Dog behaviours explained: why dogs need exercise, exploration and play to be happy.

Puppies playing
Picture of Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

Dogs have evolved with lots of activity and movement. In their distant – and perhaps not so distant – past, they spent most of their day hunting and scavenging for food, mostly on scraps of food that people left behind. Dogs had to use their brains and their bodies to keep them alive (working out how to get food from different sources, running from danger, etc).

But nowadays, lots of dogs have very little stimulation in their lives. Many end up being left alone for hours at a time while their owners are off to work. In addition, dogs have lost the freedom to decide what to do and where to go. Instead, it’s us people that determine the daily routines and what resources dogs get access to.

So how are dogs affected by this shift from always being active and using their brains, to not having to think about where the next meal is coming from? Is this a good thing? After all, we also like to grab that tub of chocolate ice cream from the freezer rather than forage for berries in the forest, right?

In this article, I’ll discuss why dogs still have the need to express dog behaviours that were relevant in the past, but that may have (partly) lost their function today. I’ll discuss:

    • What are behavioural needs?
    • What happens if behavioural needs are not met?
    • Why do dogs need to exercise?
    • How much exercise do dogs need?
    • Why do dogs need to explore and sniff?
    • Why do dogs need to play?

What are behavioural needs:

Many dogs still have a very strong motivation to keep expressing the behaviours that helped them to survive in the wild or semi-natural environment. Even though these behaviours themselves seemingly have lost their function.

After all, most dogs don’t have to work for food, but get their meals delivered on a golden plate. However, the ancient drive to explore and hunt is still very much alive today. And even more important, expressing these behaviours makes dogs feel great!

Playing dogs

What happens if behavioural needs are not met?

Research shows that dogs feel frustration when they’re prevented from expressing their natural behaviours that they’re strongly motivated to do, or when they are prevented from getting something nice (such as food) that they were expecting. 

These frustration behaviours tell us that dogs have intentions and expectations, and are aware when these are not being met.

Dogs know exactly what they want to do and have their own expectation of what the world should be like. They have very strong ‘build in’ internal drives for certain behaviours and doing these make them feel great. If dogs can’t express their natural behaviours sufficiently, they may simply not get enough opportunities to feel good. 

Eventually, when the need to express natural behaviours is insufficiently met, the frustration may build up and lead to abnormal dog behaviours, such as repetitive behaviours (read more about that here). Or the mood of the dog may become more negative, which may lead to other dog behaviour problems. Of course, exactly what happens varies widely between individuals and is difficult to predict, but there is evidence of a link between not meeting behavioural needs, and fearful and anxious behaviours. 

So if you want to know how to understand dogs, it’s important to know why they have the need to express certain behaviours. 

What behaviours can be considered behavioural needs in dogs? These are the need for exercise, exploration, play, social behaviours, and rest/sleep. In this article, I’ll focus on the need for exercise as well as the related needs for exploration and play. The other’s deserve an article of their own (coming soon)!

Why do dogs need to exercise?

Dogs living in a semi-wild environment spent lots of time exploring their environment by sniffing and wandering around in search of food. If there was any suitable prey, they stalked their prey, chased it, bit it and finally ate it (predatory sequence). 

In wolves, the full canine predatory motor sequence is triggered by the movement of prey (Figure 1). However, our pet dogs have been living with us for thousands of years, and some breeds have been purposely bred for only a certain part of the predatory sequence.

Canine predatory sequence

For example, hunting dogs (e.g., airedale terriers) were bred to kill prey, and therefore have a fully intact predatory sequence. Herding dogs (e.g., border collies), like to stalk and chase, but don’t do much biting and killing. Retrievers may chase and grab, but killing is rare. While livestock-guarding dogs (e.g., anatolian shepherds) are specifically bred not to express any predatory behaviours.

Of course, there are also individual differences in how well dog hunting behaviour is preserved between different dogs. But it’s important to meet your dog’s needs to express the part of the predatory sequence that is relevant to them by, for example:

  • Orientation and eyeing through exploratory behaviours such as walking, wandering and sniffing.
  • Movement (physical exercise)
  • Pretend predatory behaviour, such as:
    • Chasing balls
    • Tug-of-war
    • Tearing up or shaking toys
    • Biting and chewing objects

We wouldn’t want any actual predatory behaviours of course! 

Increased exercise may even reduce fearful and anxious behaviours. This is probably because exercise helps dogs to cope with stress, and improves their general mood.

Exercise makes dogs feel good, and reduces stress, fear and anxiety.

How much exercise do dogs need?

Running dog

It probably varies, but one study showed that dogs with a healthy weight walked about 11,000 steps per day, which translates to about 75-120 minutes a day, depending on the walking speed. Obese dogs walked only about 7000 steps, which is about 50-75 minutes a day. Another study showed that the risk of obesity decreased for each hour increase in exercise per week. Walking therefore benefits dogs’ physical health.

The mental health benefits are greatest when dogs are active (walking/training etc) more than 2-3 hours per day, at least for pet dogs. In kennel dogs, even a 25 min daily exercise session has been shown to reduce stress and improve behaviour compared to no walking.

