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Safe Exercise for Dogs With Limits

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When we think of exercising our dogs, we tend to think of going all out – long, brisk walks, throwing a ball as far as possible, vigorous romping with other dogs. But in the life of nearly all dogs there will be circumstances where that’s not possible, including when your dog is recovering from injury or illness, when they’re aging, or when the weather’s too hot, especially if they’re smush-faced.

In all of those cases, you still need to keep your dog fit. Fortunately, there are gentler ways to do this.

Safe Fetch

In fitness classes for dogs of all ages, trainer Lori Stevens, CPDT-KA, CCFT, teaches how to play fetch safely – which is how she thinks everyone should do it, even with young and healthy dogs. Throwing the ball high and far can get dogs hurt when they jump, twist, and land in an effort to catch it.

Instead, keep the ball low to the ground. Start with your dog next to you, facing in the direction you’re going to throw. Throw it along the ground and remember you don’t get a prize for distance. “Whether the ball goes three feet, six feet, or 10 or 20 feet doesn’t matter,” Stevens says. “The dog will fetch it and bring it to you to throw again.” She recommends a type of ball with a rubber loop attached to it, which keeps it from bouncing so much.

She also teaches a ball game for senior dogs that’s even gentler – they play it lying down. “I’m just flicking the ball to between her front legs and she flicks it back with her nose,” she says. Teach this by rewarding the dog for touching the ball with her nose. Then sit facing your dog a foot or so away and roll it toward her.

Strength and Balance Exercises

Simple exercises can help dogs build strength and balance. One is to teach your dog to rest one paw in your hand while standing. “If I teach the dog to give their left front paw into my right hand, they’re shifting their weight back to the opposite hind leg,” she says. Don’t hold the paw – you want the dog to be free to put the paw back down–and gradually build duration. (If you find building duration a tricky thing to train, use a Kong and have your dog lick it for the amount of time you’re going for).

An even simpler exercise starts with one of the easiest things you can teach a dog: to touch your hand with his nose. “Give your dog a treat. Then hold the hand that had a treat in it and they’ll probably bring their nose to your hand,” she says. “Say ‘Yes’ and give a treat with the other hand.” Then, while the dog is standing, put your hand a few inches away from either side of the dog’s face so they have to turn their head to touch it. “Those are weight shifts, and are good for an older dog,” she says.

Build Fitness Slowly

If your dog has been getting little exercise because of their limitations, go slow when trying to increase it. “The rule of thumb is start with what we know, then push the envelope a tiny bit. If you do something that makes them worse, stop doing it,” says pet rehab specialist Kimberly Henneman, DVM, DACVSMR. “If you have a dog coming back from an injury, or an older dog that’s told you he can only go a quarter way down the block and back, if you want to try to increase the conditioning on a dog like that, do the walk the dog can tolerate. Then later in the day, do a quarter or half of that same amount, and the next day see if that made it worse. If not, you know you’re still within their capabilities, but you’ve ramped it up a bit.”

Henneman suggests three ways to slowly increase your dog’s walking ability: increase frequency, as above; increase effort, like making part of the walk uphill; or add weight (usually only with larger dogs). You should increase only one of these at a time. For instance, don’t add a slope and make the dog walk farther. Whichever you increase, if the dog is okay at the new level, stay at that level for 10 days to two weeks before increasing another step.

A simple exercise Stevens teaches to increase hind-leg strength involves having the dog stand with front legs on a low platform. Start with 10 seconds and build up to 30. After 10 to 14 days you can increase the height, starting over with 10 seconds at the new height. You can gradually get up to eight inches with a medium to large dog, but again, never increase the two kinds of difficulty – height and time – simultaneously. This video shows some of the platform training.

Be Aware

With any exercise, if the dog shows signs of tiring, drop back to the previous level. With some dogs, you need to be extremely attentive to signs that you’re moving too quickly. “With high-drive dogs you can’t use pain as your yardstick. They will lie to you,” says Henneman, who knows what she’s talking about from her experience as a veterinarian at the Iditarod sled dog race. “We have a joke  – An Iditarod dog says, ‘Huh, my leg fell off; no big deal, I’ll pick it up on my way back.’ These dogs won’t stop.” And it’s not just big sporty dogs who are high drive. Some little dogs like Shih Tzus and terriers can also go, go, go. Be aware of your dog’s normal posture and movement and attentive to changes that might indicate they overdid it.

Exercise the Mind Too

When your dog can’t go on long walks, remember that what they’re missing isn’t just physical exercise. Dogs see the world through their noses and sniffing on walks is an important form of mental enrichment.

One way to provide this for any dog is nosework. If you can’t take a class, look online for simple ways to do nosework exercises at home. It’s low physical impact and can be good for keeping a high-drive dog from hurting himself. “He will only get the reward when he settles down and starts working the scent,” Henneman says.

Even if your dog can do only short walks, make the most of them. Pause and do simple exercises. Provide variety in sights and smells by walking in different places, even if that means driving a couple of blocks to a new area. See if a neighbor’s yard is listed on – sniffing a new yard and playing gentle games there will provide a change of scenery – and sniff-ery – for your dog. “Try to get out of your rut and take advantage of what the neighborhood provides,” Henneman says.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.

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