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Exercise and Puppies

I've been dwelling a little lately on appropriate exercise for puppies of different age groups. Part of the reason for this is that I am considering constructing a puppy playground for our little ones. I'm attempting to design a stimulating but safe environment. This should help my gardens to survive the rigours of large litters!!!

While free play has been the traditionally most common form of exercise, human directed play is becoming more prevalent. I'm a fan of mostly free play. But hey ...... who doesn't love to play with a puppy? Exercise does help build both the mind and body of puppies, but it must be appropriate. While exercise is important in the development of emotional response, learning and memory; inappropriate exercise can cause, major, permanent damage to a puppy.

Growth plates are areas at the ends of long bones that facilitate the growth that takes place until around eighteen months of age. They are soft and susceptible to injury until this time, when they will calcify and become part of the bone.

Dog bones, like human bones, are held together by soft tissue ....... tendons, ligaments and associated muscles. When an adult dog sustains an injury, the bone will hold firm and the soft tissue will be pulled or damaged, often resulting in a sprain. The soft tissue in puppies is stronger than the bone's growth plates, so the growth plate is more likely to be injured.

Our son injured the growth plate on the end of one of his long finger bones after being hit on the end of the finger with a fast cricket ball during a family cricket game when he was a young boy. It was a very painful ordeal, judging by his reaction. I'm sure our extended family thought he was a "huge" sook! It was extremely painful for a very long time and did not grow as straight or long as the matching finger on his other hand. Almost 20 years down the track it still "feels" different to his other fingers.

Damaging growth plates in puppies is a serious matter. They may not heal properly or may not heal in time to grow straight and strong bone. The result could be a shortened limb and this can result in the limb being at an incorrect angle to the joint. This can create a lack of "soundness" in the adult dog, leading to more injuries and veterinary issues.

Remember that puppies, like human babies, have softer bones. Approximately 50% of canine fractures occur in puppies less than one year old. Exercise that promotes twisting puts a puppy at greater risk of fracture.

Puppies aren't built for endurance, even if you gradually work on it (endurance training). You will notice in free play they may go flat out for a short period of time, then flop for a rest. This is as nature intended it to be.

Be mindful that appropriate exercise is good for your puppy and will promote increased bone density and stronger soft tissues. This means that appropriately exercised puppies grow into dogs less likely to have adult fractures.

Hopefully you're now thinking about what exercise is appropriate for puppies.

* The majority of exercise should be free play ...... exploring and mucking around until they are ready to flop down for a rest.

* Whilst not appreciated by many dog owners, digging is great exercise for a puppy. Creating a soft digging patch is a perfect idea. Buried "doggy treasures" are the perfect surprise for digging puppies! Puppies may even bury a few of their own surprises (eg. chicken necks)!

* Avoid long walks and runs until puppies are eighteen months old. Too much repetition of any exercise is the greatest cause of both growth plate and soft tissue injuries in puppies. When I'm walking about our property our dogs run flat out in excitement to begin with, stop to smell the roo poo, run slowly to find a good spot for a wee, rest in the shade of a tree or fence pole, swim in a dam, find some perfect, fresh horse poo to eat and roll in, chase a few birds who play the game, get left behind while doing a poo and then need to quickly catch up, chew a few strands of grass, run over to a dam or trough for a drink and so on.

* Noodling about in the back yard with you, short strolls with lots of sniffing, time out for some training etc are all good exercise techniques. When I'm outside, my dogs just muck about with me ....... feeding chooks and horses, watering gardens, fencing, hedging etc. I like them to be nearby, so there's lots of opportunity to practice recall. Every now and then I ask them to do something and they're all happy to oblige!

* Making a treat trail is a clever way to keep puppies active and interested at a natural rate. Make the path curve gently in the back yard, with treats every 30cm or so. This activity provides both mental and physical stimulation.

* Be sure to chose playmates that are of similar size and intensity to puppies. Body slams and crazy rolls can easily cause spiral fractures, despite how much they love them!

* Jumping onto and off furniture and into and out of cars is not desirable until well after eighteen months of age. They are actually things I tend to avoid completely.

