Working dog breeds are popular pets today, but they have always been bred to work tirelessly alongside humans.
Hunting dogs are bred to live for the hunt. Herding dogs are bred to think for themselves, or obey the commands of their masters, while they run up and down hills gathering livestock. Sled dogs are bred to run and pull, for hours, as part of a team.
Breeding a good work ethic into dogs reduces the training required before they can perform their tasks; for the most part, pointers naturally point, Labradors naturally love to retrieve, and Border collies eye and gather anything they perceive as their herd, provided that they are from working lines.
Herder’s gotta herd. New Zealand heading dogs are bred to herd livestock using their intense “eye”, or stare. Their drive to work is so strong that, as pets, they may herd you, other dogs, cars, or children.
Some of the many high-energy dog breeds that are commonly kept as pets include:
- Border collies
- German shepherds
- Cocker spaniel (especially from working lines)
- Labrador retrievers
- Springer spaniels
- Pembroke Welsh corgis
- Dobermann pinschers
- Australian shepherds
- English setters
- Most bull breeds
- Mixed-breeds with high-energy heritage
Most working dogs are bred to work alongside humans, and are naturally biddable and friendly as a result. However, their strong drive and boundless energy can make them challenging pets.
Many people, when choosing a dog, gravitate towards the breed they grew up with. If this was a high-energy working breed, it probably seemed easy to manage due to the amount of stimulation a family dog gets. However, managing a high-energy breed on your own may not be so easy.
High-energy breeds are no picnic. However, the intelligence, biddability, and beauty of high-energy breeds can easily make owning one worth your time and effort. The following are some sanity-preserving tips I have learned from experience with high-energy working dogs.
With dedication to the right training and management, this Border collie puppy could make a good family pet.
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Make peace with the fact that you will never wear your dog out.
“A tired dog is a good dog”, so the saying goes. Too bad that most people don’t have the time or energy to wear a high-energy dog out. Your dog might get hot, lie down, or pant, but after a short rest he’ll be ready to work again.
There is no escaping the fact that high-energy dogs need daily exercise, but quality is more important than quantity, and a couple of 45 minute walks a day should be plenty of exercise.
When searching for a Border collie puppy, I was told that I would have to walk it for four hours off lead every day, give it a job, and play fetch on top of that. Anything less was, allegedly, cruel.
But it’s not cruel for your dog to have juice left in his fuel tank. Dogs have four long legs and a maximum running speed of up to 43 mph. Most of us are never going to be able to keep up with a dog that has all that and a huge drive to work.
You can cycle alongside them (or participate in bikejoring), take them running (or step it up to canicross) or let them go mental over a two-hour walk offleash in a new area. After such strenuous exercise, they might be worn out, but only for a short time.
Don’t exhaust yourself by trying to exhaust your dog. Your dog wants you to be happy, active and playful, not passed out on the sofa in a grumpy mood.
Canicross can be an excellent way to exercise your dog and give him a job to do.
Walking on a lead is not hard work for a dog’s body. Offleash running is a little more effective, as are games of fetch. If you combine training with a walk, your dog will get so much more out of his walk and learn to listen to you while you’re out together.
Many high-energy dogs have a natural drive to play with toys. Tug toys are extremely helpful: if you can convince your dog that a tug toy is as fun to chase as a squirrel, walks will be so much less stressful for both of you. Tugging will wear him out more than walking alone.
Some of the best ways to wear a dog out involve his brain and his nose. Some individuals will tire easily just from being trained; particularly taxing tasks, such as impulse control, focus, and trick training can wear most dogs out better than a walk.
You will probably never be able to give your dog as much exercise as he can take. But that’s okay, because you don’t need to.
Make the most of your dog’s amazing brain
High-energy working dogs generally love training, learn quickly, and enjoy working for you. Getting into dog sports is a fantastic way to work with your pet; click here to read about some of the various activities available. Base your training plan on what your dog loves most:
- If he is a chronic sniffer, start him on nosework and tracking
- If he’s a runner, try canicross or bikejoring
- If he likes doing a variety of active stuff with you, try agility
- If he follows you around the house, get him to help around the house:
- Pick up stuff that you dropped by accident (e.g. laundry on its way to the washing machine)
- Hand you clothes pegs while you hang washing on the line
- Fetch useful things like your slippers, his lead, or the TV remote.
Working dogs usually need a job to do, but that job can be tricks, fetch, a sport, or helping around the house. Always use positive reinforcement when training high-energy breeds, as they are often particularly sensitive to harsh reprimands, and they are easily traumatised.
Some training can be used to manage your dog’s energy levels. Nosework is relatively easy to get into, and can be extremely useful if you keep it up.
A dog’s nose is a powerful piece of machinery that takes a lot of energy to use. Twenty minutes of sniffing out scented oils, toys, or treats hidden around the house will tire most dogs out much more than an hour-long walk.
