How Much Exercise Does My Puppy Need?
Exercise is incredibly important for dogs and has many physical and mental benefits, however, how much exercise is too much?
If you have recently had a puppy, you have likely asked this question and been overwhelmed with conflicting answers. The one that seems to be most popular, is the 5 minute per month rule. If you haven’t heard of this, it is the theory that puppies should be exercised 5 minutes per month of age. So an 8-week-old puppy can be exercised for 10 minutes, a 12-week-old puppy can be exercised for 15 minutes and so on.
Is this really the correct advice? It is certainly very restrictive, when you factor in the time your puppy spends in the garden, playing with their toys and walking around the home. Not much can be found on the origins of this theory, although it is thought to have come from a gundog trainer many years ago. For some reason, it is widely believed as sound advice even though there is a huge lack of scientific evidence to support such a theory. To add to the confusion, vets claim that not enough exercise is just as bad as too much, so how can you find a balance?
Maintaining Your Puppy’s health
First of all, the main concern regarding exercise, is preventing any damage to the puppy’s joints and bones, as it’s believed that too much exercise can result in the development of orthopaedic conditions in the future. If you look at an X-ray of a puppy, you will see what appear to be gaps between the joints and this is due to the fact that the growth plates are open until the puppy has fully matured into an adult. Growth plates are soft areas situated at the ends of the long bones in your puppy, which are responsible for filling with cells that allow your puppy’s bones to become longer and denser. These cells continue to divide until they fill the growth plate. Then, when your puppy reaches adulthood, the growth plates close and become a stable part of the bone.
So your puppy’s joints and bones aren’t full developed yet and they won’t be until they reach adulthood, which differs according to the breed of puppy you have. For a puppy like Mando, he will likely reach full maturity at a year of age, however, if you have a large or a giant breed, this can be as old as 18 months to 3 years of age.
The breed of your puppy should be a big consideration when trying to determine the amount of exercise your puppy can have. With Mando being a Shih-tzu, I knew he wouldn’t require as much exercise as larger breeds and being a small companion breed means he doesn’t have a drive to work or the energy to engage in intense physical exercise.
On the other hand, if your puppy is a large breed, the exercise can have a huge bearing on their health. Studies have shown that there are potential links between the development of orthopaedic conditions, such as hip dysplasia, with too much exercise as a puppy. It could be the case that guardians are more likely to take a larger breed puppy out on long hikes than they would if they had a small breed like my Mando.
If a puppy has too much exercise, this can pose risks to the growth plates. To much stress and pressure on the puppy’s bones and joints, as a result of too much high intense exercise, can severely damage joints long term. If the dog becomes injured, the cells in the growth plates may slow down or stop growing altogether. This can result in a predisposition to conditions, such as arthritis.
On the other hand, not enough exercise leads to the deterioration in both muscles and ligaments, resulting in less support for the joint and potential obesity. This a reasonable concern, as 40% of dogs are obese in the UK. Obesity increases the chances that your dog could develop diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, dermatologic conditions and lipomas in the future.
It vital to find a balance between the appropriate type of physical activity and the amount of exercise your puppy needs to help their ligaments and muscles grow strong, whilst also avoiding placing to much pressure and stress on the joints. So, how can you find this balance?
Consider the intensity
Often its not just the quantity of the exercise but the intensity and impact of activity. Activities such as those that involve leaping in the air, climbing, jumping and running flat out, are examples of high intense activity, which could place too much stress and pressure on your puppy’s joints and bones.
So letting your puppy run on tarmac is not advisable as it would be high intense activity on a hard impact surface, however, letting your puppy have a slow walk on tarmac is fine. Low intense exercises that involve gentle stretching of the legs and spine are beneficial to your puppy’s joints and bones and should be encouraged.
If you want to allow your puppy to have a run or play with another dog, choose a low impact surface, such as grass. 10-15 minutes of play on grass is very unlikely to cause any harm, provided your puppy is healthy. Walking on different surfaces, such as sand, woodland trails, gravel and bark are also an important part of your puppy’s habituation, so allow your puppy to have short walks on a variety of surfaces to build their confidence.
Dog sports, such as agility, is definitely not an option and you will find that classes will stipulate that the puppy has to be at least 6 months of age before they start. Some will even stipulate 12–18-month age restriction depending on the breed and if you want to compete.
However, your puppy is fine to attend puppy classes, just double check they are taught by a regulated and qualified trainer. If the trainer is qualified, they will be aware of the affects of low and high impact activity and will be careful to adapt exercises to protect your puppy’s joints. This may involve preventing puppy play on hard floors, placing rubber mats on the floor to avoid slipping and ensuring jumps are the appropriate height.
Choosing an Activity
Consistency is important when exercising your puppy, therefore, taking them for short walks in the week and then taking them for a jog on the weekends can be very detrimental. Dr. Marc Wosar, MSpVM, DACVS, an orthopaedic specialist states that,
“We know that the risks for a sedentary puppy with a weekend-warrior exercise pattern are worse than for a puppy that gets continuous, self-regulated exercise. Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules in these cases.”
