All dogs need daily exercise and mental stimulation. But how much does your dog need each day? And are there dangers to too much exercise? Keep reading to find out how to design a safe and stimulating exercise routine for your pet.
"How often and long should I walk my dog?"
It seems like a simple question. Surely you just need to walk enough for him to go to the toilet, get some mental stimulation and tire himself out? Easy.
It's not that simple though - unfortunately!
All dogs need exercise, but how much varies depending on the individual. The breed is a major factor - an energetic Border Collie is obviously going to need longer walks than a pug. It also depends on your dog's health, age, size and energy levels.
This can make it difficult for dog owners to know how much exercise to provide. Too little, and the dog becomes bored, destructive and unhealthy. Too much and you risk damage to joints and exhaustion.
That's why I've put together this in-depth guide to exercising your dog. You'll learn why exercise is important, how much your dog is likely to need and tips for both physical and mental stimulation. I've also included common dangers when walking. So, let's get started!
Before I go any further though, here's an important disclaimer: Always check with your vet before starting a new exercise program. Your dog's health history, breed, age and any current health problems affect whether a certain type of exercise is safe. Your vet knows your dog and can provide more accurate recommendations.
Why is Exercise Important for Dogs?
If you ever need reminding how much dogs love exercise, just show them their leash or harness. Most dogs will leap off their bed and wag their tail in excitement. Even lazy dogs usually enjoy a brisk walk or short ball throwing session.
Daily walks aren't just fun though. Exercise provides a host of important benefits, such as:
- Lowers the Chance of Obesity. Obesity isn't just a growing problem for humans - it's affecting an increasing number of dogs too. Even moderate obesity can reduce the lifespan of your pet. This is because it can cause chronic inflammation, digestive problems, skin disorders, and even cancer. Regular exercise is an important tool for reducing the chance of obesity.
- Improves Physical Condition. Just like humans, dogs need regular exercise to stay in good condition. Canines are active animals - especially as many breeds were bred for high activity levels. A lack of exercise can lead to decreased lean muscle strength and weaker bones.
- Reduces Destructive Behaviors. If your dog chews, scratches, barks excessively or generally behaves in a destructive way, he might not be getting enough exercise. Dogs that can't burn energy on a walk will find creative (and annoying) alternative methods!
- Prevents Boredom. A bored dog isn't just more likely to be destructive - it's also less happy and fulfilled. It's important our dogs get enough physical and mental stimulation throughout the day. This can partly be achieved by allowing your dog to spend time in the garden (possibly with a dog door), but this can't substitute a proper walk.
- Provides Challenging Training Opportunities. Walking is a great time to practice obedience. The outdoors provides smells and other distractions for a dog, so it's a more challenging environment for training. Some behaviors, such as polite leash walking, can also only be taught on walks. Outdoor training sessions are also great for mental stimulation.
- May Help Prevent Arthritis. A sedentary lifestyle causes muscle and other important tissue to degenerate. It also encourages the development of adipose tissue (fat) which can cause inflammation. For this reason, exercise is important even for dogs that are at risk of arthritis - although you need to be careful about the amount and type of exercise.
Dog walking isn't just great for your pet. A study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found dog owners are up to 34% more likely to meet minimum requirements for exercise. The researchers even found people with dogs get more exercise that isn't dog walking.
It wasn't all good news though. The study showed a large percentage of dog owners - around 39% - didn't walk their dogs for more than 10 minutes at a time. For most pets (or humans), this simply isn't enough.
Some Terrifying Stats...
It's Estimated That
Overweight Dogs May Live Up To
What Counts as Exercise?
As humans, we've accepted that exercise itself can be a goal. We're happy to run on treadmills to burn calories or use a skipping rope to improve our physical fitness. We don't perform these activities because they are fun or important (most of the time) - they are just a time-efficient way of staying in shape.
Dogs usually don't agree with this way of thinking! That's why letting your dog in the back yard for an hour doesn't count as exercise. Most dogs will sniff a bit, before settling down to either rest or guard their territory. The concept of running laps to burn off energy probably won't occur to your pet.
In other words, dogs need continuous stimulation for exercise.
