The other day someone asked me a question I've never been asked: "What is the #1 root cause of most behavior problems?"
My first thought was that it is impossible to choose one, that doing so would be an oversimplification and therefore useless. But over the next few days I pondered the question and an answer came to mind.
Over the years if a person deals with enough dogs and behavior problems, he or she will begin to notice things: Dogs have similar behavior problems to human children. Dogs' personalities and behaviors tend to mirror their owners'. Most dogs eat too much and exercise too little. A lot of dogs don't listen to their owners. Many dogs experience lots of love but little discipline. So on and so forth. But one problem stood out. We experience it all the time.
Like their humans, American dogs get enough exercise. Many of the dogs we encounter have all sorts of behavior problems which their owners want fixed. We come up with a detailed plan and take the dog into our Canine College to work on the behaviors. Any dog, whether in college or not, get a lot of exercise when in our care. They run, wrestle, play tug-o-war, retrieve balls, etc. as a part of their daily routine. And interestingly, once many problem dogs begin to get sufficient exercise, often their behavior improves dramatically with no training whatsoever. Their happy owners say, "He's a different dog. You guys are amazing. What in the world did you do?
We simply shrug and say, "We just exercised him a lot."
That a problem dog can turn around with only exercise isn't always the case, but almost always the exercise makes a big difference. Think about it. Have you ever been trapped inside for days during a storm? How have you felt when constrained during the Covid pandemic? Did you go a little nuts, do and say things wouldn't normally, develop a few odd habits? This is exactly what happens when your dog, an animal designed to run, doesn't get enough exercise. (Of course some dogs are old or have health issues. I'm generalizing, of course.)
Recently a very out-of-control, young, male golden retriever came to us for training. We knew he had some behavior problems but had no idea how many. He knocked me down multiple times, scratched my face inadvertently, barked incessantly, and bloodied my nose by jumping up and hitting me with his head. He was so overbearing during Day Play that the other dogs disliked him. He ran and ran and ran, and after a few days his demeanor began to calm slightly. After a week we noticed a huge difference. I still had to be tough on him and teach him not to jump on or knock down people. But the exercise made more difference than anything.
If your dog has developed behavior problems, and he or she is somewhat inactive, you might start by asking if the behaviors could be related to lack of exercise. It certainly wouldn't hurt to increase his or her activity level significantly for a couple of weeks and see if he demeanor and behavior improve. Leash walks aren't enough, of course. Off-leash hikes, frisbee throwing, ball retrieving; any of those activities are great. And if you're too busy or unwilling to provide Fido strenuous exercise, send him to a quality dog daycare program that will provide it. But however Fido gets it, vigorous exercise is one of the most important gifts you can give him. And the gift might greatly benefit you, too.