Ultimate Guide to Exercise for Dogs
It is time to talk about one of the key aspects of responsible dog ownership: Physical exercise. Dogs are fun-loving creatures, but many of them also love to snuggle up on the couch with their owners. They may not ask to be taken out for a run, as they tend to adapt to their circumstances, but it doesn’t mean they don’t need exercise as part of their daily routine.
Failing to properly exercise your dog can lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiac problems, and aching bones, which is not something anyone should wait for their faithful four-legged friend.
How do you fulfill the exercise-related needs of a dog though, and how can you know how much is enough? This is a complete guide for how to keep your dog fit, strong, healthy and happy, by providing physical challenges and suitable exercise.
The Importance of Exercising a Dog
You have probably seen people walk their dogs up and down the street, but have you ever stopped to think about why we ought to walk our dogs? Sure, dogs need to go to the bathroom too and do their business, but this shouldn’t be the main motivation for why we clip on that leash and head out. Dogs need exercise, and in most cases, they can only get proper exercise if you take them outside with you.
The benefits of exercise are similar for dogs and humans, and it is known to prevent weight gain and obesity, and to build muscle, which is essential when protecting the dog from injury and age-related pains.
Health conditions like arthritis and hip dysplasia can’t usually be prevented, but by allowing there to be a layer of lean muscle protecting the bones and joints – your dog is much less likely to suffer irreparable consequences at an early age.
Exercise makes the canine body stronger and enables the dog to live a longer and healthier life, something that also benefits your wallet, as it could mean less frequent trips to the vet.
Physical exercise also helps prevent destructive behaviors like barking, digging, chewing, and howling, and this is because it prevents boredom, which is the primary cause of unwanted canine conducts. When a dog gets bored, they start looking for something to do, and what they come up with isn’t usually what us humans would have preferred.
Exercise will tire your pups out and have them sleeping like angels while you are away or trying to catch a break. It also reduces anxiety and stress and can help with issues like separation anxiety and dog aggression.
It Is All in the Statistics
A study performed at Michigan State University revealed some interesting facts about walking a dog and its benefits. It showed that people who own dogs are approximately 34% more likely to walk for a total of 150 minutes per week – which is recommended for a person to stay healthy – than those who do not own a dog.
These people, the dog owners, also appeared to engage in more physical activities unrelated to dog walking, than those who do not walk dogs.
Putting all this together, it would seem that the average dog owner is 69% more physically active than the average person with no dogs living in the household. The University of Missouri also did studies on similar occurrences, and they found that while you generally increase your walking speed with about 4% when walking with a human friend, you increase the speed with 28% when walking a dog.
All these statistics indicate that dog owners are more likely to stick to their exercise routines (probably because their dogs will give them those irresistible puppy eyes otherwise), that they exercise more both in relation to their dog ownership but also on their free time, and the University of Virginia found that for families with dogs – their children were more likely to be physically active, and spend more time outdoors than the children in families with no dogs.
Keeping the Dog Motivated
For dogs that are lucky enough to have a large yard, they may get a decent workout running around there, but how often do you really see your dog running around on its own without someone playing with it?
Dogs don’t exercise consciously – they don’t wake up one day to think “today I’ll work out,” and they only tend to run and walk if they have a reason for it. This means that despite having access to a large yard – it is likely they will be laying still, sleeping, for most of the day.
This is the reason why it is so important for you to engage yourself in your dog’s exercise routine, as dogs need a purpose to get those legs moving. You need to take them out on walks that are varied and fun; try taking different roads to change things up and walk a little faster than you would when you just want your dog to pee.
Your dog won’t exercise himself with the purpose of getting healthy, but if you’re there with them – they will probably tire you out long before they show any signs of wanting to stop and rest.
That big yard can also be used when getting your dog in shape, but you will most likely have to participate in games like fetch and tug-of-war, to make sure your pooch doesn’t just retreat back to his corner for another nap. Inviting dog friends or going to a dog park are also great ways to motivate your fur-friend to want to run around more.