A good walk provides this, as there are endless new smells and sounds to see. Playing fetch or spending time outside with another dog can also provide stimulation.
Why Mental Stimulation Isn't the Same as Physical Exercise
It's important for dogs to get both mental and physical stimulation on a daily basis. This prevents boredom and reduces destructive behavior.
Luckily, many forms of exercise provide mental stimulation. Going on a leisurely stroll, for example, gives your dog plenty of chance to sniff new smells and meet other dogs. Canine agility classes are also great for mental stimulation, as your dog needs to listen to commands while navigating obstacles.
This isn't the case for all activities though. Playing fetch, for example, is great for burning energy - but it doesn't provide a mental challenge.
This is another reason why spending time in the back yard isn't a substitute for exercise. While your dog might have space to exercise, there are no new smells or places to explore.
How Much Exercise Does Your Dog Need?
As a general guideline, a dog should spend at least 30 minutes to 2 hours exercising each day. This doesn't need to be in one go. In fact, it's usually better to split exercise into several sessions to avoid over-tiredness.
How can you tell how much exercise your dog should be getting though?
All breeds need exercise to relieve stress and improve well-being, but the amount varies greatly.
Breeds with high energy, such as Labradors or Border Collies, need up to two hours of exercise each day. A gentle walk isn't enough for these dogs either - you need to mix in some high-intensity activities.
Lower energy breeds, such as Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs and English Bulldogs still need exercise, but they can make do with around 20-40 minutes per day. One or two short walks and some indoor games is usually plenty for these dogs.
The table below gives some guidelines for how much exercise many popular breeds need. You'll need to adjust the time depending on other factors though (see below).
Bichon Frise, Lhasa Apso, Pug, Shih Tzu
20 minutes + indoor play
Miniature Dachshund, Yorkshire Terrier, English Bulldog
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Cairn Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, Great Dane, Miniature Schnauzer, Toy/Miniature Poodles, Shetland Sheepdog
Bassett Hound, Tibetan Terrier, Whippet, West Highland Terrier
Golden Retriever, Siberian Husky
Border Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Border Collie, Dalmatian, German Shepherd, English Springer Spaniel, Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler, Weimaraner
More than 2 hours
Data provided by the Peoples Dispensary for Sick Animals. Please keep in mind that the exercise amount is a guideline only - it varies depending on the dog's size, physical fitness, health, age and other factors.
Of course, many dogs are cross or mixed-breeds. You can still use the above guidelines though - just look at the parent breeds. Some additional tips include:
- The shorter your dog's legs, the less distance you need to travel on your daily walks.
- Use common sense to judge whether a dog is getting enough exercise. If he's pacing around the house, even after exercise, then he's probably not getting enough. If he's exhausted after walks, then you might want to reduce the amount or split it into two shorter sessions. Some dogs will even refuse to go out - which is probably a sign he's getting over-tired!
- Short nosed dogs, such as boxers, often struggle with vigorous exercise. They may require more sedate walks than breeds such as the Border Collie.
- Toy breeds and those that are brachycephalic (squashed face) can tire very quickly. Be careful and talk to your vet before increasing or changing exercise. Puppies also tend to get tired much faster than adult dogs.
- Remember that mental stimulation isn't always the same as physical. You need to provide both for your dog's well-being. Even allowing your dog to sniff on a walk can provide more stimulation than forcing him to walk at your pace.
As a general rule, young dogs need more exercise than older ones of the same breed. As dogs get older, they can suffer from achy joints or stiff muscles. They may also just have less energy.
For these reasons, elderly dogs may need as little as half the exercise they did when they were younger. Try to limit vigorous exercise, shorten walks and throw the ball a few less times.
Older dogs may also struggle more in extreme weather. Heat places additional strain on the heart, which causes the dog to tire quicker. Cold temperatures are also more uncomfortable for elderly dogs. Clothing such as boots and sweaters can help though.
Most importantly, be sensible and take notice of your elderly dog's body language and behavior. If he noticeably slows on walks, refuses to go out or clearly doesn't want to walk further, take note and change your plans. Also look for warning signs such as excessive panting, drooling, limping, reluctance to walk or coughing.
