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How to Give Your Dogs the Exercise They Need During Every Life Stage

Your dogs need to get up and move. Here are some tips for exercising them, from puppyhood through senior years.

Audrey Pavia  |  Aug 17th 2015


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Dogs need exercise. It doesn’t matter how young or how old they are: Your dog needs to get out there and move. “Exercise at any life stage is important for both physical and mental well-being,” said Heidi P. Watkins, D.V.M., a small animal veterinarian at Airport Irvine Animal Hospital in Costa Mesa, California. “Healthy weight maintenance, joint and muscle flexibility, and positive mental stimulus are all good reasons for exercise at any age.”

That said, the kind of exercise you give your dog will depend on his age and condition.

Puppies

When my Corgi, Nigel, was 12 weeks old, I learned why young puppies need lots of exercise. After spending two hours asleep in his crate one rainy night in the car, Nigel was wide awake and raring to go when we got home. The only problem: It was a Sunday night, and we humans had to get up for work the next morning.

Full of energy from his long nap, Nigel was wild, running around, and acting like a crazy nut. My husband, Randy, tried to get him to settle down by watching TV with him in his lap, but that backfired big time. Instead of cuddling up, Nigel leaped up at Randy’s face and accidentally sliced through his earlobe with sharp puppy teeth. While Randy mopped up the blood, I took my wild canine outside in the rain to play with him for nearly an hour before he was ready to fall asleep.

Puppies are bundles of energy, and if they don’t get enough exercise, they can get pretty wild. That’s why giving your puppy plenty of playtime is a must if you want him to ever settle down.

Miniature Pinscher puppy by Shutterstock.

Miniature Pinscher puppy by Shutterstock.

Here are some energy busters for puppies:

  • Toys. Find toys that your puppy likes to run after, and throw them until your arm is sore.
  • Play dates. Recruit another puppy as a playmate, set up a time for them to play, and let the two of them chase each other until they drop.
  • Well-timed romps. Give your puppy lots of chances to tear around the yard with a case of the zoomies (especially before bedtime), training sessions, and rides in the car.

Remember not to force your puppy to exercise, as it can cause trauma to developing joints and growth plates in the bones. That means no really long walks or jogging until he’s fully grown.

Almost grown

German Shepherd by Shutterstock.

German Shepherd by Shutterstock.

Young adult dogs are pretty close to puppies when it comes to being full of energy. What makes it harder is that they are a lot bigger than young puppies, so their crazy get-up-and-go can be tougher to take when you are trying to settle down in front of the TV, eat dinner, or go to sleep.

My friend Jorge has a 7-month-old German Shepherd named Hemi who was recently neutered. For a few days after his surgery, Hemi wasn’t allowed to run around and play in the backyard with the other dogs. The result was a lot of pent-up energy. Picture a black German Shepherd in a plastic “Cone of Shame” crashing into everything in his path as he barreled through the house. The fact that he’d just had his testicles removed didn’t seem to make much difference. Hemi was a poster child for how much young dogs need exercise.

Young dogs are still not finished growing, so they shouldn’t be subjected to forced exercise like jogging or long hikes. Only encourage your young dog to exercise as much as he would if he were playing with another dog.

Beagle swimming by Shutterstock.

Beagle swimming by Shutterstock.

Here are some energy busters for young adults:

  • Running. Jogging is a great way to wear out a dog, if you have a breed type that is built for running. (Siberian Huskies are; Bulldogs are not.)
  • Fetch. Throwing a ball to a dog who likes to fetch is a great way to tire him out, and it doesn’t call for too much work on your part.
  • Dog parks. Taking him to the dog park is another great idea. This not only helps burn energy, it also gives him a chance to visit with his own kind.
  • Swimming. Swimming is great exercise for young dogs, according to Watkins. It’s a good way to burn energy without stressing growing joints. If you have a dog who likes to swim — a trait in many retrievers — you’re in luck. On the other hand, if your dog is afraid of water, don’t force him.

Fully grown

Australian Shepherd by Shutterstock.

Australian Shepherd by Shutterstock.

When dogs become adults, they usually don’t need as much exercise as younger dogs. That said, it really depends on the dog. My 6-year-old Australian Shepherd mix, Candy, is very laid-back and happy to just sleep all day. I still make sure she gets walks and playtime with other dogs because I don’t want her to get fat. She’s also a scaredy cat when it comes to new people and situations, and the more exercise she gets, the less anxious she seems to be.

My parents have a 7-year-old Pomeranian named Monique, and even though she’s an adult dog, she’s still hyper and needs to run around. If she doesn’t get enough exercise, she uses her excess energy to bark at everyone who walks past my parents’ condo. This does not make her a popular resident in their quiet senior community. If my dad plays with her by throwing a sock she can fetch, she gets tired out after half an hour. (Yes, she fetches a sock. Dad is 94 and never bought into the idea of paying for a dog toy.)

Some adult dogs need exercise to stay calm, but others are big couch potatoes who really don’t care. Some breeds, like Basset Hounds and even Greyhounds, are happy just lying around most of the time. But all dogs need exercise.

