You write that “all dogs are natural-born athletes.” How much exercise should they be getting each day?
Generally speaking, healthy dogs need a minimum of 20 minutes of rigorous, heart-thumping daily exercise. But 40 minutes is better than 20 minutes, and an hour is optimal in my opinion. If you can spend an hour divided between sprinting, walking, running and sniffing, that is a very good, well-rounded protocol to incorporate all of your dog’s senses but also all of his biological needs to move his muscles, tendons, ligaments and cardiovascular system in a way that allows for perpetual and continued health.
So often we focus on our dogs’ physical health, but you also underscore the importance of mental well-being.
Most of us don’t think about how much emotional and mental stress our dogs are under. Yet the rate of anxiety diagnosed in dogs is about equal to that of humans, and up to 80 percent of dogs worldwide have some aspect of an anxiety-based behavior. The oldest dogs [that we wrote about] had lower-stress lifestyles. They were able to spend a lot of time outside and they had more easygoing personalities. Their owners cultivated an environment of learning and discovery and play. How often do we think about letting dogs get in the mud or dig a hole or roll around in the dirt? That plays into their mental and emotional well-being.
Besides hole-digging and mud-bathing, what are some ways people can help enrich their dogs’ lives?
It’s a little bit like raising kids: We want to find activities that our dogs are interested in, [whether that’s] frisbee or agility training or swimming or hiking. One of the other ways we can decrease stress is to offer our dogs more choices. Just taking them outside and allowing them to sniff and choose where they want to go is a really great way to decrease your dog’s stress. Keeping our dogs mentally stimulated is another big part. Just as humans need to keep their brains active, we want to help engage and stimulate our dogs’ cognitive well-being. So brain games are a great suggestion. There’s all sorts of interactive games that we can play with our dogs that allow them to use their brains. And creating opportunities for your dog to be social, interact with other dogs, spend time outside is a really important way to cultivate environmental enrichment.
Do you have any tips for older adults who can’t be physically active alongside their dogs?
You could take advantage of great doggy day cares. You drop your dog off, and your dog gets to be socialized with other dogs. They get to smell and move their bodies and lick and play and tug and do all the things that dogs need to do. Dog walkers can also pick up your dog at your home, do the rigorous exercise for you and then drop your dog back off. Last but not least, you may have friends, family, nieces, nephews or grandkids who might be able to help. You could create a schedule where once or twice a week, your dog is going to doggy day care, and once or twice a week, you have friends or family walk your dog.
What is the bottom-line message you’d like to get across to all the dog lovers out there?
A dog’s physical and emotional well-being is based on the choices that we make for them, and we as guardians and owners are making decisions every day that positively and potentially negatively — dramatically — impact their health. If you have the information that you need to make better choices, you can do so much to help your dog live a longer, more vibrant life.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.