Never force your old dog to walk more or faster than he wants, because he will do it just to please you. Your dog's body will tell him how much exercise he needs - but his priority will be to keep up with you. You're his entire life, so the thought of being left behind can make a dog push through pain when he really needs to rest.
The need for mental stimulation doesn't change for older dogs though. In fact, you might want to spend even more time on indoor activities such as hide and seek, tug of war and obedience training. This helps to prevent boredom.
When Does a Dog Become "Old?"
The age when a dog becomes "old" varies depending on the breed. For most breeds, you should start reducing exercise between 6-8 years old. Shorter-lived breeds may need shorter walks and less exercise at a younger age.
As always, if you're not sure how much exercise your dog needs at a certain age, you should ask your vet. He or she will be able to provide advice depending on your dog's health and physical condition.
What About Puppies?
Puppies might be bundles of energy and full of the "zoomies", but they have less stamina than full-grown dogs. Their bones are also not fully developed. For this reason, they shouldn't be taken on long walks or jogging, as these can be too hard on their joints. Instead, they should be allowed to play and run at their own pace.
According to The Kennel Club, puppies should get five minutes of exercise per month of age, up to twice each day. So a four month-old puppy could have 20-minutes of exercise twice in a day. This is a good guideline, although you may need to adjust it depending on your puppy's requirements.
Health and Physical Condition
Medical conditions can affect how much exercise your dog should have each day. This is why it's important to speak to your vet to get personal recommendations for your dog's exercise levels.
Some of the most common considerations include:
- Current Weight. If your dog is overweight, exercise is important to help him slim down. You need to take things slowly though. Forcing an overweight and unfit dog to engage in vigorous activities and long walks can cause additional problems. Instead, split walks into shorter sessions that your dog will enjoy.
- Arthritis and Other Joint Problems. Dogs with arthritis still need to exercise, but a long walk may be too aggravating on their joints. Providing shorter walks more frequently can help ease pain.
- Size. Large and heavy dogs usually shouldn't go jogging with their owners, as repeated impacts can damage joints. The same goes for puppies.
- Physical Disabilities. Dogs that have lost a limb or are handicapped in other ways still need exercise! You need to be careful about over-exercising a dog in a wheelchair or cart, however, so ask a vet how much is safe for the dog. A harness to support the back legs can be useful if your dog is suffering from hind-leg weakness.
- Reduced Eyesight, Smell and Hearing. As dogs get older their senses can deteriorate. For this reason, it's best to stick to familiar walks, as the dog is likely to feel safer and more relaxed.
It's also important to build up your dog's stamina when starting a new exercise program. If your pet is used to being a lazy couch-dog, he'll struggle with long and vigorous walks. Start with shorter walks and increase the length slowly, while keeping an eye on your dog's health and behavior.
A Guide to the Perfect Walk
One of the best things about owning a dog is the extra motivation to get fresh air and exercise. Sometimes walking can seem like a chore - especially after a long day at work. But even a short jaunt around the block can improve your mood and energy levels.
Many dog owners don't make the most of walks though. The result is that walks aren't as enjoyable as they could be for either you or your pet.
This is partly because dogs and owners have different goals for walks. Dogs enjoy exploring a new environment (usually with their nose), socializing and burning energy. Owners want to provide a chance for the dog to go to the toilet, physical exercise, mental stimulation and training.
There is some overlap between the two sets of goals, but it's important that all are provided on a dog walk. Here are some tips for achieving this:
- Plan a route that allows for time off-leash (if possible). Not all dogs are suitable for off-leash walking. For those that are, try to plan routes that allow for at least some time off-leash. Dogs tend to sniff and explore more when given extra freedom, which provides extra mental stimulation. Be careful if your dog is off-leash around children though - and never let him out of your sight.
- Give your dog plenty of time to sniff. Even if your dog isn't off-leash, give him lots of opportunity to sniff and investigate. Dogs rely on their sense of smell much more than humans, so this provides lots of mental stimulation.
- Develop a routine. Shorter daily walks are much better than a single longer walk every few days. Walking each day stops your dog getting bored and can prevent loss of muscle tone.
