Dogs are born to work for a living. They’ve worked alongside us for thousands of years, and most are bred for a particular purpose, like hunting, herding livestock or providing protection. Dogs’ wild relatives spend most of their waking hours scavenging and hunting for food, caring for offspring, defending territory and playing with each other. They lead busy, complex lives, interacting socially and solving simple problems necessary for their survival.
The most common job for our companion dogs today, however, is Couch Potato! They no longer have to earn their keep and instead have to adjust to our more sedentary lifestyles. They get their food for free in a bowl and are often confined, alone and inactive, for most of the day. This lack of purpose leaves dogs no outlet for their naturally active tendencies—physical and mental—and it contributes to the development of behavior problems.
Another problem modern dogs face because they rarely work anymore is a lack of opportunities to exercise. Some pet parents make the mistake of assuming that if a dog has access to a yard, she’s getting exercise. But your dog doesn’t run laps by herself in your yard—or do much of anything besides waiting for you to come outside or let her back inside. It’s the interaction with you that counts!
Problems That Result from Lack of Exercise and Play
Dogs can be like young children. If you don’t give them something constructive to do with their energy, they’ll find something to do on their own—and you may not like it! Some of the most common behavior problems seen in dogs who don’t get enough exercise and play are:
- Destructive chewing, digging or scratching
- Investigative behaviors, like garbage raiding
- Hyperactivity, excitability and night-time activity
- Unruliness, knocking over furniture and jumping up on people
- Excessive predatory and social play
- Play biting and rough play
- Attention-getting behaviors like barking and whining
Benefits of Exercise and Play
The good news is that keeping your dog healthy, happy and out of trouble with daily exercise is a lot of fun and provides many benefits, including:
- Helps to reduce or eliminate the common behavior problems listed above, such as digging, excessive barking, chewing and hyperactivity
- Helps to keep dogs healthy, agile and limber
- Helps to reduce digestive problems and constipation
- Helps timid or fearful dogs build confidence and trust
- Helps dogs feel sleepy, rather than restless, at bedtime or when you’re relaxing
- Helps to keep dogs’ weight under control
Before You Start Your Dog’s Exercise Program
Check with your dog’s veterinarian before starting an exercise program. He or she can check your dog for any health issues that may be aggravated by exercise and suggest safe activities. Some size, breed and age considerations are:
- Breeds with short or flat noses (brachycephalic breeds) can have trouble breathing when exercised vigorously, especially in warmer climates.
- Exercise is great for energetic young dogs, but sustained jogging or running is not recommended for young dogs (under 18 months) whose bones haven’t finished growing.
- Because large dogs are more prone to cruciate ligament injuries, arthritis and hip dysplasia, sustained jogging can be hard on their joints and bones, too. If you’ve got a large dog, make sure she’s well conditioned before you start jogging together.
- Once a dog reaches her golden years, osteoarthritis can cause pain and lameness after strenuous exercise. It’s much better to discover that your once-sprightly dog’s joints can no longer handle long hikes, for example, before you hit the trail.
Exercising Your Dog
With today’s more sedentary lifestyles, dog parents are often challenged to find enough outlets for their pets’ considerable natural energy. Dogs are more athletic than us. But take heart—there are a variety of ways to exercise your dog, from activities that don’t demand much energy on your part to activities that exercise both you and your dog. Dogs’ need for exercise varies depending on their age, size, breed and individual traits. Most dogs benefit enormously from daily aerobic exercise (exercise that makes them pant, like fetch, tug, running and swimming), as well as at least one half-hour walk. Choose activities that suit your dog’s individual personality and natural interests. Experiment with the ideas below to see what’s most practical and enjoyable for her and for you.
Exercise That’s Easy on You
Giving your dog enough exercise doesn’t mean you have to be athletic yourself. If you’d rather not run around or take long, brisk walks, consider two approaches to exercising your dog:
- Focus on brain, not brawn. Exercise your dog’s brain with food puzzle toys, hunting for dinner, obedience and trick training, and chew toys instead of excessive physical exercise. Please see our articles, Enriching Your Dog’s Life and How to Stuff a KONG® Toy, to learn more about providing mental exercise for your dog. To learn more about training, please see our articles, Training Your Dog and Clicker Training Your Pet.
- Focus on games that make your dog run around while you mostly stand or sit still. Games that fit the bill include fetch with balls, Frisbees or sticks, Find It, Hide-and-Seek, catching bubbles (using a special bubble-blower toy made for dogs, such as the Bubble Buddy™), chase (a toy on a rope or stick), and round-robin recalls for the whole family. (Please see our articles, Teaching Your Dog to Play Fetch, Teaching Your Dog to Play Hide-and-Seek and Enriching Your Dog’s Life, to learn more about these games.) If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, other easy options include taking her to the dog park, organizing play groups with friends or neighbors who have dogs or signing her up for dog daycare a few days a week. These options give your dog a chance to experience invigorating social play with other dogs. Please see our articles, Daycare for Dogs, Choosing Playmates for Your Dog and Dog Parks, for more information about finding friends for your dog.