So this statement indicates that we should try and keep exercise consistent to avoid causing any injury. Nevertheless, consistent exercise does not mean that you have to do the same physical exercise every day, as you can engage your puppy in a range of activities, such as tug a war, free work, swimming and training games. Just consider whether the activity is high intense and if it is, how you can ensure its low impact, to prevent causing any injury.
If it is high intense on a hard impact surface, then you need to reduce the amount of exercise accordingly. That being said, activities such as fetch can be dangerous to a puppy’s joints, especially if they are a large breed.
Veterinarian Hannah Capon, who founded the Canine Arthritis Management website, states:
“Firing a ball at high speed from a 'Nerf gun', stick or ball thrower for our pets to chase can put unnecessary strain on their joints, muscles and cartilage. This can result in long-term health problems like arthritis.”
“We need to realise we’re asking dogs to run like athletes," she said. They’re going from standing still to a gallop, then throwing themselves in the air, braking and skidding. This might be up and down a hill or on a beach, and it’s causing damage to their joints and trauma to muscles and cartilage. But because the dog is so excited, they carry on through the pain...This can take years off their life expectancy."
So, playing long games of fetch and using ball launches can cause severe damage to an adult dog’s joint, causing joint disease and even reducing life expectancy. Just imagine what damage this activity could inflict on puppies, whose bones and joints are still developing! This is not to say, that you cannot play fetch with your dog, but its important to keep the game short and avoid using the ball launchers. Hannah Capon also recommends that we need to help puppies warm up before allowing them to exercise to prevent injury. Therefore, if you are going to allow your puppy to engage in intense exercise, you should warm them up by letting them have gentle exercise first.
Can my puppy do stairs?
So can your puppy the use the stairs? Well, this is a question even I was considering when I first brought Mando home. Mando was really frightened of the stairs and in all honesty I was frightened of him going near them. Obviously, there is a risk of your puppy falling down them, so I never let Mando have unsupervised access to the staircase. It did actually involve some training to get Mando confident to come down the stairs. He was quite happy going up them and then when he got to the top, he would cry because he couldn’t get back down them.
To be honest, it’s not going to do your puppy any harm to go up and down the stairs once or twice a day. Obviously don’t allow your puppy to access the stairs unsupervised and don’t allow them to repeatedly run up and down them, as this would be quite high impact exercise for their joints. If you are worried about them falling down, you can always hold onto their collar and harness and help them to walk up and down safely and then put a stair gate on, to prevent access when you aren’t around.
So should you follow the 5 minute per month rule? Well it is now widely acknowledged that such advice was never intended to apply to all breeds of puppies or all kinds of exercise. Since there are many other factors to consider, such as your puppy’s breed, health, diet, type of exercise and intensity of the activity, we can confidently say that you don’t need to stick to this advice religiously. Although there is a lot of conflicting advice surrounding exercise for puppies, we can advise you to use common sense and be balanced.
Obviously don’t take your puppy out for long hikes or take them for long runs/jogs. When we had Mando, the purpose of our walks was letting him sniff the environment and develop confidence with the new sights and sounds around him. At 10 weeks of age, we only walked around the block, which took around 10 minutes. He had 10 minutes of slow walking per day but his walks lasted around 20 minutes, so he could explore and watch the world as part of his socialisation and habituation.
I always brought tasty treats on our walks and allowed him to observe different things at his own pace. When he used to see something new, such as a lawn mower, he would choose to sit at a distance and just watch for a few minutes and this was an important part of his training.
Mando’s walks were gradually increased in length, adding a few minutes every week or so. We ensured that any high impact/ intense exercise, such as running or playing with another dog only occurred on soft grass and kept any exercise on tarmac, low impact.
Your walks may need to be shorter based upon your puppy’s temperament and confidence levels. For example, if your puppy is petrified of cars, a walk any longer than 10 minutes is going to be too long and too stressful. The length of the walk isn’t just dependent on what is physically healthy for your puppy, but also what is emotionally healthy.
If your puppy is pulling to go back home, or they are refusing to walk, you shouldn’t force them to continue walking. They may be tired or they may just be overwhelmed. They also need time to get used to wearing walking equipment. This is why its important to desensitise your puppy to the harness and practice lead walking in the home and garden before taking them out for a proper walk.
So listen to your puppy and go at their pace. Keep exercise on hard impact surfaces (tarmac, pavement) short and ensure high intense exercise is on a low impact surface. Your puppy can engage in lots of physical activities, just ensure each is in moderation to avoid repetitive strain on your pup’s joints. Don’t obsess about how much exercise is too much, as there are no fixed rules. Just be balanced and remember that not enough exercise can be just as dangerous as too much. If you are still concerned, contact your personal vet for further advice.
Having a balance with your puppy’s exercise can be difficult especially when they seem to be full of endless energy. While they do need physical exercise, puppies need mental stimulation just as much. To find out more, check out my blog How Can Enrichment Calm My Puppy Down? (pawchores.com)