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Advice on Age-Appropriate Exercise for Dogs

How do we know what’s the best physical activity for our dogs, and just how much exercise do they really need? Many owners ask these simple questions, but the answer is more complex. 

Sarah McFarlane from Canine Balance is a qualified dog therapist with twenty years of experience and she shares her advice to ensure your dogs live a long, active and pain-free life. 

What is age-appropriate exercise for dogs?

Like humans, dogs require regular exercise to maintain ideal weight and good mental health. There are many forms of physical activity or exercise your dog can do safely, which allows them to actively engage with other dogs and people, teaches them lifelong social skills, and familiarises them with their natural environment.

However, to prevent injury, you must consider what is the right level of activity for your dog. Whether pure breed, mixed breed, puppy, adult, or senior, all dogs need appropriate physical exercise. The simplest and safest method to determine your dog’s appropriate level of exercise is to consider their:

  • Age - be mindful to set boundaries; overrunning, overworking, and overtraining dogs are common mistakes
  • Health - a dog’s health or injury status requires proper assessment and may require raising or lowering activity levels to suit, or perhaps ceasing activity temporarily or permanently.
  • Breed - activity requirements vary, depending on the breed or group a dog belongs to (e.g. working, herding, sporting or gun dogs, and toy or companion dogs) and 
  • Individual personality - each dog has its own personality and preference as to what type and level of exercise it enjoys. 
Whilst size may also be considered, it is not a reliable indicator of a dog’s activity needs.

What you do today affects your dog in the long term


Canine Balance regularly treats older dogs that were over-walked as puppies, perhaps walked for an hour or more, and are now suffering in their senior years. 

Just last week, a 4-month-old puppy presented to us in pain, having recently been walked for an hour and a distance of two kilometres! As owners and trainers, it is your responsibility to be mindful of what is appropriate for your dog.

Mack's Story


Mack was a lovable 16-month old Boxer, who competed in sports events, was allowed to run around till his heart’s content, and play rough-and-tumble with his doggy mates at the park. He would pant and slobber, but always seemed to be smiling. 


At just 5 years old he began struggling to raise himself off the floor, following a bout of exercise, and would occasionally yelp when cuddled. His owner was naturally concerned.

There was no apparent injury, yet Mack was clearly suffering.  Tests revealed he had early-onset canine arthritis, most likely caused from overusing joints and ligaments since a pup, as well as inappropriate rough play for his young body, and Mack was treated accordingly. 

Thankfully, the story of Mack is just that – a story. But all too often, it is real. 



Thinking he was giving the dog what it craved, the owner did more harm than good. 


As an owner or trainer, it is your responsibility to consider all aspects of exercising and training your dog. In fact, there is a lot to think about to avoid your dog’s needless pain and suffering and, of course, costly vet bills. 

Meanwhile, here is a simple guide to assist you when considering what’s appropriate exercise for your dog based on their age.

#1. Puppies:


It is vital we start out correctly with our puppy. For the first 12-18 months, young dogs undergo significant physical changes. During this time, they’re eager, full of vitality, whilst their bodies are growing rapidly

As puppy owners, we sometimes watch as they run till their tongue is elongated, endure body-slamming, often with bigger dogs, jump in and out of vehicles, or on and off couches, and undergo repeated training drills.

“But they love it!” we hear you say. That may be true … until someone gets hurt. Overuse or misuse of a young dog’s body during training or play can cause a variety of issues, including injury to growth plates and long-term chronic injury to the spine, known as lumbosacral disease. Intense activity should be avoided during this important stage of development and until their growth plates have closed.

How much is enough? 


It is paramount we set appropriate training and exercise boundaries for our puppies. How much is dependent on the type of exercise your puppy receives

1) 1 to 2 minutes of balance work or formal skills training or
2) up to 30 minutes of short, slow walks. 

Other exercises vary in length and restrictions, accordingly, such as free play and tugging
For the first six months, young puppies should not be exercised with the purpose of increasing their strength or endurance

As owners, our objective should be to allow natural play, i.e. self-directed play. Any direct running or jumping, indoor stairs, fast turns and sudden stops, weaves, or lure coursing should be avoided. Jumping onto high objects such as vehicles or furniture, should be discouraged.