Why Mental Stimulation Can’t Replace Physical Exercise
Mental stimulation, like letting a dog play with food puzzles and activity balls, is great and in many ways crucial when raising a healthy and well-adjusted dog, but it cannot replace physical exercise, as it does not usually help the dog stay at a healthy weight or build muscle. The best thing you can do for your pup is to provide an appropriate mix of both physical- and mental exercise and to not let one rule out the other.
How Much Exercise is Enough?
How much you should be exercising your dog depends on a variety of things. Most veterinarians and experts recommend something around 30 minutes to two hours every day, where it is more than fine to divide the walks into many shorter ones if needed.
A dog that is only just starting to exercise will probably be fine with a 30-minute walk, while a more experienced dog could possibly benefit from more.
Breeds like the Siberian Husky and the Belgian Shepherd needs a lot more exercise than a Shih Tzu, so that is also something that should be taken into consideration when setting up your pup’s new exercise routine.
Consider your dog’s breed, physical condition (an overweight dog may not walk as fast or as far as a dog that is physically fit) and age, and always try to pay attention to your dog during the walk, as it will tell you if you are over- or under-doing it.
If you are unsure, the best thing you can do is to contact a veterinarian, as they can help you determine what would be ideal for your dog. No two dogs are the same, and the physical requirements vary depending on a number of factors.
For those who haven’t been too active with their dogs in the past, you need to make sure you start out slow, and then gradually build up to longer and more challenging walks. Pushing yourself and your dog too hard, in the beginning, won’t benefit anyone, and it will likely discourage you from continuing to walk.
Instead, start with short walks around the block, and after a couple of days, you can add another block, and then another and so on. Listen to your own body, and pay attention to your dog, as this will help maximize both the results and the overall experience.
Responsible Dog Ownership
Okay, so your dog is ready for a walk, but are you? There are a few things to think about before you start walking your dog or doing any other type of activity involving your dog, and it is crucial to always take full responsibility for your pet to avoid accidents.
Rule number one (and this is an important one) is to never let your dog run up to someone – animal or human – without consent. Your dog could be the friendliest dog in the world, but it doesn’t mean every other dog is friendly, and some people could be afraid of dogs or have allergies.
If you can’t guarantee that your dog won’t run up to someone without previous permission (may not apply if at a fenced-in dog park), you should keep your dog leashed.
Another thing to consider is the importance of picking up after your best fur friend. You probably wouldn’t be too happy if you stepped in dog poop as you walked out of the house, and the same applies to everyone else. Be a part of the solution rather than the problem, by always carrying waste bags with you for when your pooch decides to go number two.
There are a few canine sports you could look into practicing with your dog, as these are also great for exercising your pup both mentally and physically. The best way to get started is by joining a beginner’s class, but if this is not a possibility – there are plenty of videos for how to get started available on the internet. Here are a few examples of dog sports you and your dog might like:
+ Dock Diving.
+ Lure Coursing.
+ Rally Obedience.
Fun Games for Active Dogs
Exercise is not only about walks, and while walks should probably be your main focus when exercising your fur friend, it is always fun to change it up and to play physically challenging games in the backyard or at the park. Here are a few ideas for what you can do to activate your dog through fun and games:
+ Fetch. This is a game many dogs can play for hours at a time, and you can opt for getting a ball launcher or an automatic fetch machine if you want to make it more of a challenge for your fetch loving fur friend.
+ Frisbee. Almost the same as Fetch, but here you can teach your active pup to jump up and catch the frisbee in the air! This is a fun trick that will impress your friends and family, and one your dog will love to perform if you encourage him (or her) with treats and verbal praise in the beginning.
+ Doggy playdate. Invite a neighbor or a friend with a social dog and give your pup a chance to run around the yard or park for a few minutes! Watching dogs play together and have fun is a real treat also for us dog owners, and it will tire your furball out before you know it!
