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Puppy Development and Exercise

11 Mar 2019


by Margaret Kraeling, PT, CCRT


Everyone who brings home a new puppy is full of excitement and high expectations for what they would like to do with their new family member. This may vary from hiking to camping to any variety of dog sports. Some people who are involved in dog sports pick a specific breed or choose a puppy from a litter that seems to be best suited for that sport. Some of these dogs are extremely high drive / high energy. Many people who adopt dogs find that they have acquired a pup that has higher energy than they bargained for, or they may have some behavior issues that they are trying to modify. And so, for many reasons the puppy exercise options are chosen.

Most owners are aware of growth plates in puppies just as they are in human children however many do not understand the implications of puppy anatomy, growth and development.

In an adult dog the bones are connected by various soft tissues such as ligaments, muscles and tendons and if these dogs sustain an injury it is usually one of these structures that are impacted – resulting in a variety of strains or sprains or even tears. However, in a puppy the injury is often to the growth plate (which we find at the end of long bones) which are responsible for normal growth of that dog. Another common injury to puppies is fractures of the long bones especially if they sustain a twisting type of injury.  Statistics show that 50% of all fractures occur in puppies that are not yet one year old.

Another important fact to note is that cardiovascular training / conditioning is very different in a puppy than it is in an adult dog. We know from human exercise physiology that children can only increase their aerobic capacity by 10% with cardiovascular training whereas an adult doing the same type of training could increase their capacity by up to 30%. This means that endurance types of exercise should not be offered to puppies and in many cases this type of repetitive exercise can result in growth plate damage.

So what can you do with your high energy pup? First of all short walks and self-directed play is ideal. Walks or backyard play that encourages sniffing and learning about their environment is useful. Offering a variety of textures and terrain for them to walk on or over with help them to develop balance and coordination. Breeders often initiate this type of activity at a very young age by setting up an activity pen with plastic balls, tippy boards, air cushions or cat tunnels. 

Young puppies require only short periods of exercise / activity perhaps only 15 minutes followed by a rest. This is also time to work on all their social skills which can be included on their short walks. At times play with an older or suitably sized dog is appropriate. Working their brains is very tiring for young dogs so this is a good time to start some basic obedience skills or perhaps nose work even if competing in these sports is not in your plan. Even those of us in agility have many basic ground work exercises that are suitable for growing puppies.

This puppy period is essential in developing a bond between owners and their new dog – take advantage of it. Please don’t think the only option for energetic pups is the off leash park and repetitive ball throwing. This is neither good for their body or their mind. Time and patience over the first 18 months will give you a healthy, happy injury free companion for many years ahead.




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