Exercise for Extra Playful or Active Guardians
On-leash walks Did you know that dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week, whereas people without dogs walk only about 168 minutes? Apparently, our dogs motivate us to stay active! On-leash walks give dogs lots of interesting sights and smells to investigate. They may provide enough exercise for some toy breeds, senior dogs and other inveterate couch potatoes. Use an extendable leash, like the Flexi retractable leash or the WalkAbout™, to give your dog more freedom to explore, and walk briskly for 30 minutes. To spice up your walks, vary your route once in a while to give your dog new smells and sights to enjoy. If your dog is old, not accustomed to exercise, overweight or has a health problems, start with a 10-minute walk each day and gradually increase the duration. For healthy young or middle-aged dogs, leashed walks alone probably won’t provide enough exercise. Keep reading for more suggestions for adding vigorous activities to your dog’s routine.
On-leash running, inline skating or bicycling These are great ways to exercise a healthy dog and keep yourself fit, too. Teaching your dog how to walk without pulling on her leash is the first essential step to creating a safe and enjoyable on-leash jogging, inline skating or bicycling companion. If your dog forges ahead, pulls to the side or lags behind you when you walk, imagine the problems that could result when you're moving faster! Constantly pulling on the leash can damage your dog’s throat, and it’s no fun for you either. (Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog Not to Pull on Leash for more information.) Here are some tips and things to consider when you and your dog try life in the fast lane:
- People are actually better suited for jogging or long-distance running than dogs are. Even when hunting or herding, dogs tend to move in short, intense bursts of speed with intermittent stops. Playing dogs do this as well, stopping to sniff around, eliminate and enjoy the scenery. If you jog with your dog on leash, be careful not to overestimate her abilities and go too far. If she seems stiff, sore and exhausted for hours afterward, scale back next time. Also, be careful to check your dog’s paws after a run. Dogs get blisters on their pads, just like people get blisters on their feet. Dogs with white or light-colored footpads and some breeds, such as border collies, can be prone to this problem. If you usually run, cycle or inline skate on paved roads, avoid doing so on very hot days. Instead, you can find some soft surfaces that won’t injure your dog's footpads, such as dirt and grass. Or if your dog’s footpads seem especially sensitive, you can purchase special shoes made for dogs, like Muttluks® dog boots (www.muttluks.com).
- If your dog normally gets to sniff around on your daily walks, she’ll probably try to do the same when the two of you are running, skating or cycling. You’ll have to teach her to pay attention to you during your outings. The best way to do this is by regularly rewarding her with small treats for not pulling. Pick the position you want her to run in and give her treats when she’s in that spot. Before you set off, give your dog ample time to relieve herself and sniff around. And after you finish your outing, you can give her another chance to eliminate and sniff before bringing her inside.
- Again, sustained jogging or running is not recommended for young dogs whose bones haven’t finished growing. It can also be hard on large dogs’ joints and bones. If you have a young dog, check with her veterinarian to find out when it’s safe for her to start running. If you have a large dog, ask her veterinarian if it’s safe for her to run with you.
- Because teaching a dog not to pull on leash can be challenging, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in your area. A professional trainer will offer group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of help with leash walking. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a CPDT near you.
Additional tips for on-leash inline skating and bicycling Being on wheels when attached to a galloping dog can be a bit dangerous. Squirrels, bouncing balls, the neighbor’s cat and other things that might distract your dog aren’t just slight diversions. They could have you suddenly traveling at light-speed and spilling onto your face—or worse, spinning into the path of a passing car. So, just like with running on-leash, the first step to rollerblading or bicycling with your dog is teaching her how to run beside you without pulling. Dogs often get more excited when running than they do when walking, so it will take extra training to teach your dog to stay in position at a run. If possible, first teach her this skill while running yourself, as described above, instead of skating or cycling. If you plan to cycle with your dog, it can be helpful to attach a Springer to your bike, a device that lets you attach your dog’s leash to the bike. The Springer has a coil spring designed to absorb and reduce the force of your dog’s sudden tugs if she lunges to the side, which will help you keep your balance and prevent your dog from pulling the bike over.
It’s important that you monitor your dog’s physical exertion while you’re on a bike or inline skates. It’s easy to over-exert your dog when you’re on wheels while she’s running. To avoid this, start with short distances at first and gradually increase them as your dog’s endurance increases. If your dog starts to lag behind a lot, you may be pushing her too hard or she might not be enjoying your outings. Slow down or consider taking your dog with you only when you plan to skate or cycle for short distances.
