Puppy Running
After a long day at the beach or a few hours at the dog park, do you ever wonder whether your pup has overdone it?

Maybe you’re raising an athlete — for agility trials, dock diving or duck hunting, for example — and you’ve been told to keep certain activities at a minimum. But what does “minimal” mean? Which kinds of activities should you avoid? How much exercise is too much?

A Wealth of Opinions, Few Clear Answers

As the proud owner of an athletic working dog and an amateur runner looking to help baby work out her energies on anything but my sofa, you can bet I’ve been researching this issue lately. And what I’ve learned may surprise you: Though opinions on this issue abound (indeed, it seems as if every veterinarian, every trainer, every breeder and every owner has an opinion on this one), the truth is that we don’t have all the answers. In fact, we have precious few definitive findings on this particular topic.

What’s up with that, you ask? Aren’t all you veterinarians trained to know how much stress and strain the canine body can take as it’s developing?

Sure, vet school taught us the basics of exercise physiology, but we never got treated to a complete picture of our canine patients’ exercise tolerance — much less our pediatric patients’. There’s just too much to learn about everything else to expect a polished profile of every subject — more so seeing as every issue evolves over time to reflect its newest findings.

And when the topic in question suffers not only from a thin stream of research but also from a dearth of definition on the human side, too, it only makes sense that these puppy questions might reasonably warrant a collective veterinary shrug.

Spreading Alarm on the Internet

Think about it: Mixed opinions on the subject of when it’s best to start seriously training your child for x, y or z sport seem to procreate on the Internet, amplified by mommy blogs and athletic sites and only to mushroom whenever tragedy strikes. (“If only we’d waited, Britney might’ve been an Olympian!”) 

Add the Internet fear factor to the well-deserved concern over the higher incidence of developmental orthopedic disorders in large breed dogs and it should come as no surprise that pontification — often the dogmatic kind — flourishes on the subject of pediatric fitness.

Curious? Here’s what you’ll read:

  • No running on hard surfaces
  • No jumping or twisting
  • No playing with other dogs
  • No stick or ball chasing
  • No more than 10 minutes of exercise at a stretch
  • No more than a half-mile walk at a time
And the most common (and commonsensical) veterinary answer:

  • No “forced” exercise until her growth plates close (18-24 months)

owner and dog sitting

Few Studies on the Effects of Exercise

Now, I know that people mean well when they deliver safety-based recommendations. But any way you slice it, that’s a lot of "no." More so than I tend to come across in my research on most any puppy issue. And all, it seems, are based on only two small studies:

  • One found that exercise (more specifically, playing with other dogs) was a risk factor for osteochondritis dissecans (a joint condition that afflicts young, growing dogs) in 60 dogs.
  • Another looked at exercise as one of several risk factors for hip dysplasia and elbow arthrosis in 324 Swedish Labrador Retrievers and found that some types of exercise (such as stick and ball chasing, in particular) were risk factors for both disorders.
Though they’re far from offering any sort of definitive answer on the issue of safe exercise for pediatric dogs, these studies appear to have influenced a generation of veterinarians, breeders and pet owners with their negativity. How else to explain the preponderance of fear-based emails on the issue? (I’ve received a ream of these over the years.)

It Depends on the Individual Puppy

As you might have guessed by now, as a veterinarian and a new puppy owner, I have a problem with this scenario.

For starters, I can’t seem to reconcile these recommendations with the reality of owning an active puppy. I mean, I’d never sleep if she didn’t spend half the day running the fence line with the neighbor’s dog, exhaust herself in puppy kindergarten and then wind down by playing with the pack inside at night. She’d be impossible to handle, bundle of raw energy that she is.

For more insight, I contacted Dr. Marc Wosar, MSpVM, DACVS, an orthopedic specialist and faculty member of AOVet, an international organization that promotes research and education on musculoskeletal disorders in animals.

"Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules in these cases," Dr. Wosar says. "It’s actually a big issue for our equine colleagues who have to deal with these issues all the time when it comes to training racehorses and other equine athletes."

"On the one hand, we know wolf pups run with their packs for miles. On the other, we know that the risks for a sedentary puppy with a weekend-warrior exercise pattern are worse than for a puppy that gets continuous, self-regulated exercise," Dr. Wosar says.

"Ultimately, we have to balance what’s best for a pup’s behavior with what’s best for her growing and developing anatomy and physiology. And since we’re not sure what that is, we have to make approximate recommendations based on an individual dog’s breed, energy level, behavioral needs and risk of developmental diseases that may be affected by exercise," he adds. "That’s why new pup owners should always consult with their veterinarian on this issue."

A Rational Approach

To my way of seeing things, it all comes down to common sense. In the absence of any hard and fast rules, caution makes sense, but attention to the positives of exercise — even what some may consider a great deal of it — deserves more than its current role as mere afterthought in this debate.

After all, given the sad state of pet obesity in this country and the legions of pets laboring under its weight, I can’t help but think the question should be less about the theoretical “How much is too much?” and more about the rock-solid knowledge that too little exercise over a lifetime can kill.

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