Healthy Exercise for Dogs

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Just like humans, dogs derive health benefits from regular exercise. An important aspect of facilitating, enhancing, lengthening, and strengthening our relationships with our canine companions is to keep them strong and fit through physical activity.

Obesity is on the rise among dogs, and its negative consequences are frightening—an increased risk of developing diabetes, an increased risk for cancer, and a high probability for joint injury and subsequent osteoarthritis (OA).

What is the best way for me to exercise my dog?

The best exercise for our dogs depends on the answers to several key questions, listed below. Before initiating any regular physical fitness plan for your dog, it is always best to consult your veterinarian. He or she can help guide your choice of activities, as well as create a conditioning program personalized for your dog.

"Consult your veterinarian before initiating any regular physical fitness plan for your dog."

Your veterinarian will likely ask you the following types of questions to help you determine the best way to exercise your dog.

1. What is your dog’s age, body condition, and state of health? Your veterinarian can not only help you answer these questions but also determine what is appropriate exercise for your dog based on the answers. Some general rules and advice:

  • Puppies with growing bones can suffer skeletal trauma from the repetitive concussion of long runs. They do better with short spurts of play during which they set the pace. Walks on a leash are usually fine for them, but be mindful of the timing so as not to overdo it.
  • Short-snouted (brachycephalic) dogs like pugs or pekes need a different cardiovascular conditioning program than golden retrievers, for instance.
  • Overweight and obese dogs are more prone to joint injuries that can lead to or worsen OA. The sudden starts and stops of chasing a ball may be a poor choice for them.
  • Likewise, overweight and obese dogs have a hard time cooling off, so their activity plan should be modified from that for a young, normal-weight dog.
  • Finally, you want to be sure that your dog’s heart and lungs are healthy and ready for increased activity.

2. What activities does your dog enjoy?

Some dogs were born to retrieve. For them, a game of fetch could go on forever, and they would be happy. Other dogs are not the least bit interested in bringing back the toys we insist on repeatedly throwing away.

Some dogs love to swim, but not all dogs are comfortable in the water. Never presume your dog likes water or knows how to swim. You don’t want to create water phobia, so introduce swimming gradually. If your dog does not take to water, do not worry. There are plenty of other excellent fitness activities.

"Basic obedience training sets the stage for successful walks and the inevitable interactions with other people and their dogs."

Walking remains a cornerstone of canine fitness. It is easy, does not require much equipment, can be done nearly everywhere, and is good for people, too. There are many ways to make walking easier, better, and safer for both dog and human.

Basic obedience training sets the stage for successful walks and the inevitable interactions with other people and their dogs.

Whether you choose a regular collar, a woven nylon-strap harness, a vest-like fabric harness, or a head halter will depend on a combination of personal preference and what is most comfortable and effective for you and your dog. Harnesses are typically best for walking small dogs, very young puppies, and dogs with a short muzzle or an easily compressed trachea (windpipe).

3. What activities do you enjoy? We do best and most consistently what we enjoy. So when you are developing an exercise plan for your dog, think carefully about what you like to do.

You need to create a canine exercise program that you will want to sustain, whether it is walking, jogging, hiking, or overseeing fetch or swimming. If it is fun for us and fun for our dog, we will find fewer excuses to stay on the couch.

4. How long can your dog comfortably exercise at one time? This is definitely a question that is best answered with the help of your veterinarian. He or she is well-equipped to evaluate your dog’s starting fitness level.

It is important to evaluate your dog for any underlying metabolic or musculoskeletal issues that could have an impact on physical activity. For instance, the presence of pain anywhere in the body will influence both the comfort and safety of a canine physical fitness plan. Deficient thyroid function (hypothyroidism) undermines energy and stamina. Undiagnosed underlying heart disease can prove dangerous.

Once I have some activities in mind, how do I create a workout plan?

Just like physical fitness programs for humans, steady, progressive conditioning is the best approach for dogs. Your veterinarian can play an important role in helping you choose appropriate targets for your canine fitness plan, including how long to exercise at one time and how to adapt specific activities to best fit your dog’s individual needs.

"Just like physical fitness programs for humans, steady, progressive conditioning is the best approach for dogs."

When conditioning a dog to increase fitness, consistency is a key to success. It is far better to take a 20-minute walk every day than a 2-hour walk on Sunday. A slow, steady increase in time and intensity helps avoid injury and is more comfortable for the dog. For dogs that require additional challenges, you can advance to more intense activities like field trialing, flyball or agility competition.

Whatever the ultimate fitness and exercise goals for your dog, allow common sense basics to guide you. Get your veterinarian involved to provide medical input, and then get going! Your dog will thank you.

Related Articles