Congratulations on your new puppy! Getting a new furry family member is always exciting, whether you are a seasoned dog-parent or are brand new to puppyhood. Get ready for lots of snuggles and cute Instagram posts, as well as chewed-up belongings and potty outings in the middle of the night. As you know, puppies need to play, sleep, and explore their new world. Sometimes that energy is challenging for owners to channel, and we frequently get asked about appropriate exercise for puppies. This is a great time to introduce exercises and training that will help your puppy adjust to an active lifestyle as an adult, but it’s important to keep growing bones and joints healthy at this age.
Many owners who live active lifestyles such as mountain biking, long-distance running, and skiing are eager to bring their puppy along for the adventure. It’s important that they should not engage in these sorts of activities until they are at least 15-18 months old. Why do you ask? This is when the growth plates are closed and dogs are finished growing (larger dogs need more time then smaller dogs, as a general rule). Exercising too hard and too soon can damage growth plates and joints, predisposing your puppy to joint disease and injuries in the future. Avoid long activity and strenuous, repetitive activity (that means games like intense frisbee/fetch sessions should be avoided as well) until your puppy is fully grown.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce them to the activities now. This is a great time for training, so that when your dog is old enough, he’s more ready mentally and physically for adventure. A good rule of thumb to follow is the 5 minute rule-for every month of age, your dog can do controlled, planned exercise for an additional 5 minutes. For example, a 2-month old puppy should have 10 minutes of exercise, and a 4-month old puppy can have 20 minutes of exercise, etc. This rule doesn’t apply to basic bouts of puppy play or to training/obedience sessions (such as learning basic leash manners, sit/stay/come, etc).
2-4 months: Focus on play and training! Short spurts of sprinting and play are normal and ok. Focus on basic obedience, teaching basic concepts such as leash-walking and recall. This is a great time to introduce your puppy to new objects to play with and crawl over, which can help develop proprioception and balance.
4-6 months: Once vaccinated, start taking your pup for leash walks and shorter hikes-the focus still should be on learning new things/places and exploring. If you introduce games such as fetch, focus on rolling the ball short distances for retrieval over longer throws. If you want your dog to be a mountain bike or ski dog, getting him basic exposure to these objects is great-think tossing on your backcountry skis to tool around your yard, while working on basic obedience so your puppy learns good manners early-on. For dogs that are going into heavier work or sports such as agility, start exposing them to the equipment and get used to low jumping (wrist-height or lower) and groundwork (such as going through tunnels, standing on wobbly surfaces, etc).
6-12 months: You should be able to take your puppy on bigger adventures such as hikes (think 45 minutes to an hour) but avoid long, consistent hard running. Expose your pup to varied terrain such as hills, streams, and logs to scramble over. Retrieving/fetch games can be great exercise and stimulation at this age, but keep the amount and distance limited at this time (5-10min at a time, and softer terrain like grass is best). For sporting/agility dogs, keep activities like jumping to elbow-height or less, and avoid heavy repetition or high-speed turning (such as weave poles).
12-18 months: Now you can start introducing harder activities such as running and biking to get your pup comfortable and (gradually) more fit. The goal should be training and exposure over distance-we would still recommend building up slowly, starting with just short (think 20-30min) increments at first of more intense activity.
Once you do start taking your dog out on bigger adventures and activities, bear in mind that (even though they think that they’re invincible), it’s important to gradually build up your dog’s physical fitness. As you can imagine, if you suddenly ran a hard 10-15 miles on a rough trail after a bike, you might be rather sore afterwards. Allowing your dog to build up fitness over several weeks will help them gradually strengthen their muscles and cardiovascular fitness, and also help their paws adjust to the terrain and activity (I’ve seen a lot of torn/worn pads from “weekend warrior syndrome” in dogs).
It’s also very important to be cautious with where you take your puppy during the first several months until they are completely vaccinated. Parvo is a potentially fatal disease, and is very costly to treat (often requiring several days of intensive care at a specialty facility). It’s important that you don’t take your puppy to public places where there is potential exposure to the virus. This isn’t just the dog park or doggie day care-your popular hiking and running trails could also be risky locations. Talk to your veterinarian about getting a vaccine schedule set up so that your puppy is protected before going on adventures.
The most important thing to consider with puppies is that activity should be fun! Puppies love a game, but it’s important to keep things short and sweet, especially in the early stages. In the first few months, the priority should be exploration and positive experiences, which will help your puppy become more confident as an adult. Treats, verbal praise, and toys are all your friend in helping your puppy learn new things and associate exercise and training as a good thing. As they grow, they’ll more quickly adjust physically and mentally to more rigorous activity.
We hope this helps guide you in getting your puppy exercise and activity while setting him up for long-term physical and mental success! By being smart and safe while they’re young, you and your pup can have many years filled with adventures.
If you have questions or you’d like to further discuss an exercise program for your puppy, please feel free to contact us to set up a consultation.