Exercise not only builds the puppies’ bodies, it helps build their minds.
However, inappropriate exercise that’s not suitable for a puppy’s age and level of development can cause significant and irreversible damage.
What would be a simple sprain in an adult dog could leave a puppy with a misshapen or shortened limb.
This is serious business.
Your puppy’s body
No bones about it – puppies are not tiny dogs
The first consideration with 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.
Growth plates gradually thin as hormonal changes approaching puberty signal the growth plates to close. In puppies, this closure is normally completed by approximately 18 months old. The ages for growth plate closure are only generalities and will vary from puppy to puppy. There will also be a differences in recommendation based on your dog’s breed – giant breed puppies’ growth plates tend to close later and small breed puppies growth plates close earlier.
Until the growth plates close, they’re soft and vulnerable to injury. After sexual maturity, the growth plates calcify and the rapid cell division ends. The growth plate becomes a stable, inactive, part of the bone, now known as an epiphyseal line.
Sex hormones are what signal growth plates to close, so if your puppy was neutered before around 18 months old, he will have some delay in growth plate closure or he may also have uneven growth in his bones. This may result in uneven joint angles that may be more prone to injury. A more conservative approach may be warranted with early spay/neutered dogs. Consider perhaps a vasectomy or hysterectomy where the testes or ovaries remain with your dog.
A dog’s bones are held together with muscles, tendons, and ligaments – soft tissue. In an adult dog, if a joint experiences a stress such as bending the wrong way or rotating too much, the bones will hold firm and a soft tissue will be pulled, resulting in a sprain.
In a puppy, however, his muscles, ligaments and tendons are stronger than his growth plates, so instead of a simple sprain, his growth plate is liable to be injured – the puppy’s own soft tissue can pull apart his growth plate.
Why this matters so much is that, unlike a sprain, injuries to the growth plate may not heal properly or not heal in time for the puppy to grow up straight and strong.
Injury to a growth plate can result in a misshapen or shortened limb which, in turn, can create an incorrect angle to a joint. This can make the puppy more prone to yet more injuries when he grows up.
Puppies are Soft Core
In addition to having soft growth plates at the end of long bones, a puppy’s bones in general are “softer.” Dogs, like people, don’t reach their maximum bone density until after puberty.
Spiral fractures of the tibia (lower leg bone) are very common in puppies – 50% of all fractures occur in puppies under 1 year of age. A spiral fracture is where the bottom half of the bone twists in one direction and the top half twists in the other.
This kind of juvenile injury is known as “Toddler Fracture” in humans, and it’s thought to be caused by the fact that the outside, fibrous layer of the bone (periosteum) is relatively strong in relation to the elastic bone inside.
So any exercise that puts torque on (twists) a bone puts the puppy at risk for a fracture.
Puppies don’t endure endurance very well
Puppies don’t have the cardiovascular system for endurance. Furthermore, until they mature, they’re probably not able build much endurance no matter how much they exercise.
In human children, sustained exercise only increases aerobic capacity by up to 10%. In adults, that kind of exercise can increase aerobic capacity by up to 30%.
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.
Puppies can’t grow bone in a Bubble
After reading about growth plates and toddler fractures, you may find yourself clutching your puppy, afraid to let him move lest he breaks a limb.
Relax! Not only is appropriate exercise not dangerous for your puppy, exercise has been shown to increase bone density in children.
Furthermore, those children who exercised were a whopping 50% less likely to fracture a bone.
There’s every reason to believe the same holds true for dogs, so appropriate exercise is key to building strong bones in your puppy and preventing adult fractures.
So let’s talk about guidelines for puppy exercise.
Guideline for Puppy Exercise
Self Directed Play is an overriding rule for any puppy under 18 months old.
The majority of his exercise should be free play, exploring, and noodling around. If he shows any fatigue, flops down, refuses to walk, you should listen to him and let him rest.
Never underestimate the value of a good digging session. Consider digging up a soft patch in a corner of your yard and burying “doggy treasures” in it – great natural exercise for your puppy!
Repetition is your enemy
Probably the biggest cause of growth plate and soft tissue injury is repetitive exercise with a young puppy.
So, until he’s about 18 months old, long hikes and walks are out and lots of free-play sessions are in.
While long hikes are out, just fooling around in the backyard with you is great.
If you don’t have a backyard, short, rambling walks are perfect. Let your puppy sniff, explore and take it at his own pace.