Training is great for other reasons, too. Hyper dogs that are prone to bolting off at the first sign of something interesting on the horizon can be convinced to stay near you if you have a ball and they are trained to play fetch.
Recall training is vital if you are going to walk your dog offlead. Although all dogs need to have a reliable recall, high-energy dogs in particular are good at running away to amuse themselves and be a menace to other people.
A word of warning about the brains of high-energy breeds: puppies are often advertised as “easy to train”, but what that usually means is that the breed learns quickly, so bad habits (such as counter-surfing and chasing shadows) form easily.
High-energy dogs can be scatterbrained and distracted, as they look for anything that might fulfill their urge to run, chase, herd, or otherwise satisfy their breed-specific instincts. They therefore need to control their urges and channel them into work for you. Try training impulse control and engagement games to help your dog focus.
Brittanies are active, clever dogs that love to run and chase. This Brittany loves doing agility with her owner.
Teach your dog to relax
I often see owners of high-energy dogs becoming exasperated when, after a two-hour romp through fields chasing the ball, their dog bounces around the house as though he hasn’t had any exercise at all. Dogs can drive you mad by being constantly active.
You and your dog both need down time, for the following reasons, and more:
- When you are sick
- When your dog needs to rest after surgery or illness
- When you need a break from your dog (especially when he is a teenager) to prevent you from becoming tired or frustrated
- When your dog needs to learn that he doesn’t have to constantly be in work mode
Relaxing does not always come naturally to high-energy breeds, which are often bred to be workaholics. Being worked up all day can make them anxious; teaching your dog how to relax is part of your responsibility towards him.
Crate training is a fantastic way to build relaxation into your dog’s routine. If you always feed your dog in his crate, you can use that time to have a breather from your dog, and your dog will learn to anticipate that relaxation and food time is coming.
Another powerful tool for learning to relax is mat training. Have a special mat or bed for your dog to lie on to relax. I like this one in particular as it is raised off the ground, so the dog has to consciously get on and off it.
First, shape him to step onto the mat and stay there; then start rewarding him for any behaviours which indicate he is calm (sighing, lying down, rolling on his back, closing his eyes). The special mat should only be available when you want your dog to relax.
Chewing is a very relaxing activity for dogs. Giving your dog a nice chew can help him to relax on his mat or bed at home. Only use safe chews that are appropriate for your dog’s breed, size and chewing style: for example, don’t give him rawhide if he swallows it in chunks.
You could also try a sniffing walk: ending your dog’s walk by putting him on a lead (providing that he is trained to walk nicely on a lead) and following him from interesting smell to interesting smell can help slow him down so that he re-enters your house in a calmer frame of mind.
Instead of using a bowl, feeding your dog from a puzzle toy, or scattering food throughout the house and garden, can turn a five-minute food inhalation session into a twenty-minute adventure and a consequently calm pup. However, this only really works if your dog is food-motivated.
Your high-energy dog may not know how to calm down. An easy way to teach him to relax is to reward him for settling on a mat.
Use the power of routine
Dogs, for the most part, love having a routine, and high-energy dogs thrive on it. When they know what to expect, they feel less anxious and more in control. They know when to work, when to eat, and when to chill.
The internal clocks of dogs are surprisingly accurate, so if you forget to do a part of the routine, they will remind you.
Having a routine is good for your peace of mind, too. You know that Fido normally does well under a particular regime, and can go to work happy in the knowledge that he won’t get fidgety and start destroying things while you’re away.
My herding dog mix, Mort, used to have a strict weekday routine including two walks, two training sessions, and two long periods of being left alone with puzzle toys and not much else. However, two months ago, I broke my leg and realised the dark side of having a strict routine.
With my injury, I could no longer train or walk Mort at all, or even play with him. I relied on my partner, friends, and professional dog walkers to walk him intermittently, and some days he didn’t get a walk at all.
In a short time, Mort became an anxious, restless, destructive dog, walking around the house in circles grabbing stuff and throwing it on the floor or chewing it up. He didn’t know what to expect from me, and started acting distrustful and eventually indifferent to my presence.
During my recovery, even on days when Mort got plenty of exercise and stimulation, he was anxious and didn’t know what to expect. He had become so used to his previous routine that taking it away had plunged his world into the darkness of doubt and apprehension.
I now have a new routine with Mort, which is much more relaxed and flexible. It is mainly built around his morning and afternoon relaxation times. He knows that we do something in the morning and something in the evening, and he can go to bed when he likes.
Instead of using time as the main cue, I built Mort’s new routine around physical cues such as grabbing the lead or settling down to work, and verbal cues (“Bedtime!”). This routine seems to give him peace of mind, and he doesn’t get so confused and demanding on weekends or at times when I can’t walk him.
While dogs thrive off routine, there may be times when you can’t keep to a strict schedule. Make your routine reasonably consistent, but relaxed and flexible.
Prepare for days when you can’t engage with your dog
Sometimes you may get really sick. The flu can knock you out for two weeks or more; a broken bone can have you bedridden for six weeks.