- Vary your walks. Even dogs that love walks will start to get bored if you use the same one or two routes each day. Repetitive routes are much better than no exercise, but they don't provide as much mental stimulation. For this reason, try to vary your walks. You'll find it more interesting too!
- Use a Harness. Unless your dog is perfectly behaved on a leash, I recommend using a harness rather than a flat collar. Flat collars can cause damage to the trachea, neck and back if your dog pulls.
- Plan varied routes. The ideal walking route provides different types of stimulation. Aside from plenty of undergrowth or bushes to sniff, a good route also has a large area for fetch or free running. If possible, there should be a chance for socialization with dogs or humans. Don't be afraid to vary your pace either.
Fun Ways to Exercise Your Dog
Most of your dog's exercise is likely to come from daily walks. But there are plenty of other fun ways to provide exercise and mental stimulation.
Fetch provides intense aerobic exercise. Make sure the ball isn't too small though, as it can be a choking hazard.
Agility classes combine physical exercise with mental stimulation. They are also great for bonding with your pet.
Swimming is low-impact, so it can be great for dogs with joint pain. Dry him quickly and keep sessions short though.
Rub a favorite toy on the floor at regular intervals, then hide it at the end. Get your dog to sniff it out with a treat as a reward.
Many dogs love to meet either humans or dogs (or both!) This means socializing is great for preventing boredom.
Treadmills can be useful for high-energy dogs or rehabilitation. They require special training though - and can't substitute a walk.
Obedience training builds a stronger bond with your dog and provides mental stimulation. It's best in short sessions though.
Are There Types of Exercise You Should Avoid?
The most important thing when exercising your dog is safety. I've included a section on this below, but some types of exercise are more dangerous than others.
This often isn't because of the activity itself, but because dogs don't always know when to stop. Many dogs will run to the point of exhaustion or heat stroke to please you. I always worry when people cycle with their dogs, for example, as often the dogs are running at a fast pace to avoid being left behind.
For this reason, make sure you build up a new exercise routine slowly - especially if it involves jogging or cycling. Keep a close eye on your dog and watch for symptoms of tiredness, panting, drooling or a loss of coordination. If your dog starts to slow down, stop immediately and give a drink. Finally, never force your dog to keep up with you - always go at a pace that's comfortable for him.
Indoor Games for Mental Stimulation
Indoor games are great for providing extra mental stimulation. They are particularly useful for older dogs or when weather conditions don't allow for a full walk.
Some of my top recommendations include:
- Food-Stuffed Toys. Nothing gets most dogs excited like a Kong filled with peanut butter. The challenge of getting every last drop provides plenty of mental stimulation. Some people go a step further and feed their dog every meal using a food dispensing toy.
- Hide and Seek. Show a toy to your dog then ask him to wait. Hide the toy somewhere in the house and get him to find it. Dogs love using their sense of smell for games - especially if they get a treat as a reward (just don't over-do the treats!)
- Tug of War. This classic doggy game is great for providing a physical challenge without leaving the house. Don't let the game get out of hand though - and use it to teach the "give" command.
- Shell Game. Take two plastic cups and turn them over. Make sure you have your dog's attention, then put a treat under one of the cups. On your cue, let your dog touch one of the cups. If he gets it right, give him the treat. If he gets it wrong, show him his mistake but don't give him the treat. Dogs tend to find this very challenging to begin with - but they'll quickly learn and it provides great mental stimulation. Once your dog finds it too easy, start moving the cups around after you place the treat.
- Trick Training. Learning a new trick requires lots of concentration and brain power. It's also a fun way for you to bond with your dog.
For more ideas, take a look at our guide to the best indoor games for dogs.
Safety When Exercising
Making sure your dog gets enough exercise is vital - but so is making sure your pup stays safe. Here are some important things to remember when walking or exercising your dog.
Weather Conditions (Hot or Cold)
It may not be safe to walk your dog in extremely hot weather. Dogs can suffer from heat exhaustion when walking in hot temperatures, which can be fatal. This is most common in older dogs, puppies or those with dark coats - but it can happen to any dog.
In hot conditions, either shorten the walk or use indoor forms of mental and physical stimulation. Try to walk in the early morning or evening when temperatures are lower. You may also want to read our guide to keeping dogs cool in the summer.