You can intersperse short training sessions in your walks to work on heeling/loose leash walking, but the majority of the walk should be at your puppy’s own pace and at his discretion.
Speaking of hikes, if you’re an outdoorsy type of person, you should bring your puppy along on hikes – its great socialization for puppies under 12 weeks old, and great enrichment for older puppies.
But just like when you take a small child on a walk, be prepared to carry your puppy a good portion of the way.
If you’re jogging or walking on a manicured trail or paved park road, consider investing a puppy stroller to put your tyke in for most of the walk.
Kibble trails are also a great way to tire out a puppy both mentally and physically.
Remember, dogs generally don’t naturally go on long “marches” – they tend to noodle around and stop and sniff a lot as they go.
Simply start by taking a walk around your garden and placing a few pieces of food down every few meters or so. You can make turns by dropping food with every step you take (dogs find changing direction a little difficult especially if they are not used to this game) or you can drop food in a square patch and let them sniff to find each piece.
Kibble trails allow puppies to stay outside for a long time and cover a lot of ground in a very natural way.
Letting your puppy play with a well-matched and gentle playmate is ideal.
Size is a factor, as a very large dog, especially one that likes to play with a lot of paw whacks, can inadvertently injure a young or small breed puppy.
That being said, a gentle Wolf Hound may be a better playmate than a feisty Jack Russell Terrier who likes to body slam!
Keep a very careful eye out and be prepared to throw handfuls of healthy treats down to interrupt any overly physical play. Body slams and crazy rolls are spiral fractures waiting to happen!
Jumping off of beds and couches are major causes of spiral fractures in puppies – we are constantly on guard until puppies reach two years old and keep them off furniture and beds unless someone is there to help them off.
Use heavy carpet pads and carpets around all furniture and beds to cushion impact, should a young (or old) dog slip by and get up on a high piece of furniture.
You can start training in agility but no jumping higher than your puppies wrist height until 6 months old. Also no jumping higher than your puppies elbow height until 18 months old. No flyball landing pads until your puppy’s skeleton has matured and growth plates have closed!
Stairs are NOT hip
A study of 500 Newfoundland, Labrador, and Leonberger puppies found the following:
Puppies who climbed flights of stairs daily before they were 3 months of age had an increased risk of developing hip dysplasia.
Although these breeds were selected for the study because of their relatively high incidence of hip dysplasia, the study seems to indicate that stairs represent a repetitive strain on any puppy’s joints, so consider ramps or carrying your puppy down stairs if possible.
Although climbing flights of stairs on a daily basis represents an inappropriate strain on puppy joints, doing one or two not too steep steps with a non slip surface probably does not represent any risk to the puppy and may be a nice body awareness and coordination exercise.
Interestingly, the same study found that off-leash self-directed exercise on gently rolling, varied, and moderately soft ground for puppies under 3 months old, decreased the risk of developing hip dysplasia.
It’s important to get that exercise in early. Free play after 12 weeks old was not shown to decrease the risk of hip dysplasia in the study but is considered beneficial. So, once again, self-directed play in your backyard or garden is the best exercise for young puppies.
Play nicely now!
Puppies often have more “will” than “way” when it come to chasing toys. They generally will not stop until they are literally on top of the toy. This can cause both heavy impact and twisting on the bones and soft tissue.
We advise rolling balls or dragging toys on the ground for all puppies.
Tug toys should be held low and steady – don’t pull up or back on your puppy’s neck as their neck’s are delicate!
Worried that you won’t be able to tire out your puppy without long exercise sessions? Take heart, it’s easy to tire out your puppy when you need to.
Puppies tend to have boundless energy. Many times the longer they play, the more wired and energised they get and you are way out of steam.
However, 10 – 15 minute of training will leave them pooped. The mental exercise really tires them out much more than play.
So try and fit in some small training session or trail blazing to get your puppy mentally tired.
Isometric exercise is also best for your puppies joints and bones. Simply provide him with a LARGE raw knuckle end bone for them to chew on (do not cut the bone!). Lying and chewing on the bone exercises all the muscles and tendons close to the skeleton with not jarring impact movements.
Puppies love this and it keeps them busy for ages while developing muscles around the head and jaw, neck, down the spine and in the shoulders and hips as they try to stablise themselves while chewing around the large knuckle end.
For any dog that your wish to start in a strenuous performance career such as agility, flyball, IPO etc, it is highly recommend doing x-rays to confirm growth plate closure before proceeding with any intense training.