Exercising a Puppy
The advice is given in this article applies to adult dogs and their exercise needs, as it isn’t quite the same with a puppy. Your puppy should not be taken outside more than to pee before they have had all their shots, and this is because they will be at risk of contracting diseases like Parvovirus and Canine Distemper, which are both known to often have deadly outcomes.
A veterinarian should always be consulted before you take a puppy on its first walk, to make sure they are up to date with their shots and ready for the next big milestone.
Once your tiny little fur friend has been cleared, it is time to take him or her out to see the world! Remember that puppies won’t be able to walk for miles and miles right away and that you need to take it easy at the beginning with shorter walks around the block. Give your puppy a chance to adjust to the outdoors and to build muscle, and never push a puppy to continue walking when they are starting to seem tired.
Always Consider the Weather
Before you take your dog out for that fun walk you had planned, it is best to check the temperature and the weather, as this will decide whether or not walking is a good idea, and what precautions you need to take.
Walking a dog when it is sunny and hot outside is a bad idea for many reasons; the pavement could be too hot for them to walk on (imagine having to walk barefoot on hot asphalt), so make it a habit to put your hand against the ground with your palm facing upwards, and to see if you can keep it there for 5 seconds without burning yourself. If you can’t – it is also too hot for your dog.
During summer and hot days, it is probably best to avoid walking in the middle of the day and to save those fun outings for mornings and evenings when the weather is cooler. Physical activity in hot weather can lead to heatstroke and overheating, which are both similar and sometimes deadly conditions. More on the symptoms of heatstroke in the next section.
You should also be careful with cold weather, as some dogs can get very cold during the winter months. Dog breeds like Siberian Huskies and Samoyeds rarely get cold during walks, but a chihuahua or another dog prone to getting cold might need a sweater for those chilly days. When very cold, avoid standing still for too long as this could cause discomfort and possibly even frostbite on the dog’s sensitive toes.
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
Any sign of a heat stroke should be taken extremely seriously, as it can often happen very quickly. Heatstroke is deadly, unfortunately, so get your dog to the vet as soon as you possibly can. These are some of the known symptoms for heatstroke:
+ Abnormally colored gum (very pale or very red).
+ Drooling excessively.
+ Unusually high body temperature and fever.
+ Trembling muscles.
+ Vomiting and diarrhea.
+ Muscle weakness.
+ Reduced- or no urination.
+ Dizziness and loss of equilibrium.
Exercising a Dog Indoors
To physically exercise a dog indoors (for example on rainy days if your pup is not a fan of getting wet) can be hard, but it is possible. Small dogs are naturally easier to exercise in an enclosed space, as they require less room when roaming around.
With a small dog, you could play fetch with a softball or a soft animal. And let them run back and forth in a room or corridor. This is not the same as exercising outdoors, but it is better than them not getting any exercise at all.
For large dogs, mental exercise is probably your best option, and while it also does not replace a good walk or time spent outdoors, it will at least keep your fur friend temporarily entertained until you can go outside again. Consider buying an activity toy you can fill with treats or food and let your pup work to get the treats out. Fun games you can play indoors are:
+ Play fetch with a softball.
+ Hide and seek.
+ Search for hidden food.
+ Tug of War.
+ Training and teaching tricks.
+ Activity toys and food puzzles.
A dog can’t ask you for water if he gets thirsty, and it is essential to stay on top of this issue by offering fresh water frequently while exercising. A good rule is to offer your dog water at least once an hour; if your dog prefers not to drink – that is more than okay – but at least you have given him or her the opportunity.
How much water your dog needs depends on the size of the dog, the weather (more water is generally needed on hot days) and the type of exercise you are engaging in. The easiest way to make sure your dog stays hydrated is by investing in a quality dog water bottle that you can carry with you. You should also keep a big bowl of water at home for your dog to drink once you get back to the house.
