High-Energy Canines

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

I got my Australian shepherd, Taz, because I’d heard how intelligent the breed is and thought he’d be easy to train. Two years later he’s an obedience school drop-out and off-the-wall, even though I let him run for at least an hour every day. Could he be hyperactive?

Although many owners of dogs with strong working roots accuse their pets of being hyperactive, the true medical condition rarely occurs. More commonly, what the owner perceives as an excessively active pet results from a mismatch between canine potential and owner expectations.

Consider the demands Taz would face if he worked as a herding dog. First, he must notice and respond to even the most subtle commands from the herdsman. Second, he must monitor the movement of his charges to ensure none fall behind or wander off. Third, he must remain alert to any environmental changes—such as predators or unexpected obstacles—that might harm his charges. Fourth, he must induce his charges to move when necessary without harming or overly upsetting them. Fifth, he must coordinate his activities with those of any other dogs working the herd.

From this we can see why the working dog heritage invariably includes intelligence, a hair-trigger sensitivity to changes in the surroundings, and a certain amount of mouthiness and independence. When we take all that breeding and put it into a pet whose owners desire little more than a companion who obeys only the most rudimentary commands to accompany them on their daily strolls, we can see how problems arise. Unless exposed as pups to a wide variety of environments, people and other animals, plus humans as established leaders of the human-canine pack, these dogs may become overwhelmed when taken into the average obedience class. Instead of paying attention to the owner, they instantly react to all strange sound, scents, and movements, exactly the behaviors that would ensure the safety of their flocks or herds.

Additionally such finely tuned, intelligent animals may not respond well to food-training, which also makes sense if you think about it. The most successful working dogs, and therefore the ones most likely to be bred, were those who enjoyed working the most. Consequently, they come hard-wired with a desire to work because it’s fun, not because they get some external reward for doing so. In fact, offering some of these animals treats disrupts the natural rhythm of learning. They expect to master a task and move on to another, more challenging one. (Imagine a shepherd giving his dog a treat every time the animal sat!) When the owner keeps rewarding the dog for doing the same tasks and never expands the repertoire, the animals may become bored and even agitated for two reasons. First, by not quickly phasing out the food treat, the owner actually teaches the dog to do the task for food rather than for fun, which makes it much more difficult for the animal to internalize the new lesson. Second, in addition to losing the inherent sense of accomplishment that comes just from doing a job well, the dog never gets the opportunity to realize its full potential. All this results in a most unfortunate paradox: The dog appears dim-witted and unruly simply because it’s so smart.

Quite naturally, the idea of allowing high potential dogs to run loose to burn off that extra energy appeals to beleaguered owners seeking some peace and quiet. However, unless the dog will immediately come on command, such runs serve only to undermine the animal’s response to the owner even more. Additionally, while these forays may physically exhaust the animal, they may do little to challenge it mentally. Consequently, these dogs may chew themselves or the owners’ shoes to relieve this tension once they get home. Naturally, if the run proves a wonderful canine experience, a bored, intelligent animal will do everything to get the owner to repeat this activity, including acting up indoors—exactly the behavior the owner believed the run would extinguish!

There’s no need for your pet’s activity level to undermine your relationship. A well-designed physical and mental work-out that takes into account your dog’s unique behavioral heritage can turn even the most “hyper” pet into a well-behaved canine companion.