Erica C. Boling, PhD
Northeast K9 Conditioning
When it comes to canine exercise and fitness, what can we safely do with puppies? What kinds of exercises are appropriate for young and growing dogs? Many exercise tips that are given for dogs come with disclaimers or cautionary statements warning us that the exercises are only for those dogs who are “healthy,” “physically mature” and “free of pain.” What about exercises for our puppies?
Exercise plays a very important role in puppy development. Puppies need exercise to grow and develop properly. They need it for the proper development of their muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. They also need the emotional and psychological benefits that come from exercise. Exercising a puppy, however, is very different from exercising a physically mature dog. When it’s not done properly, it can cause injury or even permanent damage to the body.
Puppies grow at uneven rates. Many are still growing and developing up to 1 ½ years of age (or older!). Growth plates also develop at different rates within their bodies, and we cannot be certain if a young dog is still growing unless if we have radiographs of their bones. Exercising a puppy or young dog that is not yet physically mature can put them at a higher risk for injury. Because of this, we must take special precautions when exercising them. Below are seven tips to follow when exercising puppies and young dogs so that you can keep them active and healthy.
- Exercise for puppies should be self-directed play. When puppies have energy to burn, they will exercise and play without much (or any!) encouragement from us. When they have had enough and need to rest, they should be free to make that choice. Taking a puppy on a hike or jog where YOU are determining the speed and/or distance is not an example of self-directed play. Always be in tune with your puppy and allow your puppy to rest or slow down when needed. Be careful, however, that the presence of other dogs and even toys can get puppies over stimulated to the point where they do too much. Their excitement to follow you might even push them beyond their normal limits, so monitor your puppy closely and be aware that sometimes you might have to step in and make them take a break.
- Avoid high impact activities like leaping and jumping while your puppy is still growing. This includes no leaping off the bed, the couch or out of your car. Also avoid the impact that comes with racing up and down the stairs. If your puppy’s growth plates are not yet closed, the trauma from high impact activities such as these can cause permanent damage to the growth plates. This, in turn, can interfere with your puppy’s ability to grow properly. These activities also put your puppy at a much higher risk form trauma and damage to their muscles, tendons and ligament.
- Keep your puppies on non-slip surfaces so that they have good traction when walking, trotting and running. Puppies are more likely to slip or fall on slick surfaces, and this can cause an injury due to excessive stretching of muscles. Because they are still growing and developing, puppies are at a higher risk for soft tissue injuries compared to dogs that are physically mature. Puppies don’t have the same strength or development as an adult dog when recovering from a slip or fall.
- Only allow your puppy to play with other dogs who you know can safely play with puppies. Don’t allow your puppy to play with a larger or higher energy dog unless you know that the other dog can keep his or her activity and play at a level that is appropriate for a puppy. I know of puppies that have been seriously injured and some even killed when they were not properly matched with the right playmate.
- Monitor human interactions with your puppy. Don’t let humans play too rough! If you like to play tug, pull gently while keeping your puppy’s spine neutral and in alignment with the body. If playing fetch, it’s best to let the ball stop rolling before you let your puppy chase it. I know of a number of adult dogs who have injured themselves by chasing an unpredictable, bouncing ball!
- Create puppy obstacle courses to help build body awareness, balance and confidence. Keep obstacles safe and low to the ground. Have your puppy walk under things, over objects, through tunnels, and across different types of surfaces. Encourage your puppy to maneuver through obstacles carefully rather than running and jumping through them. What an excellent and fun way to help them develop body awareness, balance and confidence!
- Keep exercise and training sessions short and fun. Doing 5-minute sessions two or three times per day can be much more productive than doing a single 15 or 20-minute session. One common rule of thumb is to do 5 minutes of exercise per month of age up to two times a day, but there will be some variation here for individual dogs.
Additionally, do not do any structured or repetitive strength training activities with your growing puppy or young dog. They don’t need any external weight placed on their growing bodies for muscles to properly develop. Engaging them in puppy-appropriate activities where they are using their own body weight and gravity is sufficient exercise.
Curious as to how much activity is normal for your puppy during a day of self-directed play? There’s an app for that! Consider using BabelBark’s health monitor to track daily activity. Simply attach the monitor to your puppy’s collar and import that data using the free phone app. (Make sure to always monitor your puppy when it’s wearing the collar and never leave it alone with the health monitor.) You can also easily share this data and other puppy information with your veterinarian using the app. For more information on the BabelBark’s app and health monitor, visit https://babelbark.com/petparents/.
Finally, always listen to your dog, no matter the age! If they want to stop playing, start to seek out shade or suddenly want to go lay down, they are telling you something! These might be signs that your growing puppy or young dog is fatigued, overheating or even sore. Don’t forget that rest also plays a very important role in growth and development.