How to exercise a puppy
A frequent question owners ask is “How to exercise a puppy”. Most owners are aware that too much exercise can damage a puppy’s bones and joints, but they aren’t sure how much exercise for a puppy is too much. It’s a complicated question because the answer isn’t the same for all dogs – what might be a good amount of exercise for a border collie might be too much for a Bernese mountain dog.
Research has shown that over exercising puppies leads to a number of disorders including hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, fractured coronoid processes, osteochondrosis dessicans (cartilage flaps), etc. etc.
Many breeders responded to this information by severely restricting their puppies’ exercise levels for the first year of life. As a result, we saw a generation of puppies with inadequate bone density that developed a number of secondary disorders including hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, fractured coronoid processes, osteochondrosis dessicans (cartilage flaps), etc. etc.
The body responds to the work demanded of it – puppies need to exercise in order to develop adequate muscling, bone density, and motor skills. At the same time, puppies have looser joints and fragile growth plates that are prone to injury. Too much as well as too little exercise is bad; somewhere in the middle is the golden amount and it varies from breed to breed.
Here are some basic guidelines for how to exercise a puppy:
- Keep exercise sessions short – do not exercise a tired puppy
- Keep exercise sessions regular – several times a day – don’t be a weekend warrior
- Grass or forest floor (firm ground with some give) is better than pavement, rock, deep sand or mud
- Level ground is best, downhill running is the worst
- Always touch base with how your puppy is doing – stop at the first sign of fatigue
- If your puppy is still hyper at the end of an exercise session, then slightly increase the length of that session
- Vary the exercise – different activities on different terrain
- Let the puppy lead the pace – they are at greater risk for over extending themselves when trying to catch up
- Vary the gait – avoid repetitive stress injuries
- Swimming is a great non-impact sport and can be virtually unrestricted
- No air time – no jumping down more than one body length. This usually means one stair height for an 8-10 week old puppy, or a chair height for a 16 week old larger breed puppy. Repeated jumping down is especially hard on the elbows.
- No prolonged running. Dogs don’t sustain a single gait (eg trot or canter) for long periods of time – they mix it up, stop to sniff, run, then trot etc. Forcing them to pick one gait in order to match your biking or XC skiing pace predisposes to repetitive stress injury. This applies to adult dogs as well. Pick a pace where they can run ahead and wait, vs one where they are struggling to keep up.
- Don’t exercise a tired puppy. With whatever activity you are doing, frequently stop and check for feedback. Ideally when you are done your outing, you want a puppy that sniffs around a bit, and then lies down. If you stop and the puppy just flops, then you overdid it. If you stop and the puppy immediately starts running circles and attacking your feet, it is fine to continue.
- Young puppies (less than e.g. 4-5 months) are easy to figure out – as soon as they get tired, they collapse. Older dogs will push themselves harder rather than miss out on something fun. They’re the ones that really need to be watched.
- Once you hit a year of age (except for giant breeds – 15 months for them), you can begin training like a adult, slowly pushing that fatigue point to build endurance.