But note that this type of research is in early stages in dogs, and there are no guidelines yet as to how much exercise is needed to prevent behavioural problems, stress and anxiety in dogs. 

How much exercise your dog needs will depend on your dog’s age, sex, neuter status, and breed. Of course, senior dogs may need to go on walks a little less often compared to very energetic puppies. 

So observe your dog and look for when they’re satisfied and relaxed, without being absolutely exhausted. Choose activities that you enjoy doing as well and take your dog with you, so you have a good time together!

Why do dogs need to explore and sniff?

Exploration and sniffing are part of the early stages of the predatory sequence and most dogs still have the need to perform these behaviours. When dogs are free to roam around, they sniff about 33 per cent of the time. Dogs use their noses to explore the world, and this is an important behaviour for them. It’s how they gather information about their environment and decide what to do next.

Shelter dogs are calmer when they are encouraged to use their noses and sniff (olfactory enrichment). Compared to dogs that regularly trained on heelwork, dogs who regularly did nosework were in a more positive mood (i.e., are happier). So give your dog plenty of opportunities to smell and explore. During walks, your dog will feel good if you let them express their natural behaviours and allow them to make active decisions.

Unfortunately, many dogs don’t get enough exercise, which may lead to welfare problems. It’s a little unclear why some people don’t walk their dogs (or only very little), but it may have to do with lead pulling. You can read more about lead pulling and why it’s important to fix it here.

Why do dogs need to play?

Many dogs love to play. Dogs are a bit special because they even like to play as adults. This is in contrast to most other species that are only interested in playing when they’re young. Play starts early in life as a way to explore the environment, and teaches dogs how and where to find food. Even adult dogs like to play due to selective breeding, especially in certain breeds such as labradors and golden retrievers. Play in these breeds is linked to the grabbing/retrieving part of the predatory sequence. 

Why do dogs like playing so much? Simply because it makes them feel good! But play also serves important functions, by training the dog’s motor skills and forming social bonds with others. Play also helps dogs to prepare for unexpected situations, because it trains their cognitive abilities and lets them explore alternative solutions. 

Dogs practice fight and flight responses to stress during play, which helps them to better cope when they feel stressed or scared later on.

Play also teaches dogs problem solving skills and how to behave in flexible ways to get what they want. In this way, play helps dogs to regulate their own emotions and to respond in the right way to things happening around them. 

How dogs play depends on who they’re playing with. Play with their owners varies with the quality of the relationship, with more body contact promoting better relationships. Dogs also prefer to play with someone they know, rather than with someone they don’t know. 

There’s a very hard to break myth that letting dogs win games makes them more dominant and so encourages problematic behaviours. There is simply no evidence for this.

Letting your dog win games doesn’t make your dog dominant or think he’s the boss!

The way dogs play with humans is not the same as playing with other dogs. Therefore, play with humans can’t replace play with other dogs and vice versa, because the motivation and structure of dog-dog and human-dog play are very different. For example, when playing with a human rather than another dog, dogs were more interactive and less protective of their toys. 

Winning the possession of a toy, on the other hand, seems to be more important when dogs play with other dogs. This is most likely because dogs rarely hunt together with other dogs, and don’t like sharing their prey (or the substitute toy) with conspecifics. However, dogs have been hunting together with humans for hundreds of years, which would explain why dogs don’t mind sharing with their owners so much.  

It seems that during selective breeding, it has become more likely that play with other dogs turns into aggression. Especially when the play is one-sided and very competitive. Unfortunately, most owners struggle to recognize play behaviour from non-play. Forty percent of dog bites occurred during seemingly playful situations. 

How can you recognize play behaviour? A typical sign of play is the play bow and the absence of threatening and aggressive body postures.

Look for the following signs:

Play bow
Play bow
Dogs playing
Role reversals. Sometimes one dog is on top, then the other.
Playing dogs
Self-handicapping. Dogs take it easy on each other and no-one gets injured.

The fact that many dogs have been bred for exaggerated or reduced features or may have been physically mutilated – think about shorter legs, longer bodies and docked tails – makes it more difficult for dogs to communicate whether they want to play or not. So dogs from specific breeds and those with docked ears and tails may need a little more supervision during play.

So is play with other dogs always beneficial? No, not when the competitive interactions are too great and lead to aggression, which only benefits the winning dog. Also, dogs that have had many bad experiences before or that show any reactivity towards other dogs may not benefit from playing with dogs they don’t know. These dogs should probably only play with friendly dogs that they know well, and should be introduced to unknown dogs gradually and carefully. In most cases, play aggression and reactivity can be prevented in puppies by understanding their motivations, body language and needs, read more about that here

It’s also important to remember that dogs actually need to experience healthy play as young pups in order to get the benefits of playing with other dogs as adults. So depriving pups of healthy socialisation with other dogs can be detrimental to their welfare. This can even lead to problems of not being able to be alone later on, a condition that’s called separation anxiety.

So make sure you introduce your pup to other friendly and social dogs early on, without overwhelming them of course. And enjoy playing with your dog in your home, your yard and when going on walks. Try out different games and toys, and have fun together!

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Dr Else Verbeek en witte hond