Off-leash exercise Off-leash walking, running, hiking or bicycling in a large, safe fenced property or park or in a forest are ideal activities. Your dog can set her own pace, sniff and investigate to her heart’s content, stop when she’s tired and burst into running whenever she likes. Be sure to have your dog well-trained to reliably come when called before you give her off-leash privileges. Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Come When Called for training information. Dogs should be allowed off leash only in safe areas where regulations permit. As you would during on-leash activities, be careful not to overestimate your dog’s abilities. If she seems stiff, sore and exhausted for hours after exercising, you’ll want to scale back next time.
Swimming Some breeds are natural water dogs and require no training or acclimation to water, but even dogs who aren’t bred for water activities can learn to enjoy a swim now and then. Here are some tips for fun and safe swimming with your dog:
- Introduce your dog to water as early as possible, preferably when she’s still a puppy. If you do, she’ll probably be more confident about swimming as an adult.
- Regardless of your dog’s age, make sure her first experiences with water are pleasant ones. Look for a quiet place with shallow water. With your dog on a long leash (about 15 to 20 feet long), start your dog at the water's edge. Wade in with her and encourage her with play and praise.
- Never force your dog into the water, and don’t let her get in deep water over her head until you’re confident about her swimming abilities. Belly-deep is deep enough at first. As she becomes more comfortable, you can toss a ball a couple of feet to encourage her to venture in a little deeper.
- If you swim with your dog, be careful that the two of you don’t get over your heads. Many dogs will try to climb on their guardian’s head or shoulders when they tire.
- Bring fresh water for your dog to drink. Even freshwater streams and lakes can contain parasites and unhealthy bacteria.
- Don’t let your dog swim into currents.
- Don’t allow your dog to jump into deep water in a pool or lake. A dog can panic and possibly drown. Without an easily accessible ramp, she may not be able to get out of a swimming pool or climb back onto a dock.
- For boating or swimming in lakes, get your dog a well-fitted canine life vest. You can use a long nylon lead to prevent your dog from swimming too far away or running off when she gets out of the water. Keep a close watch to make sure your dog doesn’t get tangled in the lead.
- Dog guardians who fish should take steps to make sure their dogs can’t access fishing lines, lures, hooks or bait.
- Keep your dog away from feces, dead fish and shellfish washed up on the shore, which can contain toxins and parasites.
- Make sure your dog has access to shade. Too much sun can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If you have a hairless or light-colored dog, ask her veterinarian about using sun block on her exposed areas like her nose, ear tips and stomach.
- Rinse your dog’s paws after visiting the beach to wash off irritating sand and salt water.
- Dry out your dog’s ears after playing in the water to prevent ear infections. Please contact your veterinarian to determine which product is best for your dog.
- If your dog has a heavy or soft coat—as do, for example, retrievers, collies and shepherds—be sure to brush her thoroughly after she’s dried following a swim. Soft coats can mat when wet and trap bacteria that can create local areas of infection called “hot spots.”
- If you have a swimming pool, keep it securely fenced off or covered with a sturdy pool cover when not in use. Never leave your dog unsupervised around an uncovered pool. Your pool should have graded steps, to give dogs and children a way out of the water. Dogs and toddlers cannot climb ladders. If your dog can’t get out of the water, she will soon tire and drown. Also, don’t assume that your dog will automatically know where the steps are and how to exit the pool. You need to show her and teach her several times.
Jumping Most dogs love to jump. You can make your own jumps from materials you have around the house, like cardboard boxes or a broomstick laid across two low pieces of furniture. At first, try using treats to lure your dog over jumps that are just a few inches high. As your dog catches on, you can gradually raise the jumps a little higher. However, keep jump heights at or below the level of your dog's elbows to avoid stressing her bones and joints. Also, avoid encouraging your dog to keep jumping if she hesitates or seems tired after a few minutes. She might be a little sore, especially if she’s over six years of age, and continued exertion could cause injury.
Dog exercise balls Dog exercise balls, such as the Boomer Ball® and the Best Ball, are made for soccer-style play. They come in different sizes and are made of hard plastic. Many dogs love to play with these, using their paws and nose to play soccer—with you, of course! You can also play soccer with your dog using KONG toys, which bounce in unpredictable directions because of their shape, or soccer balls made for dogs or humans.
Dog sports Sports like agility, flyball, obedience, rally obedience, musical freestyle and tracking can give you and your dog a whole new world of fun exercise and competition to explore. Activities for specific breed groups include herding, lure coursing, hunt tests and go-to-ground trials. For more information on these and other sports, please see our article on Enriching Your Dog’s Life.