When a puppy moves into your home, it's a very exciting time. You want to go on adventures and experience everything together. Your puppy also has a high drive and will most likely want to tag along with you every step of the way. Still, you need to demonstrate some caution in what kind of exercise your puppy receives and how much. Exercise not only builds the puppies bodies, it helps build their minds. But exercise that’s not appropriate for a puppy’s age and development can cause significant and irreversible damage. A young dog's ligaments and muscles are not yet fully formed, and the bones have not finished growing. During this phase, if a puppy exerts itself too much or the wrong way, the skeleton can become deformed, causing lasting joint damage.
A major consideration in appropriate puppy exercise is something called "growth plates." Growth plates are soft areas that sit at the ends of the long bones in puppies and young dogs. They contain rapidly dividing cells that allow bones to become longer until the end of puberty when the growth plates calcify and rapid cell division ends. Until the growth plates close, they're soft and vulnerable to injury. In puppies, this closure is normally completed by approximately 18 months old.
A dog's bones are held together with muscles, tendons, and ligaments. In an adult dog, if a joint experiences a stress such as bending the wrong way or rotating too much, the bones will hole firm and a soft tissue will be pulled, usually resulting in a sprain. In a puppy however, his/her muscles, ligaments, and tendons are stronger that his/her growth plates, so instead of a simple sprain, his growth plate could be damaged.
Appropriate exercise is key to having a healthy puppy and preventing damage to their growing bodies.
So, let's talk about improper puppy exercise.
WHAT DOES IMPROPER PUPPY EXERCISE LOOK LIKE?
Puppies don’t have the cardiovascular system for endurance. Higher energy puppies can fool us into thinking that more exercise is beneficial to them. Long walks and exercise sessions increase risk of injury and yield few benefits for puppies, so endurance training is better left until the puppies have grown up. Long walks, runs, or hikes are not suitable exercise options for a growing puppy. Forcing your 3 month old puppy to go for a two-mile walk every day, for instance, is a bad idea, even if he/she could keep up. Long walks, jogs, or hikes should not be allowed until the dog is at least 18 months old.
There are certain movements that tend to harm the joints of puppies and young dogs, so they should be limited. Movements such as chasing a ball, playing tug of war, jumping over obstacles, or jumping for treats/toys involve great physical exertion. These motions are a no-no in regular puppy exercise. When you look at these movements, you can see that they create a tremendous amount of shear force on the joints. Studies have shown that puppies that regularly played fetch or chased a ball had a higher risk of developing joint problems such as hip dysplasia.
The appropriate play mate for your puppy is also important. Play that is too rough or strenuous is not good. Keep play dates under control, and don't let your puppy exhaust themselves trying to keep up with another dog. It's true that your puppy should play and socialize with other pets, but make sure your puppy is not playing with a play mate that is too big or too crazy for them. Big dogs are not necessarily bad playmates for your puppy. A gentle giant is a better play mate than a small dog that is super high energy. But if things get too rough, it's your responsibility to call a halt.
Your puppy should carefully be socialized to small sets of stairs. You don't want your dog to grow up afraid of stairs, but if you have stairs in your home you should carry your puppy over them. Don't let your puppy use stairs on a regular basis. Going up and down stairs puts an unnecessary amount of strain on the joints of a growing puppy. Studies have shown that puppies that regularly climbed flights of stairs had an increased risk of developing hip dysplasia.
You can also help control the amount of strain put on your puppies joints in the comfort of your own home. Hard floors (hardwood, vinyl, laminate, tile, etc.) are slippery and can be detrimental to the proper formation of puppy joints. Your dog may look adorably cute as he clumsily stumbles around your floor, or glides around like an ice skater, but these tumbles are seriously dangerous to his health. What can you do to prevent your puppy from slipping around the house? Trim the hair on the bottom of hi/her paw pads, and get a dog paw balm (a good balm is musher's secret) so his/her paws are soft and moisturized. Make sure your dog's nails aren't too long. Have rugs around your home that your dog can stand and play on. Another option is to get your dog grippy socks, nail grips, or paw grips. The best solution is to barricade your puppy to areas of your home that have grippy floors for him/her to play on. Also try to keep your puppy off furniture such as a bed or couch, unless someone is there to help them down. Jumping off furniture can lead to joint damage.
APPROPRIATE PUPPY EXERCISE
Self-directed play should be the majority of the exercise your puppy receives. Let your puppy loose in your backyard to play freely and explore. This is the best type of exercise for any puppy under 18 months old. A study found that off-leash self-directed exercise on gently rolling, varied, and moderately soft ground for puppies decreased the risk of developing hip dysplasia. Another study also found that puppies born in spring/summer have a decreased risk for hip dysplasia. It is believed that this is because those puppies have more opportunity to exercise outside at a young age.
The exercise requirements of your puppy will change as he/she grows. Make sure he/she gets at least three exercise sessions a day. A good rule of thumb is five minutes of exercise per month of age. Take your puppy for short walks, play hide and seek, or have short planned play sessions with people or other pets. A ten minute walk is a great idea for a two month old puppy. There are many fun games you can play with your puppy. As you get to know your puppy, you may find that he/she tells you when they are too tired to keep playing, which is your cue to enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet while your puppy takes a nap.
If you have a high energy puppy and are worried about over exercising, there are other ways to waste energy. Mental exercise can be just as exhausting as physical exercise. Training sessions or enrichment toys are extremely useful at wasting energy in puppies while also getting your puppy to use their brain.
As a rule, you should use common sense when deciding about physical activity for any young dog. Neither too much nor too little is healthy. Don't coddle your dog, but don't overdo it, either. After all, the future health of your dog matters and you want to spend as long as you can with your furry friend by your side!