Sometimes there will be a metre of snow outside your door, or your car will break and you can’t drive anywhere to let your dog off lead.
For most pet dogs, lying around waiting for their owner to come right isn’t a problem. High-energy breeds, however, can be unsympathetic and make you feel like the worst person in the world for taking even one day off.
Your dog may wander around the house grabbing things to destroy; they may start barking incessantly, or develop other problem behaviours; they may stare at you with a dripping tennis ball in their mouth.
You need to prepare for when you have to take time off from working with your dog. Puzzle toys are often good for keeping him occupied for a while; always have something hollow filled with something mushy in the freezer just in case you need to distract your dog.
You don’t even need to splash out on expensive toys: empty plastic jars can be filled with wet food or kibble and water and then frozen, and plastic bottles can be filled with small bites of kibble.
My dog’s favourite toys, that challenge him without being frustrating, are his snuffle mat, bacon-flavoured bone, treat ball, and a plastic bottle filled with treats. Safe bones and chews fill a similar purpose to puzzle toys, and can also be frozen for extra challenge.
Some training (such as shaping) can be done while you are lying or sitting down if you are ill. You can also play games like fetch or tug from a sitting position.
However, don’t feel like you have to do more than you are comfortable with, and don’t feel pressured to train your dog if you are feeling rubbish. You can hire a dog trainer or walker and discuss with them what you were previously doing with your dog.
It is impossible to prepare for every situation, but you do need to consider what you will do if you or your dog has to have more than one day off.
You won’t always be able to work with your dog. Puzzle toys are great for keeping your dog occupied while you are sick.
Keep training through the teenage phase
So you have your happy-go-lucky, energetic puppy, and you have developed a relaxed routine, made use of his brain, and taught him to be calm and to listen to you. Plain sailing from now on for you, right? Wrong! As soon as puberty strikes, your high-energy dog is likely to go off the rails a bit.
During puberty, your dog realises that he doesn’t have to stick to you the whole time. His head begins to fill with the possibility of chasing that bird, playing with that dog, or jumping on that cyclist, leaving little or no room for the possibility of returning to his red-faced, irate owner who is yelling in the distance.
Most dogs go through this phase, but it is particularly difficult to manage in a high-energy breed, because he still needs a lot of exercise and training, and he gets very stressed and worried if you are angry with him.
While training or competing with a teenage dog, you may find he doesn’t work for you because there is a car outside that has started its engine, or one of the people in the audience is wearing a fluffy jumper.
Do not despair. Look after yourself, for this is a difficult time. Pay no heed to the judgement of others, who may shake their heads or shout rude things to you at the dog park (or just stay away from the dog park).
Many dogs end up in shelters because of acting up during the teenage phase, so if yours is still with you, you’re doing well. Keep training, and teaching your dog that you are fun.
If you begin to feel your teenage dog is out of control, walk him on a long line and go back to the basics with impulse control, recall, and anything else that may be failing. The long line also helps to keep him from bothering other people.
The teenage phase can last from months to years, so you need to get used to managing your dog’s hormones. Some people think neutering can help, but it is not a magic bullet and it probably won’t make a huge difference to your dog’s behaviour.
Dogs can become easily distracted during their teenage years, and they may seem to forget their training. Using a long line attached to a harness can give you peace of mind while you work together.
Prepare for separation anxiety
Separation anxiety is the flipside of having a breed that has a lot of energy, adores you, and wants to do things with you all the time. While many working breeds were traditionally kept outside in kennels, they were always in the company of other dogs or people.
High-energy dogs are not built for long periods of nothing happening at all. Some working breeds, like spaniels, will more often than not be beside themselves unless you work hard to teach them that it’s fine to be alone.
Dogs don’t generally suffer in silence, either. While the deep baying of some hounds can seem adorable and attractive, that fine voice can be put into action as soon as you leave for work, and kept up constantly throughout the day.
Separation anxiety can be a huge problem, and you need to consider it and prepare for it before you bring your dog home. If you are rescuing a dog, ask his fosterers if he gets distressed when alone. If he does, pick a different dog unless you are prepared to either retire or take time off work while you work with a behaviourist to improve the situation.
If you are buying a puppy, crate train him and get him used to being on his own as part of a routine right from the start. See our article on separation anxiety for more tips. Be prepared to face separation anxiety as an issue if you have chosen a high-energy dog breed.
This Border collie is panting and showing the whites of her eyes, because she is anxious to know where her owner is. If her anxiety becomes severe, she may become destructive or noisy while her owner is away.
While high-energy dog breeds are some of the most demanding animals to keep in a pet home, they can also be among the most rewarding animals to have in your life. Keep your dog’s brain busy, exercise him, and manage his energy levels, and you will have a devoted companion to share your adventures with for many years to come.
This Border collie loves nothing better than to work with his owner. Who could not love this smiley face?