My philosophy is this: they’ve got to eat, so use those calories to your best advantage.
Most of the time my dogs also get to use their clever minds in training. Ongoing training projects (not just mechanically showing up to agility class once a week) serve both dogs and people in terms of enrichment. It feeds my mind to help my dogs learn new skills; and it enriches them at the same time. Win-win.
Like with exercise, my dogs enrich themselves if they’ve not been adequately provided for. This is where increased vocalization and destructive behavior might come into play. Idgie will have a hard time waiting her turn for training if she hasn’t had enough mental stimulation, and Felix is no different.
This might be about more than dogs…
I say it all the time: dogs have taught me everything I need to know about my own self-care. I can work a thirteen hour day if I get to hike the next day. I can spend a day working on mindless tasks like cleaning or grocery shopping if I can sink my teeth into an interesting book or conversation afterward. Balance, it turns out, isn’t so much a noun as a verb.