by Nandini Maharaj
Like people, dogs need daily movement to feel their best. Dogs need exercise to maintain muscle tone as well as an appropriate weight for their age and breed. But walking your dog isn’t about physical activity alone. Walks provide mental stimulation, helping your dog build confidence and avoid potential behavioral issues like anxiety and aggression.
How Good Is Walking as Exercise?
“A lot of people think of dog walks as an energy release or a way for their pet to let loose,” says Dr. Emily Wilson, DVM, a veterinarian at Fuzzy. “It doesn’t just have to be your dog sniffing bushes and relieving themselves. It can be really interactive.”
Some dogs, especially younger ones, seem to have boundless energy. Exercise, including long walks, can tire them out, leading to a calmer and quieter companion at home.
But what’s essential for dogs is consistency. According to Dr. Wilson, having a routine is “really comforting to the dog and helps them anticipate what the schedule is.” Dogs are better equipped to regulate their emotions when they know what to expect, so that means taking regular walks around the same time each day.
When Is It Safe to Walk a Puppy?
While you want to give your puppy an outlet to let out their energy, certain viruses, such as parvo, are highly contagious and potentially life-threatening for dogs. Most puppies complete their vaccinations by 16 weeks, which is when they should be fine to be exposed to other animals. In the meantime, limit your puppy’s exposure to unfamiliar dogs.
“It’s very important that puppies have had their full series of vaccines especially out in public places,” Dr. Wilson says. “I usually recommend waiting two weeks after their last booster to allow their immune system to fully respond.”
Puppies also aren’t very good at regulating their body temperature, so you need to be mindful of the weather before going outside for a stroll. “If you get a puppy in the summer, make sure you’re not walking them on hot asphalt,” Dr. Wilson says. The same goes for winter weather. Aside from quick potty breaks, try to keep your puppy inside when the temperature drops and make sure they have cozy things to keep them warm.
How Much Exercise Do Dogs Need?
Compared to adult dogs, puppies have less endurance and need a potty break every 2 to 4 hours, so you won’t be able to take them too far but will need to take them out more frequently. “If you have a little teacup, poodle puppy, don’t go around the block,” Dr. Wilson says. “That’s a long way for them to go.”
Puppies also need to be comfortable walking on a leash before tackling a full-fledged walk. Practice with them in a secure space like the backyard. Start small by walking your puppy up and down in front of the house and build up from there.
“Oftentimes puppies have to relieve themselves right after they eat, so correlating your walks with that can help make potty training more successful,” says Wilson. With a 10-week-old puppy, you might go out for a 10-minute walk two or three times a day. For the first few months, it’s best to stick with short and frequent walks.
If your dog hasn’t been too active or is out of shape, a 10 to 15-minute walk is a great starting point. As with puppies, keep the walk short and positive. Check to see your dog’s pace, and if they’re trailing behind or walking ahead of you. You may need to slow down or pick up the pace.
As long as your dog doesn’t have any underlying health concerns, you can gradually increase the length of the walk or take them out twice a day. How often you walk your dog depends on your schedule as well as your dog’s energy level and individual personality.
Dogs with mobility issues can benefit from short walks to avoid joint stiffness and inflammation. A harness is a great option for helping bigger dogs get around.
If your dog is willing and able to walk, exercise is an excellent way to keep them fit and active. In addition, senior dogs benefit from experiencing new sights, sounds, and smells to keep their stimulation up.
“The pace just needs to be slower,” Dr. Wilson says. “If your dog has arthritis, slow and frequent movement is beneficial for them.”
Consult with your veterinarian and monitor your dog for signs of pain and fatigue such as limping, stopping, laying down, panting hard, or having difficulty getting on or off curbs. If the walk is too long or strenuous, have your dog ride in a wagon or stroller to give them a break.
“They still get the enrichment [in a stroller],” says Wilson. “They still get to be part of the family and partake in the routine.”
Tips for Walking Your Dog
Treat the walk as an opportunity to train your dog and bond over new experiences. Positive reinforcement offers the best chance of success, you should use treats and lots of praise.
“Some dogs are ready to see the world,” Dr. Wilson says. “They want to meet people, and others may be shy.” Her advice is to adapt the walk to your dog’s comfort zone. You want your dog to be confident and not feel overwhelmed by people or other dogs.
For puppies and older dogs, be mindful of the wear and tear on their joints. Keep a casual walking pace, and limit their time on asphalt or concrete by opting for grass or wooded trails. You can also use dog booties or paw protectors if their feet tend to get cracked or damaged.
If your dog is going to be tagging along for jogs or bike rides, Dr. Wilson recommends waiting until they are a year old. “Especially with the bigger breeds, you don’t want a lot of concussive forces on hard surfaces,” she says.
What Can You Do Besides Walks For Exercise?
You don’t need to venture far to give your dog some worthwhile movement. Training your dog at home or in the backyard can offer them mental enrichment. Once your dog has learned basic commands like sit, stay, and down, move on to new, more challenging tricks. You can even consider training for Obedience or Rally together.
Other activities to try are scent work, nose work, and dog agility. If your dog is food-motivated, you can hide treats around the house to get them moving or use interactive toys.
Get creative, try different activities, and most of all, make it fun and positive for your dog. Think of exercise as a form of preventive care that will go a long way toward reducing illness and improving your dog’s health and well-being. “As [dogs] get older and evolve, it should be something they look forward to,” Dr. Wilson says.