Exercise and the young dog

By Dr Sandra Hassett ©
Knowing the risks

Between the ages of 4 months and 9 months the joints of young dogs are most vulnerable to damage and the potential for damage continues until they are skeletally mature at 15 to 22 months. Damage can take the form of joint laxity (hip dysplasia is an example), damage to cartilage, such as osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) and even fracture of portions of the bone forming the joints such as ununited anconeal process (UAP).

Damage done during the growing phase often has life-long consequences and in many instances cannot be corrected. It is always a tragedy to see a puppy’s potential for a long and pain-free life destroyed for want of a little care in their first year. Critical factors in minimising potential damage include weight control, proper diet and exercise. In this article we are going to discuss the tricky issue of exercise.

We want our young dogs to socialize and learn to be physically coordinated. We need their muscles and tendons to strengthen as this is very important in preventing injury. We need to give them physical and mental activity so they can develop. Young dogs are particularly difficult to manage if they do not have adequate outlets for their energy, often becoming over-excitable and destructive. But we don’t want them to harm themselves.

The benefits of walking

The best form of exercise is loose-lead walking, with the focus on going slowly and allowing them to explore. Allow plenty of time for sniffing as this is mental exercise as well and tiring the brain tires the dog without risking physical damage. Take them to lots of new places so their brains as well as their bodies develop. The aim is not to go fast, just keep moving. If the ground is a bit uneven or the grass is a bit long so much the better as they need to learn to adjust their stride length and balance themselves. However, avoid any ground that is too rough, slippery or unstable and avoid hard surfaces such as footpaths.

Take advantage of the fenced areas at the Club but go when it is quiet and you can have a paddock to yourself (1). Praise and reward them when they come to you and make yourself interesting by having toys, treats and interacting with them. If you cannot control your young dog off-lead then consider an extendable lead, a long line or two leads clipped together (2). Multiple, shorter walks are best for young dogs: 2-3 walks a day of up to twenty minutes depending on their age, size and maturity. They should still be moving well at the end of the walk, not looking tired or moving slowly. They should not look stiff or tired when they wake up from rest after the walk.


Playing with other dogs is good for developing physical coordination and agility but running around with other dogs is not good. Though the dogs love to do it they easily over-do it. Restricting the area in which they can play is the easiest solution.

On lead or in a small enclosure or a room inside (providing the flooring is not slippery) is ideal. Think more wrestling than running (remember force equals mass times acceleration – the slower they go the less force on their joints). You can also manipulate the playtime so that it is during a warmer part of the day or at the end of a walk so that they are not as energetic and over-excited.

Other activities

It is very important for puppies to learn balance, coordination and how to use their core. This not only sets them up for future athletic challenges but also helps minimise the stress on their joints. It is best done by short (5-30 seconds) sessions on unstable surfaces such as a fit disc, fit bones, or bosu balls. They can practise front paws on only, all paws on, back paws on only, changing position, reaching for treats etc. These can be taught through shaping as simple tricks. Low-set obstacle courses are also fun – walk along a plank on the ground, step over poles (jump bars) laid on the ground etc.

Swimming is also excellent exercise but should not be overdone and needs to be closely supervised especially with young puppies. Take care with entry and exit points to ensure they are not slippery or uneven. Of course, our Canberra climate limits swimming for much of the year. Even better is walking in the water – ideally about the height of the point of their shoulder. It is easy to track this – just note it against your own leg and walk into the water with them at that depth. Take some treats and toys that float as well. Once or twice weekly is ideal.

Bad activities for young dogs include:

  • Jumping – this includes on or off anything higher than their elbow and ideally anything higher than their carpus (wrist). Stairs, walls, kennels, beds, couches, cars – they are all bad. Lift the puppy, block off risky areas of the yard, use baby gates in the house to prevent access to stairs.
  • Fence running – rapid acceleration and abrupt braking and turning are very bad for a dog’s joints, not to mention encouraging antisocial behaviour. Again, it is important to puppy-proof your yard so this type of activity does not occur.
  • Ball games, Frisbee etc are similar to fence running in the potential for damage. We know dogs love to do these types of activities, but you need to wait until they are skeletally mature. When they are puppies, you can roll the toy along the ground, hide it and teach the puppy to search for it, play catch, play tug (but not too hard) etc. Select toys that don’t skitter and bounce unpredictably, or larger balls that they can push around rather than pick up.
  • Running with other dogs – so much fun but so much potential for harm. The faster they go and the more excited they are the more likely they are to hurt each other. Be especially careful with dogs of uneven size and age – the smaller and younger dog is generally more vulnerable to damage. As mentioned above – keep them on lead or in a confined space when socialising.
  • Jogging, running beside bikes etc – any activity where they are forced to continue to move at a pace faster than a walk can be potentially damaging to young dogs. They do not need the repetitious pounding on their joints and they need to be able to change pace and rest if needed.
  • Pulling on lead – constantly straining at the end of leash is not good for the dog – or the handler for that matter! Training and appropriate aids are all good solutions but avoid no-pull harnesses that restrict their shoulder movement as they need to establish their normal stride patterns when young (3).
  • Slippery surfaces – so much damage can be done to joints when dogs slip and slide. If the ground is wet or frosty then don’t let them run around. If you have slippery floors, such as tiles or wooden floorboards then don’t let your dog run or play on them, or better yet put down rugs or non-slip mats for them to walk along. This applies to adults as well as young dogs.

With a little bit of thought and preparation it is possible to manage your young dog’s activity so that they grow and develop physically and mentally without damaging themselves along the way. Then you can both enjoy years of vigorous and pain-free activity!




  1. Access to the grounds is restricted to financial members.
  2. Please note that extendable (retractable) leads may not be used on the Club grounds during training sessions.
  3. Restrictive harnesses generally have a ‘T’ profile when viewed side-on or an ‘H’’ profile when viewed front-on.


Image: Irish Red and White Setter ‘Trouble’ (4 months old), Anne Robertson ©


Dr Sandra Hassett (Canine Rehabilitation Canberra) is a Life Member of the Club.