Puppies tend to fill their days with activity and play in between times of rest and sleep. Because of this, many owners think that you can’t exercise them too much and that it is OK to exercise a puppy to the point that he tires out and no longer wants to play. But we know that this approach may cause damage to the growth plates and may cause some long-term health concerns for your dog, such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, OCD, and possibly cruciate ligament injury.
What are growth plates?
Growth plates are made of cartilage and are found at the ends of bones in young, growing animals. All of the growth in the bone comes from the growth plates, and when your pet is done growing, the growth plates are said to be closed. Because they are made of cartilage, growth plates are softer and more easily damaged than bone.
Several things can affect the timing of growth plate closure:
- Breed: Larger dogs take longer to mature than smaller dogs. So, the larger the breed of dog, the later the growth plates will close.
- Spaying or neutering: there is some evidence that neutering your dog prior to completion of puberty can delay the closure of growth plates.
The only way that you can know for sure that your dog’s growth plates are closed is to have them radiographed at your veterinary clinic.
How much exercise is OK?
Toddler Puppies (under 3 months of age)
- Good footing is especially important in this age group. Limit slip-and-fall injuries indoors by providing non-slip or rubberized mats that can be easily cleaned. Outdoors, allow puppies to play on a variety of surfaces, such as grass, shavings, dirt, and sand.
- Do not allow access to stairs. Use baby gates as needed to keep puppies from the stairs.
- You can introduce tunnels and inflatable balance equipment at this time (such as FitPAWS® balance discs).
- Most young puppy exercise should consist of self-directed play.
- Puppies in this age group can play with other puppies of similar size and interest and with gentle adult dogs. They need to be able to rest when they are tired.
School-Age Puppies (3 months of age to 6 months of age)
- Introduce your puppy to stairs and help him learn how to climb the stairs. Use a leash, harness, and treats as needed to assist him. Good footing on the stairs is important.
- Monitor the weight and adjust the diet as needed to prevent your puppy from becoming overweight.
- Start early obedience training by teaching commands such as sit, stand, down, stay, and touch.
- Leash walks should focus on manners rather than endurance. Short training sessions (less than 10 minutes) are better for development.
- If you are going to compete with your dog, you can introduce cavalettis, stacking blocks, wobble board, and walking a plank.
Teenagers (6 months of age to growth plate closure)
- You can introduce swimming at this age. Use a life jacket in an appropriate size for your dog as needed. Keep swimming sessions shorter than 10 minutes.
- Limit leash walks to less than 15 minutes time.
- Skills: combat crawling, roll over, beg, walking backwards, and side-stepping.
- If you are considering agility, you can start early jump training in this age group. Jumps should be kept low (jump bumps, below carpus (wrist, or pastern) height). Training should be focused on timing and form rather than repititions.
After growth plate closure
- All high impact and endurance training should be avoided until the growth plates are closed.
- Begin endurance activities
- Jogging or hiking – start with three 20 minute jogs a week and gradually increase frequency and duration of training.
- Swimming – start with two to three 10-15 minute swims a week and gradually increase frequency and duration of training.
- Gradually increase jumps to competition height
- Begin agility weave pole training
- Begin flyball box work.
- Although the growth plates are closed, the muscles and tendons are still maturing. Increase intensity of exercise gradually to decrease risk of injury to these structures.