Guest Blogger, Dr. Deb Sell, provides an animal chiropractor's point-of-view on properly exercising puppies.

So, you have a new puppy! You want to be the very best dog-parent possible and give her little body and mind all it requires to grow up happy and healthy. I have no doubt you will do fine in the happiness department, but what about when it comes your your puppy's health? While genetics certainly play a role, there is also a lot you can do when pups are young to stack the deck towards optimum health and mobility for her later years.

Exercising the body and the mind is important for all beings. In addition to exercise for physical health, puppies also need exercise for mental stimulation. Moving around keeps them from becoming bored and mischievous – but how much is enough and how much is too much?

I have heard both ends of the spectrum, from the conservative “Puppies need five minutes of exercise per month of age up to twice a day,” (according to the U.K. Kennel Club), to the “Exercise them till they are exhausted. The puppy is the best one to tell you what is too much exercise,” 

As an animal chiropractor, my own thoughts are somewhere in between those two camps.

At the puppy stage, she's much too young to be doing the rigorous activities that she will be more able to do as she grows older. Due to their breed, some puppies are naturally more energetic than others. Border Collies and Jack Russell Terriers are two that spring to mind as needing more exercise than most others!

I believe that it is imperative to not begin structured athletics (such as jogging with your dog, impact agility training, etc.) until the bones have fully formed. This can vary from breed to breed with smaller breeds having full bone growth before larger breeds. Generally around a year in smaller dogs and large breeds can take upwards of 2 years to fully form! This is not to say you shouldn’t let your dog run. You absolutely should let them be a dog, but don't go out for a 5 mile jog just yet! And, if you plan on training your dog to be an agility star, you can certainly start with non-impact training such as contacts and other ground work before beginning to blast over the jumps and over the A-Frame! Young puppies can be introduced to jumps and A-Frames by setting the equipment on low (A-Frame completely flat and jump poles on the ground) while gradually increasing the height as they age. 

Boney growth starts from an area of the bone called an epiphyseal plate or growth plate (see x-ray). In this x-ray, the growth plate looks like a horizontal line, almost like a fracture. This line will be gone when the bone has matured. The key is to wait until the growth plate is finished creating the fully formed bone before beginning any impact training.

I also shy away from the camp that says “the puppy is the best one to tell you what is too much exercise.” I believe just as you are responsible for making good decisions for your human child when they are very young, you are also responsible for making the best decision for your pet's care in all things, including exercise! In some regards, we have to be, what I call, “The Fun Police” as some dogs will keep playing and playing and don’t seem to have an off switch. If they seem like they are getting tired from an extended play session, give them a chance to rest a bit before resuming activity. You definitely do not want to let them continue exercising or playing when they are overly tired. When they are fatigued, the muscles won’t support and protect the joints as well and you are more likely to have injuries such as hyperextension of the carpus (wrist) for example. Also, if a dog is running at your pup in play, a tired pup won’t be able to perform the evasive athletic maneuvers needed to get out of the way and the greater likelihood they will get slammed by the oncoming playmate. I liken this to the skiing injury incurred when you are tired after a few hours on the slopes. Your muscles are fatigued and cannot respond and protect your joints with neither the strength nor speed needed to keep them unharmed during an unexpected maneuver…resulting in the famed “last-run-of-the-day injury”!

Another thing to consider is the type of surface your pup plays on. As much as possible during her life, but especially when her little bones are forming, it is best to stay away from overly hard surfaces such as asphalt and cement. Staying on grass or dirt is a much better option as it’s kinder to growing bodies.

My last point is making sure puppies do not jump off of things such as a couch, bed (yes, I am guilty of dogs on the bed), deck or out of the car or truck. If they are allowed on high surfaces, make sure they have something to help them down instead of jumping the full height…something that will break the jump height into smaller increments thereby lessening the impact. Think about jump height as compared with their body size. Depending on your pup's size, this might be the equivalent of us jumping off of the roof of our house…sometimes higher! When they do this, the impact not only affects the joints and growth plates of the limbs but also puts impact into the lower neck and upper back. As an animal chiropractor, I have seen many dogs over the years with issues in their lower neck either stemming from or being exacerbated by impact from the front limbs. In looking at the skeletal anatomy chart below, it’s easy to see how impact in the front limbs affects both areas.

As your pet gets older, Petloader and Twistep both make excellent systems for helping pets in and out of vehicles. These are wonderful alternatives to cumbersome ramps which many dogs seem to dislike.

So, while you definitely want to let your pup play and have fun and have an amazing puppyhood, you have to monitor the amount and type of play, especially while their bones and joints are forming. Your attention to this during this formative time will pay dividends in later years as you have given her an excellent foundation on which to grow and thrive!

Dr. Deb Sell,
DC AVCA Certified Animal Chiropractor
© Thriving Canine 2013