Exercising Your Puppy - How much is too much?

So, you’ve just got your new puppy with energy to burn and are keen to take them for a long run to wear them out – but you’ve been told not to exercise your puppy while they are growing.  So how much exercise is too much?


Why is exercise important?

Firstly, exercise is as important for your dog as it is for you.  Exercise can help to prevent obesity, is great for socialisation and behavioural development, can help to prevent unwanted behaviours such as digging, chewing, barking, rough play, it can help with both digestive and cardiovascular health and aids in muscle development and agility.  In fact, studies have shown that free play in puppies prior to 12 weeks of age can actually decrease their chance of developing hip dysplasia. 


So why do we have to be careful with exercise levels in puppies?

Puppies have an area of growing tissue at each end of their long bones called the growth plates.  This is an area of dividing cells laying down new bone to increase the future length and shape of their limbs.  When your dog reaches puberty, the growth plates become calcified and ‘close’, so they are no longer able to grow.  This is evident on x-rays as a thin line called the epiphyseal plate. The growth plate is a soft area of tissue and is vulnerable to injury until it ‘closes’.   When excessive forces are placed on a puppy’s limb, the surrounding soft tissue (muscles/tendons/ligaments) are stronger than the growth plate.  This can lead to growth plate damage and sometimes the soft tissues can even pull the growth plate apart.    Any damage to the growth plate can either stop the bones growing, or if only one side is damaged, lead to a change in angle of the joints and misshapen limbs.  This can affect your puppy lifelong leading to osteoarthritis and debilitating conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia. 

In addition, puppies bones are much less dense compared with adults, and certain types of fractures (greenstick/spiral) are much more common until the bone reaches its maximum strength at puberty. 


When do the growth plates close?

Generally, the larger the dog breed the later the growth plates will close. Some giant breeds of dog may not reach full maturity until around 18 -24 months, compared with smaller breeds of dogs whose growth plates may close at 9-12 months. 


So how much exercise should our puppy be doing?

You may have heard of the “5-minute rule”.  This guideline basically means that you can aim on 5 minutes of exercise once or twice daily, for every month of their life.  For example, at 2 months of age they can get 10 minutes of exercise once or twice a day, 3 months - 15 minutes, 4 months - 20 minutes and so on.    There is no hard evidence to support this rule but it’s a good place to start and it is unlikely to cause any problems.    I think its probably more important to consider the type of exercise our puppy is doing.


So what type of exercises should our puppy be doing?

Games are an important part of a puppy’s exercise as they help to develop them mentally and to improve their bond with us. 

  1. Tug of war games – make sure you hold the toy low to avoid pressure on the neck and allow the puppy to pull, rather than you tugging your puppy.
  2. Fetch – only throw toys along the ground so that the puppy doesn’t leap into the air and land awkwardly which may injury joints/bones.
  3. Food related play – fill a wobbly Kong or a treat ball with food, hide treats or make a treat trail, so that your puppy uses both physical and mental exercise.  Make sure to reduce his/her overall food portion so that they are not overfed. 

Allow lots of free play in an enclosed space as their can then regulate both their own pace and rest when they get tired.  Its important that puppies can sniff and explore their surroundings. Make sure they are fully vaccinated if they are away from home where other dogs can access.

Allow free play with other dogs but make sure they are well matched, as injuries can easily happen with a large or very exuberant play mate.  Size is obviously an important consideration, but in addition an energetic dog (small or large) may injure your puppy with body slams and excessively rough play.  Monitor the play and be ready to intervene if needed. 

To get maximum benefit from training, only do exercises in short bursts as puppies quickly tire and their concentration span rapidly wanes.

Puppy preschool is another great way to both tire out your puppy and allow them to socialise with other puppies.

Digging is also a great way to tire your puppy out.  I have a sand pit at home and my young dog loves nothing better than a good dig.  Another alternative is an area of your garden with soft soil (and no plants), that they are allowed to dig in. 

If you are planning on a longer walk and you have a smaller breed puppy, you can carry them as soon as they get tired.  Another alternative with larger puppies, would be to invest in a buggy which still allows them to explore the wider world but to rest when they tire. 


Which exercises should my puppy avoid?

Exercises to be avoided in puppies are:

  1. Forced exercise such as excessive running, biking or fast paced walks where you dog is not able to stop and rest.  If they do stop, then allow them time to rest and wait until they are ready to get up again, or head home.  Also exercising on softer ground has less impact on joints, compared with hard surfaces such as concrete.
  2. Excessive fetching of balls or frisbees and agility  – especially if they are leaping into the air and landing with high impact on their joints. 
  3. Repetitive jumping such as off beds or couches – either try to avoid this or make sure there is heavy carpet pads where they land to cushion the impact. 
  4. Stairs – a study in Newfoundland dogs revealed that if they climbed stairs daily before the age of 3 months, they had a higher incidence of hip dysplasia.  Preferably supply a ramp with a non-slip surface that is not too steep or carry you puppy up the stairs whilst they are still young. 


In summary

If you are reading this article and realise that you have broken all the rules – don’t panic.  Most dogs that have vigorous exercise as young puppies generally have no obvious damage to their joints and can live a long happy life.  However, they are only puppies for a short time, so in future, it’s best to minimise the chance of any damage to their joints by taking care of the type of exercise your puppy does.

Other important factors to consider to minimise the possibility of joint injuries are:

  1. Ensuring your puppy is on a good nutrition designed for their size and age, and that they are not overfed.  Obesity in puppies is also highly implicated in increasing the risk of developing joint problems as they grow. 
  2. Ensuring you minimise the chance of genetic joint disease where-ever possible, such as Elbow Dysplasia or Hip Dysplasia, by checking on the genetics of their parents before you buy your puppy.  Many pure -breed dog breeders should have a Hip and Elbow Score of their parents for you to check.  This is when special x-rays are taken of the joints and sent to a specialist panel who assess the joints to determine if they are free of disease.