* Similarly, stairs place strain on puppy's joints which may increase the incidence of hip dysplasia. One or two steps occasionally is a nice coordination exercise, however.

* Free play on gently rolling, varied, moderately soft ground prior to three months of age reduces the risk oh hip dysplasia. It makes backyard free play sound good!

* The range of puppy toys has become astounding. Rolling balls and pushing toys along the ground is far better than throwing for young puppies. Tug toys should not be pulled back or up. Puppies have delicate necks. A low, steady hold, while the puppy does the tugging is adequate.

IMPORTANTLY - if your puppy has their gonads (ovaries or testes) removed prior to eighteen months of age, there will be a delay in growth plate closure. It may be closer to two years before the closure takes place, requiring a more conservative approach to exercise.

Exercise Guide From Eight to Twelve Weeks:

* Limit walks to ten to fifty metres at a time; break it up with lots of sniffing and mucking about; limit leash training to a couple of minutes at a time.

* Informal sniff and stroll sessions can last up to 15 minutes.

* There is no time limit to self directed "treat trail" back yard fun.

* Puppy should only run during free play (no directed running).

* Climbing over small ground obstacles; no more than two obstacles in a row; wobble boards and unstable surfaces need to be low.

* Wading and playing on shorelines: climbing on and off platforms in shallow water; retrieving toys from shallow water; swimming if puppies volunteer.

* Only roll balls and push toys gently on the ground.

* Hold tug toys low to the ground so the puppy's neck is parallel to the ground; don't pull the toy - allow the puppy to tug.

* No fast turns, sudden stops or fast weaves

* Maximum of 15 minutes play with dogs not of the household; free access to other puppies and adult dogs of the household; rest periods can be enforced if puppy is clearly overdoing it.

Exercise Guide From Twelve to Sixteen Weeks:

* Extend walking time to fifty to seventy five metres, allowing the puppy to stop if they show any reluctance to continue; keep formal training to under two minutes.

* Informal sniff and stroll sessions can last up to twenty minutes.

Exercise Guide From Four to Six Months:

* Extend walks up to one hundred and twenty metres; let the puppy stop if they want to; limit formal training to under two minutes per session.

* Informal sniff and stroll can be increased to up to forty five minutes.

* Formal play dates can be increased to up to twenty minutes.

Exercise Guide From Six to Twelve Months:

* Limit walks on pavement.

* Gradually increase walks on fairly level grass and dirt to 30 minutes by 12 months of age.

* Introduce short hiking type walks (gentle hills) on the sniff and stroll basis, gradually increasing up to 30 minutes by 12 months of age.

* Up to 60 minutes sniff and stroll.

* No directed running (only free play running).

* Platform work for rear end awareness can be introduced slowly.

* Be vigilant in not allowing puppies to jump up and down from high furniture and vehicles. This is the age when most spiral fractures occur in puppies.

* Continue to only roll balls and drag toys.

* Tug toys should still be kept low and not pulled on.

* No fast turn or sudden stops but the puppy can slowly begin to weave in and out of poles.

* Up to 20 minutes play for "formal" play dates.

Exercise Guide From Twelve to Eighteen Months:

* Walks on pavement should still be kept short.

* Walks on dirt, grass or hiking type walks for up to 30 minutes.

* Up to 60 minutes sniffing and strolling.

* No directed running (only free play running).

* Platform work for rear end awareness can be continued.

* Be vigilant in not allowing puppies to jump up and down from high furniture and vehicles.

* Continue to only roll balls and drag toys.

* Tug toys should still be kept low and not pulled on.

* No fast turn or sudden stops but the puppy can continue to slowly weave in and out of poles.

* Up to 20 minutes play for "formal" play dates.

Exercise Guide From Eighteen Months to Two Years:

* Hikes and walks can be as long as rigorous as you and your dog like. Back off if your dog becomes reluctant or tired.

* While sniff and stroll walks are still great, they can be replaced with continuous walks.

* Running and endurance training can begin.

* Throwing balls and Frisbees can be commenced. Adjust accordingly.

* Tug toys can be held higher, but it is still best to only let the dog do the tugging.

* Twisting and turning activities can be introduced.

* Monitor free play with other dogs for too much exuberance.

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