The Best Exercises for Dogs at Every Age

Regular activity keeps the spring in your dog’s step throughout his life. But the best exercises for your dog change depending upon his age. Puppies, adult dogs, and older dogs have unique and distinct exercise needs.

Age-appropriate exercise keeps your dog’s muscles and bones strong, prevents weight gain, improves his heart health, regulates his mood, and sustains his mental sharpness. Here’s how to keep your dog in optimal physical and mental condition at every age:

Dog Exercise Ideas for Healthy Adult Dogs

  • Attending professional agility classes – provides healthy physical and mental challenges.
  • DIY agility courses – make a line of cones or backyard furniture your dog can weave through. Lead him over homemade hurdles.
  • Hide and seek – place your dog’s favorite toys or treats around the yard so he can ‘discover’ them.
  • Visiting dog parks – if your dog learned dog park etiquette, he’ll exercise with his friends while getting in socialization time.
  • Hiking – a trek in the woods or on a mountain trail usually is more challenging that a walk down the road.
  • Swimming – an excellent, low-impact exercise for dogs who are strong swimmers. (Short-legged breeds, brachycephalic breeds, and especially lean breeds are typically not strong swimmers.)

How to Exercise Your Dog

No matter your dog’s age, when initiating—or ramping up—an exercise program, the first step is always taking your dog to the veterinarian for a checkup. This way you’ll know of any underlying health conditions he may have. Some conditions require adjustments to your dog’s exercise routine, such as the types of activities that are appropriate, and the length and intensity of exercise sessions.

Once you have the go-ahead from your vet, you can build your dog’s exercise routine. The easiest approach is adding exercise to your existing routine. If you usually walk your dog around the block once, extend it to two times around the block. Just like you, your dog needs conditioning for more intensive exercise—especially if he’s been a couch potato dog up until now.

Gradually increase the length and intensity of your dog’s exercise. This process should occur over the course of weeks and months, rather than days. When your dog works up to four times around the block or graduates from a five-minute to a 15-minute walk, you can add a minute or two of trotting at the end to increase his heart rate.

Next, you can add backyard or dog park playtime to his exercise. Instead of letting your dog wander about leisurely, play five to ten minutes of fetch with him by tossing a ball, Frisbee, or stick across the yard.

Puppy Exercise Ideas

  • Walks – keep walks short and near the house or car, so he can rest when tired.
  • Fetch – toss a ball or dog toy in the yard for your puppy to retrieve.
  • Swimming – if your puppy is a swimming breed, get him used to the water and swimming early on. Start in the bath and the wading pool, before moving to larger bodies of water. Until he is a strong swimmer, always hold your puppy in the water.
  • Puppy obedience class – your puppy will get plenty of exercise while learning basic commands.
  • Alone time – if your puppy starts playing with a dog toy or entertaining himself, don’t interrupt. The ability to keep himself occupied helps to keep your dog happy when left alone.

The Best Way to Exercise a Puppy

When it comes to puppies, following their playful lead is the best strategy. Your puppy will likely give himself enough exercise as he walks, runs, bounds, leaps, and explores the back yard, the house, and the neighborhood throughout the day. Once your puppy has all of his critical vaccinations, your daily excursions and play sessions are also excellent opportunities to work on obedience training and socialization. In addition to teaching commands, walk to the nearby park or downtown business district, where you’ll encounter strange people and dogs.

Never push your puppy to exercise extensively, because overdoing it can cause orthopedic problems in all dog breeds, and in large and giant breeds in particular.

Note: If you want a four-legged running partner, choose a dog breed that can handle it, and wait until your puppy is fully grown before you train him to run with you.

Approximately five minutes of exercise twice per day per month of age is recommended for puppies, until they reach a milestone between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on the athleticism and energy of the breed. This means a three-month-old puppy can exercise for about 15 minutes twice each day. This should be understood as a ballpark recommendation, however. Primarily, you should let your puppy exercise when he seems energized and rest when he is tuckered out.

