Exercising with Your Puppy: How Much is Too Much?

Exercising with Your Puppy: How Much is Too Much?

I don’t know about where you live, but in my town, a walk is not a walk and a hike is not a hike without a dog in tow. Sunshine, rain, or snow, the streets and trails of Durango, Colorado, are spattered with wagging tails and their human companions beside them. With warm weather quickly approaching, some interesting questions have arisen lately in my practice: When can a puppy accompany their owner on hikes or jogs? How far can they go? Is it bad for a puppy to get too much exercise as they are growing?

Current Opinions on Limiting Puppy Activity

Dr. Mark Rishniw, a veterinary cardiologist, said “Most young dogs have enough energy to keep up with a jogging person but not the brains to know when to stop.” (Rishniw, 2008). In other words, an active 16-week-old puppy will happily tag along with their owner for a 5-mile run, but they won’t know to slow down or stop when they’ve overdone it. They can easily push themselves too hard. Long runs or hikes or any type of high-impact exercising can damage bones and joints. He recommends keeping activities with puppies similar to what they would do if left to their own devices. Ideal ways to exercise your puppy include short bursts of running on soft surfaces, walking and foraging for interesting toys and treats, and plenty of rest.

Breeder, acupuncturist, and veterinary internist Dr. Joni Freshman stated that in her 25-plus years of practice, the dogs that were allowed to hike long distances (as puppies), run long distances, or were overweight as youngsters, were the ones who later developed problems such as elbow dysplasia (Freshman, 2013).  

Puppyculture.com, a thorough source of information on raising healthy puppies, features a chart recommending how much exercise puppies can safely get during various stages of their development. It is generalized information across all breeds of dogs, but I find it a useful starting point. If you have a puppy, I recommend you take a look at www.puppyculture.com/exercise-chart.html.

Objective Recommendations on Puppy Exercise and Growth

So, what happens if your puppy does too much, too soon? The biggest worry from a veterinarian’s perspective is orthopedic—bone and joint problems—down the road. Here’s a couple of the most common problems when puppies exercise too much:

  • Growth Plates. All puppies—small and large breed alike—have delicate growth plates. These actively dividing ridges of cells in the bones of young animals allow the bones to grow and lengthen as the animal matures. They are also softer than the surrounding bone matrix and thus more prone to damage. I’ve seen many puppies break an arm or leg simply jumping out of their owners’ arms. Watch your puppy closely to make sure they don’t fall or jump off of tall objects like couches/beds/rocks/fences/logs/etc. Repetitive movements on hard surfaces like jogging on asphalt can take their toll on growth plates too. These plates remain open and soft until about 12 months of age in most dogs, and up to 18 months in the biggest breeds, so it’s recommended to hold off on vigorous exercise until this time. 
  • Hip dysplasia and OCD. Hip dysplasia (abnormal development and malalignment of the hip joint) and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD, a cartilage defect in the larger joints such as shoulders and hips) are diseases common to the large and giant breeds of dogs. They can be very painful problems in an adult dog. Each are heritable diseases, so a puppy can be born with a higher chance of developing these conditions. Studies have shown that in dogs who carry the genes for these diseases, exercise restriction during development can help these problems be less severe in adulthood. Off-leash, low-intensity exercise on a regular basis may help dogs have fewer problems with their hip dysplasia later in life. One Norwegian study noted more problems in puppies under three months of age who were allowed to go up and down stairs (Krontveit et al., 2012). Does this mean you should avoid stairs entirely with your puppy? Probably not, but keep the up- and downstairs running to a minimum for the first few months, especially if you have a giant breed puppy. 

Please note that the majority of studies agree that keeping your puppy at a healthy, lean weight makes a huge impact on their adult skeletal health. Feed a good quality puppy food (large breed formula if you have a large breed puppy!) and regularly reassess their weight. Have your veterinarian help you determine an appropriate weight and food portion to keep them lean and healthy. 

As you can see, proper exercise for puppies can be a complicated subject. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, err on the side of low-key exercise with your dog until a year (or more) of age. There will be plenty of time to hike/run/Frisbee later and by being careful now, you and your companion will benefit for many years to come. 

Disclaimer: This information is educational in nature and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical prevention, diagnosis, or treatment.

Works Cited

Freshman, D. J. (2013, July 15). Puppy Exercise from an Outcome Perspective. Retrieved from Veterinary Information Network: www.vin.com. Reproduced with permission from the author.

Krontveit et al. (2012, June). Housing- and exercise-related factors associated with development of hip dysplasia as determined by radiographic evaluation in a prospective cohort of Newfoundlands, Labrador Retrievers, Leonbergers, and Irish Wolfhounds in Norway. Am. J of Vet. Res., 73(6), 838-46.

Rishniw, D. M. (2008, May 25). Exercising Puppies FAQ. Retrieved from Veterinary Information Network: www.vin.com

Sallander et al. (2006). Diet, exercise, and weight as risk factors in hip dysplasia and elbow arthrosis in Labrador Retrievers. J. Nutr. , 2050s-2052s.

Slater et al. (1992, November). Diet and exercise as potential risk factors for OCD in dogs. Am. J. Vet R., 53(11), 2119-24.


Photo of Katie and Chip courtesy of @trustyourtrail.



About the Author

Dr. Jennifer Deming, DVM

Jennifer Deming, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian at AspenTree Animal Caring Center in Durango and member of the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition. She strives to improve her patients' wellness through nutrition counseling and preventative medicine. When she’s not at the clinic, Dr. Jenn enjoys trail running, gourmet cooking, hiking, and enjoying all things Durango with her family—including cats Fujita and Toonces, and dog Leia.

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Dr. Jennifer Deming, DVM