How Much Exercise Does Your Dog Really Need?
Probably more than you think. Here's what to do about it.
You’re late for an appointment. You’re exhausted after a long day at work. It’s raining, It’s too hot or cold outside or too early in the morning to get up and out of bed. As Buddy or Lucy stands expectantly by the door, you tell yourself that you’ll have more time this weekend for that long walk or the dog park. For now, a quick turn around the block is enough, right?
The answer is no.
Experts in dog behavior agree that too little exercise is causing epidemic levels of canine obesity, lethargy and behavioral problems. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one in four dogs is now considered obese, and heart disease and diabetes are also on the rise.
"There are so many under-exercised and under-entertained dogs and that’s resulting in medical and destructive behavioral problems," says Dr. Kat Miller, a North Carolina-based animal behaviorist and director of anti-cruelty behavior research for the ASPCA.
Know Your Dog
How much exercise your dog needs depends on breed, age and general health. But the consensus among behaviorists and veterinarians is that one hour a day of exercise is required to keep your four-legged friend fit.
That doesn’t necessarily mean throwing a ball until your arm aches or running miles with your dog (in fact, this is often not recommended). A breed and age-appropriate physical workout combined with engaging mental and social stimulation will satisfactorily tire out your dog. And, as the saying goes, “A tired dog is a good dog.”
When it comes to a physical workout, what will exhaust a corgie will be barely a starter for a border collie. A leisurely half-hour stroll may suffice for a toy breed or an old dog, but a bouncy Labrador retriever or a high-wired Jack Russell will require a rigorous regime.
That said, there are also some genetic limitations to the type of exercise your dog can handle. A pug or short-nosed breed should not engage in strenuous exercise that will tax his breathing. Deep-chested, narrow-bodied German shepherds, dobermans and Great Danes should not be exercised right after meals, since they are prone to bloating. They also risk hip dysplasia and ligament injuries that sustained jogging may cause.
On the other hand, scent hounds like fox hounds score high on endurance and can go for miles without getting winded. Shorter sprints are advised for greyhounds, whippets and other sight hounds who run on speed and are not built for long distances.
The Age Factor
Then there is the age factor. “A developing puppy will need more thoughtful exercise that does not tax their rapidly growing bodies,” says Sarah Wilson, celebrity dog trainer and author of nine books including My Smart Puppy. “The safest bets are short, easy walks, swimming and playing on non-slippery surfaces.” She recommends that pups play with pups their own size or with a calmer older dog. “Be similarly protective of your tiny dog,” she advises.
Adult dogs have the most options when it comes to physical workouts. They can leap to catch a Frisbee or tennis ball, swim, hike (during moderate temperatures), and train in agility sports. The highest risk activity? “Rough, group play at day cares or dog parks,” says Wilson. Make sure to supervise that playtime.
And as we grow older, it’s important to notice and accept that our beloved companions are aging, too. But even though they tire more easily and are less flexible than when they were puppies, what doesn’t change is their desire to play and engage with you. Limit romps, shorten fetch times and walks and increase mental stimulation. There are no restrictions on exercises that will keep your dog engaged indoors — and also let you off the hook during inclement weather or when you really cannot manage getting out the door.
Think Inside the Box
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s “Enrichment Protocol” for animal shelters suggests that even rigidly confined dogs can learn and explore their surroundings if their auditory, tactile, visual and olfactory senses are engaged. For example, simply petting, brushing, massaging and belly-scratching provide the benefits of touch as well as social interaction.
Indoor games you can play at home include tug of war and hide and seek (the winner finds the well-hidden treat), as well as learning new commands. Wilson says any game that builds your dog’s self-control by helping him turning away from temptations will flex his brain cells and also lay the foundation for better behavior.
Even mealtime can serve as a mental tune-up. Don’t feed your dog out of a bowl, says ASPCA’s Miller. “For at least one meal a day, stuff a food puzzle toy with kibble and, to taste, wet food. You’ll satisfy his hunger and teach him patience.” Among the best kibble stuffers: KONG Toy, the Tricky Treat Ball, the Tug-a-Jug, the Atomic Treat Ball and the TreatStik.
For an enduring activity, fill a food toy with peanut butter, freeze it and then let your dog at it.
Whatever you do, be consistent and make activities fun, not a chore. Exercise is as much about your dog’s well-being as bonding with your companion. And one caveat: Before beginning any exercise routine, talk to your veterinarian.