There are often reports in the media about how exercise helps people with anxiety and depression. This was thought to occur because of the release of endorphins within the brain that resulted in a feeling of well-being. Studies that are more recent have suggested that it’s not actually endorphins but an endocannabinoid that causes these feelings. This is a chemical that’s naturally produced in the nervous system and is involved in mediating the pleasant effects of cannabis. This means that people do indeed experience a “runner’s high”.
What About Dogs?
They are an active species and like to run. Do they have a similar response to exercise and can this response be used to help manage behavioral problems? The answers to those questions are a resounding yes, and yes.
Scientists in Arizona have studied endocannabinoid levels in people and dogs and found that in both species, there is a very positive response to high-intensity endurance running. This response isn’t seen at all with low-intensity walking. What this means for a pet parent is that to get the behavioral benefits of endocannabinoid release in their dog, a daily stroll just isn’t enough. They will need to move a bit faster and exercise a bit harder to get their dog’s heart rate up.
If your much-loved canine family member falls into any of the following categories, it would be well worth increasing their exercise levels to see if it has a positive effect on their behavior.
Some dogs will constantly chase their tail or chew their flank or bedding. While there is a genetic basis to this type of behavior, the dog’s environment can also play a role. The first thing to do is to check for a medical cause behind the chewing, for example skin allergies. If all is well, then increased frequency and intensity of exercise can definitely help.
When they hit adolescence (much like teenagers), dogs can be a bit of a challenge to manage. They often push the boundaries and stretch the relationship between them and their pet parent. This isn’t a behavioral problem as such, but can still be frustrating to live with. Exercise is an important part of letting these youngsters expend their energy, and a tired dog is indeed a happy dog. Before increasing the exercise levels of an immature dog, check with your vet to make sure it won’t stress their young joints too much.
The ADHD Dog
Some dogs truly appear to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They don’t sit still and constantly demand interaction with their pet parents. It can be tiring just watching them. ADHD isn’t thought to be an issue in busy, active dogs but a rush of endocannabinoids after a good run will calm them and help to settle them down.
Anxiety is not uncommon in dogs. It can be associated with separation, boredom or stressful changes in their life such as the addition of a new baby to the house. Affected dogs may pace, cry, destroy the household furnishings, and even lick the skin of their forelegs until it is raw. This latter condition is known as a lick granuloma. It’s important to seek help from a veterinary behaviorist to manage anxiety, but part of the prescription can be increased exercise. I have personal experience of this, having fostered a wonderful dog with severe separation anxiety. This dog ate my couch twice and destroyed a crate in his panic when he was left alone. I can’t imagine what the neighbors thought of his crying. He was taken in a 10km fun run where he ran hard and completed the distance in just 44 minutes. The difference in his demeanor that afternoon was astounding. He was calm and relaxed, even when I went out for an hour.
How to Trigger an Endocannabinoid Response
There are a number of ways that dogs can be exercised in order to trigger an endocannabinoid response. The most obvious way is to take them running. Most dogs are well able to run; there are some that have even completed full marathons. Obviously, there will be breed considerations when it comes to working out how far and how fast to go. For example, Brachycephalic or short-nosed dogs aren’t designed to run and it can be dangerous for them. Check with your vet if you have any concerns about your dog’s athletic ability.
If you aren’t a runner, then it would be worth hiring someone to take your dog on an outing. Perhaps a student or member of the local athletics club could invite your pooch with them while they train. There are doggie treadmills available, but while they will allow a dog to run at a good pace, they are very likely to be boring.
It may be that a dog doesn’t enjoy running, but still needs the benefit of those endocannabinoids. Chasing a ball will have a similar effect but it will need to be done for more than just a few throws. Remember the calming effects occur after endurance exercise, not a short sprint. This is also why an agility run or flyball race won’t have the desired effect, even though they are great fun for dogs and have their own benefits.
Exercise is important to the mental health of dogs but for those severely affected with behavioral issues, it’s usually not enough on its own. Endurance exercises will need to be combined with a retraining program and possibly medication to get the best results. However, for those dogs that are hyperactive or excitable, a good hard run with a hearty dose of endocannabinoids may be all they need to help them to settle down. So lace up your running shoes and hit the trail for a long, rejuvenating run with your hound. Sometimes six legs are better than two!