NEK9 Conditioning Blog

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Puppy Fitness Tips


Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a number of people asking me questions about fitness for puppies. Because puppies are still growing and developing, you need to keep special considerations in mind when exercising them. Exercising a puppy is NOT the same as exercising an adult dog, and some exercises that you do with adult dogs could actually cause harm to puppies. Since puppy fitness seems to be a hot topic on many people’s minds, I thought I’d put together some tips for you!

Why do puppies need special considerations when it comes to fitness?

Puppies have hundreds of bones in their body that have growth plates that close at different times. (For some dogs, there are some growth plates that don’t close until they are about 1 1 ½ to 2 years old!) Bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are not all developing at the same pace. Growth spurts can lead to asymmetrical growth, and this means the simple act of growing puts additional stress on a puppy’s body. Imbalances in development and growth puts growing puppies at a greater risk of injury, and injury to the growing body can lead to permanent damage that doesn’t heal with time. The bodies of growing puppies and adolescent dogs are not the same as adult dogs that are physically mature. Because of this, their fitness programs should not look the same.

What special considerations do we need to take when exercising puppies?

Before listing cautions and considerations for growing puppies and young dogs, I want to state that exercise is good for puppies! They need exercise for their bodies to properly develop and grow. Exercise is not bad! The danger here is when puppies and young dogs do not get the right kind of exercise. So when planning activities with your puppies and young dogs that are still growing, be sure to consider the following…

1) Don’t let your puppies and young dogs get fat. (This applies for adult dogs too!) The additional weight and added stress on the body isn’t good for their joints and their still-developing bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles. Excess body fat can also impact overall mobility, agility and balance. (And of course, obesity can lead to other health issues too!)

2) Think of exercise for puppies as self-directed play rather than having a structured fitness program. While the body is still growing and developing, avoid structured cardio and strength training activities. Don’t take your puppy on that 3-mile run or for that 8-mile bicycle ride. Don’t do weight pulling or drag work. Instead, allow your puppy to get cardio exercise and develop strength by running and exploring on his or her own while off leash or by safely climbing over or under different obstacles placed on the ground in a play area.

3) Avoid high impact activities and highly concussive, repetitive activities until growth plates are closed. Now there are some variations and exceptions here depending on the age of the dog. For example, jumping a 4-month-old puppy is very different from jumping a 9-month-old puppy. For younger puppies, I avoid all jumping. I don’t want them jumping on and off the couch or bed. I don’t want them leaping out of my SUV. For older puppies (more like adolescent dogs), I’ll still avoid these same activities, but I’ll let them trot and do small jumps over objects that are no higher than their hock. (Even if I allow very low jumps, however, I’ll still avoid any kind of repetitive jumping.) Even for my fully mature dogs, I like to limit repetitive jumping and don’t like them jumping on hard surfaces like concrete or pavement.

4) Monitor play time with other dogs. I once asked a canine physical therapist what type of injury does she see the most. Without hesitation, she said it was injuries due to dogs playing too rough and smashing their bodies into each other. Playing with other dogs can be good exercise, but make sure the amount, type and intensity of play (and play style) are appropriate for your puppy. Don’t hesitate to interrupt play if it starts to get too rough and never let your puppy play with dogs that you don’t know. (I’ve known of puppies that were turned loose to play with a supposedly friendly adult dogs, and they were severely injured or even killed by the other dog.)

5) Monitor play time with humans. When our puppies play with other dogs, we need to be aware of the amount, type and intensity of play. The same is true when puppies play with humans! For example, have puppies chase toys and items that you drag on the ground instead of having them chase bouncing balls with their uncoordinated bodies. If you like to play tug with your puppies, pay close attention to the amount of pressure that you use when pulling on the tug and always pull in a manner that keeps the puppy’s spine in alignment and in a neutral position. (e.g., Don’t pull your puppy’s head up and back.) Instead, keep the tug low and level with your puppy’s head, neck and spine.

Finally, keep it fun and change things up! Play with your puppy in different (and of course safe!) environments and on different surfaces to help build confidence. Create a play area where puppies can develop balance and body awareness while exploring on their own. I’ve seen some breeders, search and rescue handlers and Ring Sport trainers create some impressive puppy playgrounds where puppies can develop strength, balance, body awareness and confidence all while engaging in exploration and self-directed play!

~Erica

P.S. Want to learn more about canine fitness and how to design fitness programs for your dog? Consider becoming a Certified Canine Athlete Specialist (CCAS)!! Download the Elite K9 Athlete Brochure and contact me right away if you're interested!