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  • Dr Sandra Hassett

Simple Rules for Exercising Puppies


Nothing brings a smile to our faces faster than the sight of a puppy. Or better still - a group of puppies, romping and cavorting together. They are so happy, full of life and living in the moment. Everyone emphasises how important it is to socialise them regularly. What could possibly be wrong?

The truth is that those little, growing bodies are very vulnerable to damage. Puppies, like young children, have no concept of whether or not something is safe or is going to hurt or do them damage that may be life long. They may develop this with experience but must rely on us to make sensible decisions for them until then. In some cases this means the rest of their lives!

We have always known that for many dogs the damage done when they are young can and does cause a lifetime of problems. Their bones, joints, tendons and ligaments are not fully developed and damage done at this time cannot be reversed. This applies especially to those with the genetic predisposition to joint problems such as hip or elbow dysplasia or osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD). The problem is often greater in the bigger boned and faster growing breeds. But it also applies to the working breeds, terriers and other dogs that just love to run and jump and chase, and run and jump and chase, and run and jump and chase ... . The consequences of repetitive, high force activities can be chronic and lifelong.

It is also important to know that when the body is growing not everything grows at the same time or the same rate. Bones have growth spurts and at these times tendons and ligaments can become stretched tight and more easily damaged. These are the ‘growing pains’ that some youngsters experience.

In some joints, for example the elbow, there are actually three bones that make up the joint, all growing at different rates. Small wonder then that fragments of bone or cartilage can break off if subjected to too much force at these times (which is essentially what occurs in the condition called elbow dysplasia). The bones are especially vulnerable at the growth plates (where active lengthening occurs) and at points where tendons and ligaments attach.

So do we turn into the Grinch That Stole Christmas and spoil all their fun? Of course not! Puppies need to socialise and develop confidence, coordination and balance. They need to learn the foundation exercises on which they can build skills later in life. They just need to do these things in a way that avoids damaging their bodies.

It is the amount of force that is exerted that is the critical factor. Newton tells us that force equals mass x acceleration. So the faster they go the more force on their bones, tendons and ligaments and the more potential for damage. Also the heavier they are (their mass), the more force for a given speed - so keep them slim!

To put the idea of force into perspective, jumping over an object that is the height of the withers exerts 4 to 10 times as much force on bones, tendons and ligaments as walking. Yet how many puppies do you see racing around, jumping off walls, running down stairs, chasing balls, jumping over each other, barrelling into each other – and generally having a whale of a time? And doing it over and over again?


So here are a few simple rules for exercising puppies of different ages:


KEEP IT SLOW

Let them play with their friends and make new friends, but keep them on lead or in a confined area. Make the play more about wrestling and balance and coordination than about speed. The slower they go the harder it is to balance and maintain coordination, so slow is actually better than fast.

FOCUS ON BALANCE AND COORDINATION

Instead of running and chasing on smooth, flat fields, focus on providing balance and coordination challenges. Can they walk and balance on different surfaces? Clamber over objects, walk through ladders, step over poles? Walk through tunnels, balance on cushions or on wobbly surfaces? Walk on slippery surfaces, walk across slopes, up and down little gullies, along banks, over clumps of longer grass or low bushes? Walk in water, walk in mud, walk on gravel?


FOCUS ON THE NEW

Under 6 months of age is the critical period of socialisation for puppies. In fact this period start to close from 3 months of age. Experiencing new things is an important part of socialisation. Experiencing, processing and doing new things works their brains as well as their bodies and this helps to tire them out. We all know a tired puppy is a pleasure to have around!

So take them to lots of new places where they can have new experiences. Write a list of 100 things to do and places to go and work your way through it. If they have problems then go back next week, and the following week, until they are comfortable or have mastered the situation. New places to walk, new people, animals, species, machines, toys, at night, during the day, on water, on land … the list can be endless. If you make it through the first 100 then make an new list!

WORK THEIR BRAINS

The biggest problem most people face with puppies is their sheer exuberance and often the reason we allow them to race around is so that they can burn off some of that energy. But puppies tire even more quickly if we work their brains. Teach them the basics of lots of new ‘tricks’ – sit, down, stand, play bow, roll over, lie on their back for tummy rugs, high 5 left paw, high 5 right paw, spin left, spin right, walk sideways, perch work front legs, perch work back legs, touch a marker with their nose/front or back paw, pick up toys, carry toys, retrieve toys, follow scent trails, find hidden toys, find hidden people – the list is endless. They don’t have to do it perfectly, they just have to get the basics and then you can work from there to shape the final trick. Like any skill, the more they learn to learn the better at it they become. More neuronal connections develop in their brains and in their bodies and they actually become ‘smarter’, more coordinated and more agile.


PROGRESS INCREMENTALLY

Start with little amounts of lots of activities and gradually progress. For example, a puppy under 6 months can step over poles up to carpus height, a puppy 6-18 months can work up to elbow height. Only once their growth plates have closed and they are skeletally mature (around 18 months but depending on the breed) should they jump higher. A puppy under 6 months can gently tug at a toy held at about their head height, at 6-18 months they can tug a toy held higher or lower and walk gently backwards whilst tugging, at over 18 months they can tug hard and vigorously at all heights and pull back hard on the toy. A puppy under 6 months can learn to wave/high 5 with one paw, at 6 months they can try to balance with both front paws off the ground on a stable surface but they need to wait until growth plate closure before they try to do this on unstable surfaces or try to go from beg to stand.


High impact or sustained activity must wait until they are skeletally mature. No jogging, running behind a bike or similar. Strength and endurance training should also wait and then be progressed incrementally. The aim is to make them a little tired with each session. Increases of 5 minutes per week for walks or 10% every 3-4 repetitions are generally safe provided they show no soreness or lameness. Jumping higher, running faster and turning quickly should all be progressed steadily and independently.


So there is a way to bring your cute little bundle of joy through to adulthood with minimal damage or risk of injury. In the process you can make them smarter, more social and more coordinated. Most importantly they, and you, can have lots of fun and build a great relationship together!!


Disclaimer: The information in this article is general in nature and not intended to provide specific veterinary advice. If your dog has specific health issues a thorough physical examination by a trained veterinary professional is recommended. Veterinary clearance before instituting any new activity program is also recommended.

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