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Puppy Exercise - Too Much Of A Good Thing???

Updated: Feb 26

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So you've just brought home your new puppy or young rescue dog and can't wait to have the running buddy you've always dreamed about or maybe you're excited about training up an agility dog. Perhaps it's just that the puppy has soooo much energy and you would like him or her to chill out so you take them on a hike or a run with you. After all a tired puppy is a good puppy...... Right?

And of course the answer is Yes, BUT! and the But is a big one; let me explain.

The Biology

Puppy bones are soft. Lacking the full bone density that maturity brings, they consist of a relatively strong outside layer (the periosteum) and a more elastic inner section that will harden with maturity. This means that if a bone is subjected to a twisting motion or torqued, it is liable to result in a spiral fracture. In fact 50% of juvenile (under 1 year) fractures are of this nature and are caused by sudden stops or twists.

If that's not enough the epiphyseal plates (growth plates) on average don't fully close until approximately 18 months of age. These growth plates consist of soft cartilage containing rapidly dividing cells and are located at the end of the bones. It is these sections that are responsible for limb growth until the end of puberty. As a side note there's evidence that an early spay / neuter dogs bones will continue to grow longer as they do not receive the hormonal signals for the bones to stop growing and will often end up taller than an intact dog of the same breed - this will also mean the growth plates are open and vulnerable for longer. However we are not here to discuss the pros and cons of early neutering today but rather how exercise can affect the development of our dogs.

Hopefully I haven't scared you too much about how fragile your new family member is. The aim is not to make you wrap them up in cotton wool until they're grown but instead to make sure that they exercised in a safe manner that will give them the best chance at a long happy pain free life. It IS important that they receive healthy exercise as it helps them develop bone density as well as maintain a healthy weight. Exercise also causes the brain to grow and form neural connections so we can't just skip it or we will end up with different problems.... plus i don't know of many puppies that don't have more energy than me to burn so keeping them cooped up is a recipe for disaster.

What Can We Do?

There are a few easy things we can do to make sure our puppies are safe and lower the risk of them developing joint issues and arthritis at a later stage while still meeting their needs.

As a general guideline, we want to look out for fatigue signs such as panting, tongue spooning out at the tip, wanting to sit or lay down, refusal to listen to commands they know or disinterest in activities they like. It can also present as overexcitement and the "zoomies". If our puppy is displaying these signs it's probably time to take a break.

  • Free Play - Let your puppy decide how fast and long they want to play for, watch them and find out what they really love to do and you can find ways to join in with them. You can do this in your own backyard or anywhere that is a safe off lead area (check your local council for a list of places available to you). If you are visiting other places, make sure your puppy's vaccinations are up to date and complete as there have been Parvo outbreaks in our local area (Geelong and Lara, Vic as of May 2020). If other dogs are using the same area, make sure to maintain a safe distance or check that they are suitable playmates for your dog - you want a dog with the same energy level and play style as yours. Supervise all play so it does not spiral out of control as excitement levels rise. Trust me, you do not want your puppy to get body slammed or force rolled.

  • Fetch - Avoid throwing a ball or any object for fetch; instead hold your pups collar or ask them to wait if you have an exceptionally well trained dog and roll the ball across the ground for them to fetch once it has stopped moving. So many injuries occur from the sudden twists, leaps and stops from fetching a moving object (collisions are also more likely to occur when they're focused on chasing something).

  • Tug - Make sure that you hold the tug toy close to the ground and let the dog do the work. Avoid frantic movements and jerking the toy up so as not to hurt their neck. (Also its a good idea to give tugging a miss during teething but still make sure they have plenty of things to chew on to soothe their little gums)

  • Jumping - Avoid situations where a puppy can jump unaided onto or off furniture or over obstacles higher than their wrist until their growth plates have closed.

  • Stairs - Where possible use a ramp instead of stairs as a study of 500 Newfoundland, Labrador and Leonberger puppies found that puppies that climbed stairs daily before they were three months old had an increased risk of developing hip dysplasia.

  • Floor Surface - Consider what surface you dog is playing on and avoid slippery ones like tile and floor boards for playtime. Put down a rug or play on the grass or concrete outside where they're less likely to lose their footing.

  • Walks - Its important to learn to walk on a lead since in most public places its illegal to have them off lead but be sure to start with short walks so if your puppy fatigues part way you won't have to carry them home! A rambling walk where they can use their nose to sniff is best as using the nose engages their brain on a whole different level and will tire them out more completely than just walking on its own.

  • Swimming - This is a great low impact activity if you live in a warm area with access to water. Some dogs will leap in without another thought but other dogs will need to become acclimatised to the idea of swimming. It is especially important to watch for fatigue with dogs who love water as they may not have the sense to stop when they are tired and may intake too much water and become ill (yes drinking too much water is very bad for you). Short swim sessions with rest breaks are a good way to start and not throwing the ball / toy into the water until they are confident swimmers who won't drink half the water source in an effort to get to the toy.

  • Sports - If you are wanting to engage in a intensive sporting activity it is a good idea to get x-rays to ensure that the growth plates are closed before beginning the more physical aspects of training ie for flyball or agility jumps. Remembering that the 18 months is a generalisation across all dogs and that smaller breeds will usually come to full growth before the large breed dogs.

Don't feel down hearted that your new puppy won't be able to leap into the lifestyle you have pictured just yet. Instead take this time to develop your bond and build up to the day when they will be able to be a full partner in whatever your desired activity is for a much longer, pain free time.

Please stay tuned for a follow up blog on providing your dog with enough stimulation for a lot of great ideas for wearing down some of that puppy energy without a 2km run.

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