Trainer Deborah Abbot practices agility with her Golden Retriever. (Photo by Paw Prints for Life)

Trainer Deborah Abbot practices agility with her Golden Retriever. (Photo by Paw Prints for Life)

Here are some energy busters for active adult dogs:

  • Walks. Getting your dog out on a walk is great way to burn some of his excess energy. Walks are not only good for canine bodies but also for canine brains. The break in the routine will keep your dog from getting bored, and help stimulate both his mind and body.
  • Hikes. It’s hard to find a dog who doesn’t like to go on a hike. So many new sights and smells! If your dog hasn’t been doing much in the exercise department, start him off slow with some short hikes on level ground before you move up to more strenuous stuff.
  • Jogging. Some dogs are made for jogging. If you have a healthy adult dog who likes to run, give it a try. Just remember to start off slowly and let him build up his stamina. And keep an eye on his paws to make sure they aren’t sore. He will need time to build up a thick paw pad if you’ll be running on pavement.
  • Competitive sports. If you think you might like to be part of a fun, organized activity with your dog, look into agility, flyball, coursing ability, or any other high-energy dog sport. Not only will your dog get plenty of exercise, but you’ll have fun and meet new friends!
Basset Hound by Shutterstock.

Basset Hound by Shutterstock.

And some energy boosters for those couch potatoes:

  • Again, walks. All dogs, even mellow ones, need to go on walks. A walk will help get your dog’s blood pumping and increase his desire for exercise.
  • Fetch. Some dogs are so blasé, they don’t see the point of chasing a ball or a toy. But it can’t hurt to try. If your dog doesn’t care about toys, try tossing treats to him and then past him. The food might motivate him to move.
  • Play dates. Some dogs only care about exerting themselves if another dog is around. Find your slow mover a playmate who will bring out the best in him. Older puppies can be great for getting mellow older dogs to cut loose.

Before you start getting your poky pooch to exercise, make sure he’s in good health. “Adult dogs can tolerate a more structured and extensive exercise program than when they were young,” Watkins said. “But pre-existing physical issues, like hip dysplasia, should be considered when developing an exercise program.”

Remember too that conditioning should be slowly ramped up over time so your dog doesn’t injure himself.

Senior dogs: Old but not out

Senior dog by Shutterstock.

Senior dog by Shutterstock.

Senior dogs are a whole other story. It’s rare to find an old dog who needs a lot of exercise. Senior dogs are a lot like senior people: They just don’t feel like running around anymore. Some old dogs have arthritis, and this makes it painful to move too much. Some are just beyond the idea of playing. But just like with adult dogs, senior dogs are all different.

When Nigel was 12, he earned a Coursing Ability title from the American Kennel Club. This required him to chase a lure 300 yards, three different times. Even though he was a senior canine, Nigel was beyond excited about chasing the lure and quickly earned his title. He tore after that plastic bag like he was a puppy.

But then you have guys like my friend’s dog, Chance. A geriatric German Shepherd, we don’t know how old he is because Kimberly adopted him from a shelter a year ago. He was really old then, and she thought she would only have him a few months. But the old man is hanging in there. And even though he’s riddled with arthritis and walks around with the stiffest hips I’ve ever seen, he still wants to play.

He romps with Kimberly’s other dogs, chases toys, and patrols the property, all with a big silly grin on his face. He runs out of gas pretty quickly and then collapses in the dirt for a while. But then he’s up again in a few hours, ready for more. It’s pretty clear that all this activity keeps Chance involved in life and helps him stick around.

Dogs playing by Shutterstock.

Dogs playing by Shutterstock.

While you should never force an old dog to exercise, it’s good to encourage him. Give him lots of breaks and plenty of time to rest in between. And if he’s been sedentary, have him checked out by a vet first to make sure he’s healthy enough to start an exercise program. Once you know he’s ready for some action, here are some energy boosters for your senior:

  • Walks. “Slow, level ground walking is a good place to start,” Watkins said. She also suggested using this type of walk to see if your older dog seems comfortable with exercise.
  • Jogging. If your dog seems like he can handle shorter walks on level ground, you can try adding more speed and some changes of terrain, according to Watkins. “Only senior dogs that can comfortably handle increased speed and terrain changes can be slowly conditioned for more intense exercise.”
  • Play dates. If your older buddy likes other dogs, and you have a friend with another dog around his same age, set up a play date for the two of them. Be careful about pairing your older dog up with a dog who is a lot younger or bigger. It might be too much action for your senior.

Whatever you do with your dog for exercise, remember it’s supposed to be fun — for both of you! Have a good time and keep building that bond.

Read more about exercising with your dog:

About the author: An award-winning professional writer and editor, Audrey Pavia is a former managing editor of DOG FANCY magazine, former interim editor of Dog World magazine, and former senior editor of the AKC Gazette. A member of the Dog Writers’ Association of America, she has authored seven books on dogs, including Having Fun with Your Dog (ASPCA Kids) and The Labrador Retriever Handbook, 2nd Edition. Audrey has also written extensively on horses, as well as other pets. She shares her home in Norco, California, with a rescue dog named Candy.