#2. Adolescents: 


As your puppy approaches adulthood, their muscles, ligaments and tendons are continuing to develop, so it is crucial we recognize the need to gradually increase frequency, duration and intensity of activity or exercise, in order to prevent injury. Your adolescent dog is able to complete most activities in moderation, including some high intensity, short duration exercises.

#3. Adults: 


Your dog is considered an adult when it reaches 2 years of age - it is now at an age to walk, run, chase, jump, swim, compete, perform endurance training, tug higher, twist, and turn. Be aware, your dog’s soft tissues are still maturing until 3 years of age.

If your dog spends much of its time indoors, or home alone, it will be itching to release pent-up energy. Exercising your dog is a crucial means of releasing all that energy, while stimulating their mental capacities and keeping them from getting bored. 

A variety of exercise, work and play is important, too, particularly for certain breeds, providing them with an opportunity to express instinctive behaviours. 

A perfectly balanced exercise program comprises strength (anaerobic) training, which targets forelimbs, pelvic limbs and/or core body muscles, endurance (aerobic) drills, proprioception, balance, flexibility, and skills training. 



The program should balance duration, frequency, and intensity of training/working while avoiding overtraining/overworking (M.C. Zink 2013).

Although your dog is an adult now, you still need to be vigilant. 
Common mistakes owners make include running them until they are overheated, or repeating training drills until they get them right. 

As with humans, overtraining or overrunning your dog can cause strain on muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which can lead to serious injury and health issues. 

Exercise requirements differ for each dog, so what is appropriate? 


Your dog should spend anything from 30 minutes to two hours on an activity each day, based on their age, breed, size, and overall health. If your dog is in good health and a breed from the hunting, working, or herding groups, it should be enduring no less than 30 minutes of rigorous exercise, aside from its 1-2 hours of regular daily activity.

For other dogs, establishing their needs isn't so easy, as their requirements differ according to breed. Less active or older dogs may have pre-existing conditions which slow them down, such as excess weight, injury, or aching joints and muscles. However, they still require some activity to maintain a healthy body and mind


Begin exercising your dog slowly, observing its response, and gradually add more activities or longer distance, as it improves and gets stronger. Your dog should be happily tired, not exhausted, once it has completed its exercise.

#4. Seniors: 


It is important to keep exercising older dogs to maintain their physical and mental health. Shorter, frequent periods of low impact activities, e.g. swimming, hydrotherapy and slow walking three times a day, are ideal. 
Making adjustments to your senior dog’s exercise regime enables it to enjoy the benefits of exercise, whilst loosening their stiffened joints, without causing discomfort or pain. Consider 3 x 15-minute sessions per day, reducing according to age and health.

As a dog ages, its hind limbs become weaker and it may experience health issues such as arthritis or muscular and joint pain. Older dogs should remain on the floor, rather than be allowed to jump on and off furniture, to avoid pain and injury. 



If your senior dog persists, consider providing aids e.g. ramps or steps, to assist getting in and out of vehicles, and on and off furniture. 

A harness is helpful for owners to assist their senior dog to stand, lie down, or get through their daily exercise routine. Make sure they’re kept warm or cool, away from stairs, and off slippery floors, too. 

REMEMBER:

Before commencing your dog’s exercise program, ensure you visit your veterinarian first for a health check.


Canine Balance wants the best for your dog, just like you. 
For more information on age-appropriate exercise workshops, as well as individual, tailored exercise programs for your dog, please visit www.caninebalance.com.au

written by Sarah McFarlane, April 2019 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

Sarah McFarlane is passionate about helping dogs feel happy and free with their health, mobility and well-being. In her experience living with 3 Border Collies has proven that a combination of correct diet, exercise and therapy leads to a healthy active lifestyle for both people and dogs.

Accreditation with the US acclaimed Canine Rehabilitation Institute and a “Canine Myofunctional Therapy” certificate (Australia), trained under Australia’s pioneer in physiotherapy and currently shadowing Peter Schofield in K9 Muscle Manipulation, Sarah prides herself on being a qualified dog therapist.



With over 20 years of experience, Sarah specialises in how to find body imbalances or issues, easing and eliminating the dog’s pain or problem in a natural way. Sarah provides specialty services such as canine massage therapy, neurofacial release, canine rehabilitation therapeutic exercises, cross fit training including stretching exercises, gait analysis and provides workshops Australia wide.
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