Don’t Exercise After Eating
Perhaps you have heard someone tell their children how they shouldn’t swim right after eating, and while this may or may not be a myth – dogs shouldn’t exercise right after being fed. The reason is a much-feared condition known as bloat, which could affect dogs at any time, but with an increased risk when fed right after- or right before exercising.
Bloat in dogs is not the same as the dog looking a little round after having eaten too much food, and instead, it is a medical emergency where the stomach twists – also known as “torsion.” This occurrence prevents any liquids, gas or body waste from coming out, causing the dog’s stomach to expand, and it can quickly lead to death if untreated.
Some dog breeds, like the German Shepherd, are more prone to bloat, but all dogs are at risk. It is recommended for dog owners to give their pups 20 minutes to an hour of rest before heading out for adventures, just to be on the safe side. Exercise after a big meal could also lead to regular stomach aches, rumbling tummies, vomiting, and diarrhea, and your dog probably won’t feel that motivated to run around either right after dinner. Use common sense, and always let your dog rest after you feed them.
Symptoms of Bloat
Hopefully, you will never have to deal with bloat in dogs, but if you do, it is important to know what the symptoms are so that you can get your dog to the vet as quickly as possible. It is a potentially fatal condition, but the quicker you get your pooch to the veterinary clinic, the bigger are the chances of a full recovery. If your pup displays any of these symptoms, it is time to hop in the car and head to the vet:
+ Swollen, hard and distended abdomen.
+ Dog tries to vomit but is unsuccessful (also known as unproductive retching).
+ Standing with an extended neck and outward-pointing elbows.
+ Restless pacing and reluctance to lie down.
+ Drooling and excessive saliva production.
+ Increase in heartbeat and pulse rate.
+ Rapid and agitated breathing.
+ Very pale gum and mucous membranes.
+ Loss of consciousness and collapse.
How You Can Benefit from a Dog Walk
It is no secret that most of us could benefit from getting out more, as it is easy to get caught up in the routine of driving to and from work and spending the rest of our evenings sitting down. Exercise is such a broad term, and you don’t necessarily have to join a gym to get in shape and to feel better.
A 20-30-minute walk every day is enough to potentially lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system (fresh air!), have you shed a few pounds and improve your tenacity and your body strength.
Some claim walking to be the best form of exercise, due to it strengthening the whole body with a relatively low risk of injury, and there is some truth to that statement! It is also an excellent way to destress after a long day at work, to calm down after an argument or to clear your mind when you need to figure things out.
Walking a dog is so much more than just taking your pooch out to pee, and research has shown that those who own a dog are a lot more likely to get the daily exercise they need, when compared to those who don’t own a dog.
People who walk their dogs also tend to be more active in general, which is potentially due to dog walking motivating us and making us want to work out more, and you could think of it as a steppingstone for the beginning of a healthier lifestyle.
It is always important to consider safety when being out with your dog, and before you start increasing your pup’s level of daily exercise, it could be a good idea to book a veterinary appointment for a checkup. A veterinarian can help you determine if your dog is ready to start exercising, and they can help you with suggestions for what type of exercise that would suit your pooch.
A senior dog might need to exercise differently than a dog under the age of two, but all dogs are different, and a vet checkup is the best way to see where you stand with your dog.
Another thing to consider is whether you will be out after dark, or before the sun comes up, as this will require some additional precautions. Investing in reflective gear for yourself and for your dog will make sure drivers can see you as you walk along the road, and it will also be helpful if your dog would somehow come loose.
Many leashes, harnesses, and collars are made with reflective stripes for this reason, but it could be a good idea to get yourself a reflective vest or similar too, especially if you live somewhere with few or no streetlights. You could also get small LED lights to attach to your dog’s harness, collar, or leash, or to your own clothing.
What to Bring
Once you have decided to become more active with your dog, it is time to start thinking about what you may want to invest in before you start, and what items and dog walking gear you could benefit from owning. If you are serious about becoming a responsible dog owner by walking and exercising your dog regularly, this is what you need to improve the experience for the two of you.
