A puppy is often an energetic, inquisitive and seemingly endlessly active addition to a family. It is therefore tempting to play with, and exercise them to get all that energy out. In this blog I will give you information on how much exercise is recommended, explains why it is important to manage the exercise they get, talks about some of the key risks to your developing puppy and finally gives you some safe ideas to keep them occupied.
But firstly, why too much exercise can be a huge mistake:
Puppies learn routines extremely quickly. If they are the centre of things and get attention when they want, it can be confusing and distressing for them and frustrating for you if they continue to demand attention as they age. So setting them up for success can help you all settle into a new and stress free routine.
Rest is essential for healthy physical, emotional and mental growth. Rest allows the body to recover and repair and let's the brain integrate all the new learning. Without it your puppy will likely remain "clumsy", less coordinated and prone to injury.
Constant interaction teaches them to always be on the go, always alert. This could make your puppy more anxious and stressed and make any separation anxiety worse.
Exercising a dog to tire them out only makes them fitter! A dog will always "outfit" their human, they are just better at getting oxygen to their muscles than we are.
The most important reason! Too much exercise for a growing body is dangerous! The bones are not fully formed and are easier to damage. Too much exercise or too much stress on a growing skeleton increases the risk of damage to the bones and joints. This makes painful limb deformities, unstable joints (e.g. hip or elbow dysplasia) and early onset arthritis more likely.
When will your puppy stop growing?
To grow the body needs to lengthen the bones, the bigger the breed, the longer this will take. Giant breeds, such as Newfoundland can take between 18-24 months to reach their full adult size!
When a bone reaches its adult length the ends 'close' and the risk of injury lowers significantly. But each bone 'closes' at a different time; for instance on average the bones in the forearm close about a month apart but they both form part of the elbow joint and grow in parallel to each other. The area of the bone that grows (the growth plate) can be the weakest part of a limb! It is therefore the most susceptible to injury. Injuring a growing bone can cause that bone to stop growing, neighbouring bones to deform and joints to become unstable.
How much exercise should you be doing with your puppy?
Unfortunately there is no definitive answer to this question as it will depend on the individual dog and its lifestyle. The Kennel Club recommend two daily walks of 5 minute for every month of life. So a three month old puppy could do a 15 minute walk twice a day. But for many owners and puppies this may not feel enough! Other exercise such as a bit of rough and tumble, playing with toys and mooching about in the garden should be managed to prevent the puppy getting too excited or over-tired. It is as important to encourage your puppy to have clear rest periods and training them to go to bed for rest breaks should be a part of every day.
Things to manage or avoid
Manage rough play and discourage dogs slamming into each other.
Ball chucking and send-aways can be harmful, especially to growing puppies so keep to a minimum.
Avoid stairs and jumping into (and particularly) out of cars and manage access to furniture.
Hard flooring Laminate, tiled or wooden flooring can be dangerous for developing puppies. You may notice your puppy sliding and struggling for grip when running to the door or trying to change direction, but they might also be slipping just walking about on these floors. Every slip puts pressure on developing joints and bones so always put non-slip mats down in areas where you expect your puppy to move about. Early neutering! Sex hormones instruct the bones to 'close'. If you spay or castrate your puppy before they reach full sexual maturity these hormones are not produced and the bones grow longer than they should. This makes the dog more prone to joint laxity (dysplasia), knee problems (e.g. cruciate and patella problems) and arthritis. Early neutering also increases the risk of certain cancers as well as making obesity and dementia more likely.
Safe activities for puppies
Physical exercises Uneven surfaces that encourage independent movement of the limbs such as a woodland floor with some leaf litter and small twigs and branches to step over can be great for puppies. Obstacles should be no higher than their wrist and should not be able to roll under their feet. You can also walk them in wide circles, through long(ish) grass or over different surfaces and teach them to use their bodies by encouraging them to stretch, bow and crawl.
Mental exercises Obedience and "trick" training are perfect for puppies! It's tiring, rewarding and supports your developing relationship. It also means that your puppy will need less physical exercise, which in turn will reduce their injury risk. Teach them useful skills like a touch command, self control, a good recall and how to relax. Consider feeding them through interactive toys such as Kongs and puzzle feeders to slow down their eating and tire them out mentally.
Becker, K (2012) Why Puppies Should Be Handled with Plenty of TLC https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2012/02/20/preventing-growing-puppies-deformity.aspx
Elliott, M (2017) Neutering Your Dog – Making an Informed Decision http://www.wolftucker.co.uk/blog/neutering-your-dog-making-an-informed-decision/
Hart, BL, Hart, LA, Thigpen, AP and Willits, NH (2014) Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4096726/
Kennel Club (the) (2018) Puppy and dog walking tips https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/getting-a-dog-or-puppy/general-advice-about-caring-for-your-new-puppy-or-dog/puppy-and-dog-walking/
Killion, J Puppy fitness that fits the puppy. Age appropriate exercise guidelines. https://www.puppyculture.com/new-appropriate-exercise.html
Medicine Net Growth Plate Fractures and Injuries: Get the Facts https://www.medicinenet.com/growth_plate_fractures_and_injuries/article.htm#what_causes_growth_plate_injuries