Cold weather can also be dangerous, so be careful when walking in the snow or below freezing temperatures. Dogs with short coats, such as greyhounds, can find cold conditions particularly difficult.
Like hot conditions, shorten walks in cold weather. Salted streets can cut paw pads, so dog boots are essential for walking on pavements. Dog sweaters can keep your dog at a more comfortable temperature in the cold.
Just like humans, one of the biggest dangers for dogs when exercising is dehydration. For this reason, make sure you always bring water with you on a long walk - even if you don't think you'll need it.
The amount of water your dog needs depends on his size. Larger dogs need more water, but the quantity depends on the level of activity, temperature and length of walk.
You don't want to give your dog too much water though. Over-hydration can cause nausea and vomiting - especially on a strenuous walk. That's why it's best to provide small amounts of water on a regular basis when walking.
Never Exercise After Food (Bloat)
Gastric dilatation and volvulus (otherwise known as "bloat") is a serious condition that can cause death in dogs. When a dog has bloat, the stomach twists before filling up with gas. This can affect breathing and blood flow to the heart - and can even lead to stomach rupture.
There are a number of potential causes of bloat, but one is exercising after eating large amounts of food.
For this reason, do not allow your dog to exercise (including playing with another dog) for at least two hours after a meal.
The symptoms of bloat are a swollen stomach, panting, drooling and pacing. Some dogs will also whimper or make other sounds that indicate pain. Vomiting without bringing anything up is another common symptom.
If you think your dog has bloat, you must visit a vet immediately - even if it's the middle of the night and you need to pay for an emergency appointment. You can't do anything to help at home, as surgery is often the only option (although sometimes other treatments can be used). If left untreated it can cause death, so don't take any chances.
If you walk after dusk, it's important for your dog to wear a reflective harness or collar. This makes it much easier for cars to see him. For extra visibility, you can even get collars with LED lights.
Make sure you're wearing reflective clothing too!
Don't Throw Sticks
A time-honored game for dog owners is stick throwing. It's a convenient alternative if you don't have a ball with you - and seems to be a great way to provide extra exercise on a walk.
So what's the problem?
Many vets don't recommend throwing sticks as they might splinter. When your dog grabs them, the splinters can get stuck deep in your pet's throat and mouth.
For this reason, I always recommend using a ball instead of a stick. Make sure the ball is too big to fit down your dog's throat - otherwise he might accidentally swallow it.
- Portable Pet Water Carrier With Bowl. Carrying water is essential when on long walks. A portable water carrier that converts into a fold-out bowl is much more convenient than a separate bottle and bowl.
- Dog Booties. Dogs have tough paw pads, but they can still be hurt by hot pavements, salt and sharp rocks. A pair of boots can protect paws without limiting movement (check out our page of the best boots for dogs for more information).
- High-Quality Reflective Harness. While a sedate dog may happily walk on a flat collar, if your dog pulls (even occasionally) then a harness is a safer choice. Harnesses spread force across the shoulders and chest, rather than concentrating it on the neck. It's vital to buy a tough, durable and high-quality harness though - and it should have reflective strips if you walk after dusk. Take a look at our page of the best dog harnesses for an in-depth guide to choosing the right one for your pet.
- Food-hiding Toy. One of the easiest ways to provide mental stimulation at home is with a food-hiding toy. Kong is the most popular brand, but there are plenty of great alternatives.
Regular exercise is essential for any dog's health and mental well-being. A lack of exercise can contribute to destructive behavior, obesity, boredom and a variety of health problems. Dogs also need continuous mental stimulation with new smells and sights - so spending time in the back yard just isn't a substitute.
The key is to adapt exercise to your dog. Every dog is different, so you need to consider their needs and capabilities. Providing variety in your walks and mental stimulation is also essential.
It's important not to overdo it though. While it's great to be passionate about keeping your dog fit, make sure you provide an appropriate amount of exercise for your pet's breed, age, health and personality.
Most importantly, have fun when walking your dog! Exploring the local countryside or parks is one of the great joys of having a dog, so make the most of it.
Do you have any questions about your dog and exercise? Or do you want to give feedback on the article? Let me know in the comments section!