+ High-quality dog harness. Collars have been used for decades when walking dogs, but research shows that most dogs do much better when walked with a harness. A harness helps protect the canine’s sensitive neck from yanks that might otherwise cause serious injuries, and did you know that small dogs are at high risk of having their windpipes crushed when walked with a collar?
It sounds unpleasant, doesn’t it, and it is not something you will want your dog to have to go through, which is why a harness should be your top choice when heading out for a walk.
A quality harness should be padded and comfortable for the dog to wear, and it should have adjustable straps for you to fit it onto your pooch so that he or she cannot get loose or escape.
You may have heard of the two-finger rule for dog collars – that you should be able to easily fit two fingers between the collar and the dog’s neck, and the same applies for a harness. Make sure it is not too tight or too loose by inserting two fingers under the harness where it makes contact with the dog’s body.
+ Activity belt. Many dog product brands sell a type of running belt that you attach to your waist to carry small personal items; like keys, a cellphone and – of course – doggy waste bags. These are incredibly handy when you walk during summer, as summer clothes don’t always come with convenient pockets.
You can also opt for carrying treats for when your pooch needs a little extra encouragement, and many activity belts come with a carabiner for you to hook on a water bottle. A belt is also useful for hands-free walking experiences, if you rather attach your dog to the belt instead of holding the leash in your hand.
+ Dog water bottle. Sure, you can use any bottle when you exercise your dog, but what is so great about many of the existing doggy water bottle designs is that they are made for your dog to drink directly from them.
A dog water bottle will often come with a foldable tray or a top that comes off and converts to a portable water bowl, something that will make it a lot easier to keep your pooch hydrated during long and exhausting walks and exercise routines.
+ Durable leash. When you buy a leash for your dog, you will want to make sure you get a quality product that will keep your friend safe. Remember, the leash is what could potentially keep your pooch from running out into the street, so you don’t want it to snap while you are trying to hold your dog back. The way to prevent this is to leash that is suitable for your dog’s size and weight, and one that feels comfortable for you to hold on to.
Why Consistency Matters
When you start exercising your dog regularly; taking him with you for walks and outings, joining training classes and exploring the outdoors, your dog will soon get used to it and start reminding you if it seems like you’ve forgotten.
Many dogs are excellent at telling time, so don’t be surprised if your dog will start pacing around and become restless around the time you usually take your walk and use their enthusiasm as motivation to stick to your new routine.
Dogs are creatures of habit, and it will be immensely helpful for a dog to know that even if you leave the house – you will eventually come home and take them for a walk. Having set routines can help prevent separation anxiety and build a stronger bond of trust between you and your four-legged companion.
Walking once with your furry friends won’t be enough to keep them in shape, to prevent boredom and serious health conditions, or for you to get the benefits that come with walking, and it is crucial to remain consistent in your walking routines.
Set up a goal to start taking at least one walk every day, decide on a time that works for you (taking the weather into consideration, as it may not be a good idea to take a walk mid-day in the middle of summer), and stick with it. Your dog will silently thank you, and so will your own body.
Exercising your dog properly involves so much more than to just take him (or her) for the occasional walk around the block. Dogs need structure, they need to feel motivated and they need to be allowed to do what they do best – to be dogs. No dog is going to think to themselves that they need to lose weight, and dogs aren’t likely to exercise with the goal of staying in shape.
They also can’t go out whenever they want, unless someone is there to accompany them. This is where humans and dogs differ, and it becomes your responsibility – as a dog owner – to make sure your four-legged friends get the exercise they need to stay healthy.
Making excuses for why you don’t walk your dog as often as you should is easy, but the truth is that few excuses are valid. A good walk does not have to take more than 20 minutes out of your day, and this is less than what the average person spends on their phone or watching TV every day.
Make the effort not only for your dog but also for yourself, as walking and exercise can be lifechanging also for us humans. Anyone can exercise a dog, regardless of physical limitations or time concerns, and it is simply a question of finding the right approach for both yourself and for your dog.