Just what do people mean by active when they talk about active dogs? Everyone seems to want to be more active these days. If you are an athlete, you want to reach that level of fitness just beyond your current ability and you push yourself to do that. If you can run 5 km, how about 6? If you can swim 40 lengths of the pool, how about 50? And if you hike daily, why not get an active dog to keep you company while you do that? Being active on a human level often leads people into the idea that they want a really active dog, but what a professional dog trainer considers an active dog and what you consider an active dog are likely two different things.
Apart from the short nosed “brachyocephalic” dogs such as Pugs, English Bulldogs and Boston Terriers, pretty much any breed of dog is going to be more active than the most active humans. Active humans might walk fifteen or twenty kilometers each day, or they might work out in a gym for a few hours a day, but a truly active dog can herd sheep for twelve hours a day covering distances of up to 100 kilometers during that time. A truly active sled dog can run hard for hours and hours on end in extremely cold weather, again covering much greater distances than we do. Hunting dogs can walk all day with a hunter and cover 40 or 50 kilometers while hunting up or fetching game at high speeds.
How is it that dogs can achieve this super fitness regardless of conditioning when we cannot keep up those fantastic levels of activity? According to Ray and Lorna Coppinger in “Dogs, A Startling New Understanding of Canine Behaviour, Origin and Evolution” dogs have a higher density of red blood cells in their bodies than we do. This means that they can carry a lot more oxygen to their tissues. This means that all things being equal, they can start faster, and run longer than we can, even if they are not a particularly active breed of dog.
For the most part, the really active dogs don’t do best when you try and exercise them to fatigue. To begin with it can be very difficult to do this, and the more often you try the fitter your active dog will get until he is so fit that without large amounts of exercise he will be difficult to handle. Exercise is important for sure; if you have an active dog he is certainly going to need 45 minutes to an hour of off leash running, but more than that can backfire badly on you. One of the most important things you can do to help a highly active dog is to teach him to relax as often as you are able. I live with dogs who would qualify as active, and the most important lesson I teach them is to lie down and chill out and relax and watch the world go by. Really active dogs need a combination of daily exercise, structure and training, social time with their people and other dogs and the opportunity to make good relaxation choices.
If you are looking for a dog, you likely have a picture in your head of what that dog is going to look like before you have a picture in your head of what you would like your dog to do. You can often find whatever look you want in a variety of behavioural packages, so it is better to start with a picture of what you want to do with your dog. Are you looking to explore the world of search and rescue with your dog? Can you find a local mentor? If you answered yes to both those questions, your mentor can probably help you find whatever kind of dog your heart desires! Are you looking for a companion who will need to learn the rules of the road, but who will be happy to get up and join you in your weekend warrior adventures? You can find those traits in pretty much whatever package you want too! The key is to have a really good idea before you start about what you would like your dog to DO before you decide what your dog must look like.
Once you have a good picture of what you want your dog to do with you, then list out the behavioural traits that will make up the dog that you want to live with. Perhaps it is important to you that your dog not think up new and creative ways to get into your cupboards, your trash can, your laundry hamper and the truck of your car. Knowing this means that you not only don’t want a highly active dog, you don’t want the smartest dog either. Smart does not equate to happy or well adjusted in the dog world. Often smart means frustrated by not being able to use your brain all day long.
Perhaps you want a running companion. Understanding that dogs really suffer from overheating in the summer, you might want to choose a dog that has a good tolerance for heat with a short coat. Or perhaps your dream dog is going to alert bark when necessary, but has a really great off switch. In that case, search out a low energy dog who does not bark often; he will bark when needed, but not all the time.
Only if you are aspiring to engage in really serious dog sports do you need an active, smart dog. Otherwise a low to medium energy dog who is willing to do things your way is going to suit you fine. Once you have a great picture of what you want to do with your dog, and you have a good idea of what you want him to look like, how do you know what an active dog looks like compared to a low or medium energy dog? The perpetual motion machine puppy in the litter is not going to be your go to dog! Neither is a puppy whose mom is a perpetual motion machine. If you meet mom and you don’t think right away “wow, I could live with Mom without changing anything” you may want to reconsider a puppy from that litter. Look for the medium or low energy puppy in the litter and choose a mom who is medium to low energy herself. Mom should also be really keen to figure out what her people want to do; she should be engaged and interested in people. If she is aloof and uninterested in people, you can pet her puppies aren’t going to be terribly interested in you either.
In the shelter it can be harder to tell if a dog is high or low energy right off the bat. Some dogs are really shut down in the shelter and although they are high energy, they don’t move around too much because they are frightened, anxious or overwhelmed. On the other hand some notably low energy dogs may look like whirling dervishes in the shelter because they are so anxious that they spend all their time trying to avoid and escape! If possible get a trainer in to evaluate the dog for you, and make sure you read as much history on the individual as you can. Look for the red flag phrases-“Looking for a fur-ever home with a marathon runner” probably translates into “would be a great candidate for the Idatarod and if you miss a walk, you will live to regret it!”.
The bottom line is that unless there is a medical reason for not exercising, such as a brachyocephalic dog’s short face and the breathing issues that come along with that structure, pretty much any dog is going to outrun you, so be very realistic about how much exercise you really want to live with and how smart you think you can keep up with. A willing couch potato is likely going to make your really happy, and a smart active dog is going to be your first step towards serious dog training as a career.