Older Dog Exercise Ideas

  • Walks – multiple short walks throughout the day prevent strain and exhaustion.
  • Fetch – keep games of fetch and catch shorter than in his youth.
  • Continuing education – teaching your older dog new tricks, and reinforcing the commands he already knows, will keep him moving while also offering important mental stimulation.
  • Hide and seek – similar to continued training, hide and seek encourages movement and concentration.
  • Swimming – if your older dog is a swimmer, it’s a great exercise that is easy on aging joints.

Senior Dogs and Exercise

Exercise for your older dog is similar to when he was in his prime, though you’ll likely see a reduction in the pace, intensity, and length of his activity. A visit to his veterinarian will help determine any necessary changes to his routine.

When exercising your senior dog, it’s most important to keep him moving without pushing him beyond his capabilities. Keeping his bones, joints, and muscles moving helps slow the progression of canine osteoarthritis and other joint problems that impact older dogs. Sustaining an exercise routine into your dog’s senior years can also prevent weight gain, which can creep up as your dog slows down.

Indoor Exercises for Dogs

If your region is in the midst of an extended heat wave, monsoon season, or a blizzard, getting out isn’t always easy, or safe. When poor weather drags on, it’s smart to sustain your dog’s exercise routine with indoor activities. Some options:

  • Stair fetch – toss a ball or dog toy up to the top of the stairs so your dog has to run up and down.
  • Hide and seek – hide a treat in every room of the house.
  • Tug of war – a good option only for dogs who always follow the ‘leave it’ command during playtime.

But with good outdoor gear at the ready, you need not become housebound with your dog during spells of bad weather. In the heat, you need a water bottle for yourself, and a portable dog bowl for sharing, along with knowledge of your dog’s heat sensitivity. In the cold and snow, warm outerwear for you and a toasty dog jacket for your best friend can facilitate winter excursions.

In addition to age, other important factors to consider when exercising your dog include:

Condition: Even without an established exercise routine, some dog breeds are naturally more active than others. Your dog may dash around the back yard routinely or trot on your walks, or he may be sedentary unless pushed. Observe him for a day or two to understand his starting point.

Weight: The extra weight obese dogs carry strains their bones and joints. If your dog is obese, keep his exercise routine low-impact so he doesn’t injure himself as he drops weight. When his condition improves and he weighs less, you can increase the intensity of his workouts.

Breed size: Large and giant dog breeds, such as Great Danes and Newfoundlands, are prone to joint and bone problems. This is especially true when their joints and bones are growing during puppyhood, but can also linger into adulthood. Small and toy breeds, meanwhile, can injure themselves jumping down from heights. Exercise is important for these dogs, but if you have a small or giant dog, talk with your veterinarian about the appropriate intensity and best exercises for him.

Breed shape: Dogs with flat muzzles (brachycephalic breeds), such as Pugs, Japanese Chins, and Boxers, have a greater risk of overheating during exercise than dogs with long snouts. These breeds benefit from short exercise sessions of moderate intensity; if you have a squash-nosed dog, know the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Dogs with long backs and short legs (e.g., Welsh Corgis and Dachshunds) are prone to back injuries. If you have a long and low dog, avoid activities that involve jumping and twisting, such as Frisbee and some agility courses.

Dogs with long backs and short legs (e.g., Welsh Corgis and Dachshunds) are prone to back injuries. If you have a long and low dog, avoid activities that involve jumping and twisting, such as Frisbee and some agility courses.

Recent studies illustrate the importance of exercise for dog health. One third of dogs in the US are overweight, according to a 2017 survey by the Banfield Pet Hospital in Vancouver, Washington. The stats are even starker according to a 2016 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, which found that 54 percent of dogs in the US are obese. Finally, a new study in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine finds that overweight dogs have shorter lifespans (shortened by as many as two and a half years) than dogs at an ideal weight.

No matter your dog’s age, breed, weight, or overall condition, an exercise routine is critical to his well-being. It sustains mental acuity and physical fitness, and strengthens the bond between him and you. Schedule that checkup and get your dog moving. It’ll be great for your best friend—and the extra activity and fresh air will do you good, too.

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