A-Z of dog wellbeing: Exercise

Big or small, young or old, dogs need to exercise daily in most cases. Exercise tones the muscles, helps the body and metabolic system to function properly, and engages the mind. Dogs that don’t get enough physical activity or mental stimulation will often go ‘self-employed’ to find entertainment which results in what we consider to be destructive behaviours.

While some breeds have special needs that have to be taken into account, and dogs slow down as they age, they still need to take part in some form of daily activity to avoid them becoming bored, frustrated and unhealthy.

Exercise to keep in shape

Physically, dogs will get fat if they are not allowed to burn off the calories they take in during the day and this includes the energy they get from treats as well as their main meals.

How much exercise a dog needs is based on a dog’s age, breed, size and overall health, most dogs should ideally spend between 30 minutes to two hours on an activity every day. Breeds in the hunting, working, or herding groups (such as Border Collies, Labradors, Retrievers, Boxers, Shepherds, Jack Russell Terriers, Huskys) will need the most exercise. These more active dogs, when in good health, will often benefit from 30 minutes of rigorous exercise in addition to an hour or so of more sedate activity.

Short-nosed breeds, like the French Bulldog or Pug, won’t be able to cope with this much intense exercise as their breathing is compromised so a gentle stroll around the block will be fine as long as they get lots of sniffing time, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do other activities for enrichment to keep their brains happy.

Exercise for puppies

Your puppy is a ball of endless energy – right?  Well, sort of.  They would keep going all day if you let them, but there are a few reasons why this isn’t a good idea and you’ll NEVER wear out a puppy by trying to exercise them sufficiently.

Firstly, their soft young bones haven’t developed sufficiently to be able to cope with lots of vigorous exercise. That’s why its recommended that they get 5 minutes of exercise per month of age (up to twice a day) until the puppy is fully grown, i.e. 15 minutes (up to twice a day) when three months old, 20 minutes when four months old etc.  Here’s why…
puppy growth platesGrowth plates are soft areas that sit at the ends of the long bones in puppies and young dogs.  They contain rapidly dividing cells that allow bones to become longer so the puppy can grow, and are present until the end of puberty where they close up as the dog reaches its adult size at approximately 18 months old.

In puppies, the ligaments and tendons are stronger than their growth plates, so instead of a simple sprain, the growth plate is liable to be injured – the puppy’s own soft tissue can pull apart his growth plate and this this may not heal properly or not heal in time for the puppy to grow up straight and strong which can result in a misshapen or shortened limb making your dog more prone to injuries and joint problems in adulthood.

Secondly, when they get over-tired they become fractious, like a grumpy toddler, and that’s often when the mouthing and biting gets worse, so puppies need a time out to learn how to relax.  Make sure they get time alone to chill out when they are getting cranky.

Alternative exercise to ‘walkies’

Mental stimulation enriches our dogs’ lives by giving them something interesting to do. And because these activities alleviate boredom they decrease the likelihood of our dogs developing those ‘self-employed’ behavioural issues such as excessive chewing or barking.

Dogs that are less active or older may have conditions that are slowing them down. Whether it is because of too much weight, achy joints and muscles, or they just like to mellow out most of the time, they still need some activity to keep the body and mind working as it should.

Instead of adding more physical exercise to your dog’s routine, try adding a few short brain games like these and you’ll probably find that they’ll go off for a nap for an hour or two, rather than bugging you for more walks after 20 minutes.

Sniffing time

Your dogs’ walk is (usually) the only time they get to go out and explore each day, so make sure they get to use their noses on the walk, rather than just walking from A to B.  Give them a time to sniff around and let them move on from one interesting smell to another. Giving them the opportunity to sniff around not only provides them with plenty of mental stimulation, it’s providing them with information about what’s going on in the neighbourhood.  It’s vital for their mental wellbeing.

Find it!

This is a favourite game for both my dogs. It’s great for mental stimulation, and helps your dog use their natural sniffing abilities which most dogs love, but it’s great for the ‘sniffers and trackers’. All you need to get started is some treats.

Take some small treats and hide them around the house for your dog to find. If they’ve never done nose work games before I’d start with some easy spots that are in plain view and use smelly treats like sausage to make it a bit easier on your dog then tell them to ‘find it’.  Once they get the idea that ‘find it’ means there are treats to be had if they start looking, they’ll use their nose to track them down, and you can hide treats in more difficult places, at different heights and inside cupboards and drawers if you like (just don’t forget where you put them!). Progress into the garden or out on walks when they get really good at this.  Don’t cheat and show them where they all are!

I’ve also done some basic scentwork classes with my dogs, teaching them to find a mouse toy that has been scented with catnip which we hide in boxes, drawers and behind things around the house.  They love this game just as much as finding treats.

Digging

Digging is a natural behaviour that many dogs enjoy, yet it’s one we don’t often encourage because we don’t want them to dig up our garden. So give your dog a designated place to dig – you can use a child’s sandpit (like our pink turtle Zen is digging in) or just a corner of your garden. Encourage your dog to use it by burying one of their toys, or by digging yourself to show them how it’s done. I don’t know about your dog, but if I dig at anything with my hands my dog will gladly join in, and they’ll have a lovely time!

Puzzle toys & snuffle mats

Feeding toys give your dog the chance to use their natural problem-solving abilities, but they don’t suit all dogs.  Some get very frustrated and disinterested when the treats don’t appear immediately, while others work at the games with great persistence.  If you aren’t sure how well your dog will engage with a puzzle toy, try taking a muffin tin and pop treats in the bottom of the holes, then put tennis balls in each hole and see if your dog can figure out how to get the treats out.  If they enjoy it, you could look to buy some of the toys available in the shops, but I’d recommend the plastic ones over the wooden ones as they are much easier to clean. Snuffle mats made of fabric are suitable for most dogs, but make sure they are only used for sniffing work, not as a chew or toy.

Stuffed kongs

Food-stuffed Kongs are one of the easiest ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated and entertained with minimal effort. Fill it up with food and let your dog enjoy getting the food out. You can use a mixture of dog food (if dry, soak it in a little water first), pate, vegetables, cheese spread or anything else your dog enjoys.  Be careful using peanut butter as some contain xylitol which is toxic to dogs. If your dog is not a breed prone to bloat you can also fill the Kong in the evening and freeze it overnight to make it harder work to get the food out.

Avoid highly processed chews such as rawhide as this contains lots of chemicals that are not good for dogs, and have also been known to cause death due to the choke risk.

 

While walkies are great exercise for both you and your dog, make sure you take the time to enrich their lives with some mental stimulation as well as the physical work.  Remember that while you get out and do the shopping, go to work, or go out for dinner, their entire world revolves around the exercise and activities you provide, so make them varied and interesting!

If you need an extra pair of hands to provide entertainment and enrichment for your dog when you can’t be there, please check out my dog walking service which can include all these activities too!