COVID-19 has most of us social distancing, working from home and just generally spending a lot more time with our dogs. Dogs who rarely get walked and usually spend their days looking out windows or sitting in yards are being walked, sometimes several times a day. Small dogs are being dragged down sidewalks with cooped-up guardians trying to take them for runs, and even Olympic-level fetch games are happening. Sydney Cooper Public Relations Manager for Fi explains that according to its current data, dogs are taking approximately 1000 more steps per day, as compared to the same days before COVID-19. Is this sudden activity change safe for dogs?
Always consult with your vet before beginning a new exercise routine for your dog, particularly if your dog has any underlying health conditions or concerns. This is the kind of appointment that likely could happen virtually during COVID-19, if that is a service your vet clinic is offering. After talking with your vet, here’s how to start a new exercise routine with your dog.
For dogs who might not get a lot of outside exercise and enrichment especially in new places, Dr. Mandi Blackwelder, who owns Healing Arts Animal Center providing veterinary rehabilitation, physical therapy and acupuncture, reminds guardians that for dogs “outside is a very overwhelming place when you don’t go there a lot.”
When you do start taking walks, “keep your leash at 6 feet and if someone is coming toward you, do not let your dog have a conversation because if your leashes get tangled now you are way closer than 6 feet” meaning you aren’t social distancing. Plus, “If your dog gets in a dog fight, now you are going to the vet.”
Physical exercise is fantastic for dogs, but it needs to be done intentionally and in moderation, just like with people. “If you are starting to train for a 3-mile run, you don’t start out running 3 miles; you gradually work your way up to that distance,” says Dr. Zoe Launcelott, a member of the surgery team at NorthStar Vets Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Specialty Center. The safest way to increase your dog’s exercise is to slowly increase intensity to build up endurance.
Walks: “Start small and go longer. Start with a 10-minute walk and increase by 5 minutes per walk, per week,” advises Dr. Blackwelder.
Runs: If you want to take your dog running with you, start very slowly with your dog running for just a couple of minutes at a time. However, before you run, consider if your dog is really going to be a good running partner. Dr. Blackwelder notes that while some small dogs run with their owners and do well generally, she doesn’t recommend that small dogs go running with their guardians. “Our stride length as a general rule is so much longer than theirs. It makes it hard for them to get into a rhythm,” which can easily lead to injuries.
Backyard games: If you and your dog are spending more time in the backyard and your dog is doing a lot of running around, limit and gradually increase time your dog is allowed to have off-leash time to run to slowly build up conditioning and endurance. “If you start noticing your dog is getting tired or is sore the following day, decrease back to a tolerated time frame,” advises Dr. Launcelott. Fetch is a favorite game among many dogs, but you also want to slowly build-up endurance for your dog. It can be easy to throw the ball for an hour, but if your dog isn’t used to that, Dr. Blackwelder advises instead it’s best to go slow and ”increase by three ball throws per day over time.”
Routines: Because of COVID-19 all of us have shifted routines. Things are not normal right now, and that’s not just true for but also for our dogs. If your dog is used to you being out of the home most of the day at work, he may be confused about why you are there, and not have a clear sense of time.
For dogs who spend a lot of time alone during most weekdays having their people home is exciting, but also can be a little overwhelming. Dog guardians have their hearts in the right place by increasing their dog’s activity. Your dog might even be begging to play more because that’s what he is used to doing in the evenings when you get home from work, but the difference is now you’re home all day and your dog’s body isn’t conditioned for a significant increase in high-impact play overnight.
Dr. Blackwelder notes that playing fetch all day with your dog would be like “you are lifting weights eight hours a day.” Significantly increasing that kind of high-impact play can lead to over-straining muscles and tendons, which are “more likely to be caught in an injury situation,” which would be complicated by the pandemic cautions Dr. Blackwelder.
All of us want to help our pets avoid injuries in the best of times, but particularly right now during the pandemic when vet care is significantly more challenging to access with vet clinics having to adopt contactless visits for guardians (not being allowed in) and many orthopedic surgeons and specialists not even taking appointments.
While appropriate physical exercise is important for every dog, mental stimulation is just as valuable. Not only are tricks good for mental exercise, they actually can provide dogs some important physical exercise as well and provide a structured and intentional way of building muscle tone and conditioning. Dr. Blackwelder advises that tricks like Sit, Down, Stand, Bow, Shake, Backing Up and Sitting Pretty/Begging when done in moderation are particularly helpful.
COVID-19 is giving many people a great opportunity to spend more intentional time with their dogs. Be thoughtful and cautious about how much activity and what kind of activity your dog is getting.
“High-impact activities can be a great way to entertain your dog and keep them healthy, just be sure to monitor how your dog reacts to the activity and adjust as you see fit. If you see any lameness, stop the activity and have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian,” says Dr. Launcelott.
Remember going slow and building up your dog’s physical conditioning will allow you and your dog to be active together now and, in the future, and avoid canine injuries.
Top photograph: Westend6 | Getty Images