How much and what type of exercise does my dog need?
Before introducing your companion to a new type of physical activity or sport, be aware that each dog’s physical and mental capacities are different depending on his breed, age, physical condition, and character. Just as you may have a natural propensity for running, while surfing proves not to be your sport, dogs have their own propensities for or inclinations to one type of physical activity or another. And while all dogs need exercise, some dogs definitely need more than others in terms of frequency or intensity level. Rule number one: there is no rule! To get a feeling for how much and what types of sports may be right for your dog, start by closely observing his behaviour and consider the following factors.
The importance of breed and exercise
While larger dogs often need more exercise than smaller dogs, size is not really a reliable indicator to assess your dog’s exercise needs. The breed or group to which your canine may belong is actually more important. For instance, all terrier group dogs, which include breeds ranging in size from the small Jack Russel or the Yorkshire terrier (from 3-4 kgs) to the largest terrier, the Airedale terrier (up to 29 kg), or the Bedlington terrier (from around 8 to over 10 kgs) are highly energetic and in need of a lot of mental and physical stimulation. This is not surprising given that terriers were originally bred to control rats and rabbits, hunt foxes and in the case of the Wheaton terrier, herd livestock. By the same token, the smallest of the herding dogs, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi (up to 13kg) and the much larger German Shepperd, Border collie or Belgian Shepherd dog (or Malinois), are all very high-energy dogs owing to the fact that they were originally bred to herd livestock. Working group dogs, such as the Siberian husky, originally bred to travel long distances as sled dogs in remote Artic areas, naturally have incredible endurance and need a lot of physical exercise.
Today, most of these breeds are mainly companion dogs who have not necessarily ever encountered a fox, a cow or a sled, yet they may still have innate, ingrained needs that should be satisfied. Hence, many dogs are capable of enjoying a variety of activities such as running, fetching, jumping, digging, or scent tracking. However, certain dogs, owing to their breed and/ or natural inclination, may be more suited to or even have an instinctive need for these activities than others. An obvious illustration of this is terriers who unsurprisingly tend to love to dig. Keep a terrier in the house too long without an outlet for his instinctive love of digging and he may end up making unwanted holes in your garden, when he is let out. Ideally, one would choose a sport that gives him an opportunity to express this instinct. On the other hand, Golden retrievers or Labradors, who were bred to retrieve water birds such as ducks, usually love to fetch and enjoy being in the water. In short, if you are thinking of getting a particular breed of dog, before you make your choice, you may consider finding out about his activity level and mental stimulation requirements and whether you will be able to satisfy these given your lifestyle. And remember: don’t be fooled by size! Small is by no means synonymous with low energy.
Sports and the age factor
When choosing a sport for your dog, age is also an important factor to consider. It is safe to say that puppies generally have very high energy levels and then tend to calm down as they move into adulthood. However, keep in mind that an adult golden retriever may always have much higher energy level and exercise needs than many puppies of other breeds. Your incredibly rambunctious puppy may also not be ready to handle the physical, mental or social challenges of certain sports. Hence a puppy may not be physically developed enough to jump or handle obstacles. If he is not fully socialized, he may not be ready for an activity involving other dogs. While it is very important for geriatric dogs to continue to get daily exercise, like humans, they tend to become less flexible over time and may suffer from sore joints or osteoarthritis. Your vet may recommend special food for seniors which helps protect joint cartilage, and may give your dog greater daily comfort while enabling him to continue to be active. Keep in mind that some sports, especially those involving jumping or racing, may not be appropriate for your senior dog. In addition, you may need to slow down the intensity of any sport you practice with your older dog.
Assessing your dog’s physical condition and capacities
Finally, regardless of breed, age or size, your dog’s overall physical condition is perhaps the single most important factor to consider when getting your dog started on any new physical activity. This is why we strongly recommend you to see a vet who can assess your dog’s muscle mass and tone as well as detect any particular health issues before choosing a sport that is right for him. Some dogs such as bracycephalic or short-skulled dog breeds may also not be naturally suited to certain activities. For these dogs, intense running or getting overheated, can be a real health risk. Other fairly common health issues may impact your dog’s ability to engage in certain sports. Your vet can screen for certain health conditions and help you decide on what and how much physical activity is right for your dog. He can also advise you if you need to make any related adjustments in his diet. For example, if your dog is already quite active and you feel he would benefit from even more activity, he may need specially formulated sports food to compensate for all the calories he is burning.
A sport for every dog: some of the most popular dog sports
There is a very wide range of dog sports, most of which can be engaged in either informally in your backyard, at a dog park, or in clubs, or at a competitive level at specially organized sporting events. Some of these sports involve your dog and a “handler”, who can be either you or another person who instructs your dog to perform different tasks either with you, on a team with other dogs, or on his own. Each sport offers different benefits to your dog as well as emphasizing certain skills or aptitudes (i.e. the ability to run fast, jump, listen to orders, balance, dig, follow a scent….). While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of the most popular, fun canine sports:
- Agility is one of the most popular dog sports today. In this sport, your dog must complete an obstacle course as fast as possible following your instructions using voice and hand signs, as you run alongside him. Obstacles can include different types of jumps, tunnels, a see-saw, dog walk or “weave poles”, around which he must slalom. As its name suggests, this very complete sport develops your dog’s agility, flexibility, and listening skills. While it is especially suited for high-energy dogs, such as for example the Border Collie, the Belgian Shepherd (or Malinois) or the German Shepherd dog, all types of dogs can do agility competitions provided they enjoy running, jumping and do well off-leash. Try setting up an obstacle course at home in your backyard or join a club.
- Cani-Cross is a physical sport with an emphasis on endurance and speed as the idea is to run cross-country while being pulled along by your energetic friend, equipped with a specific harness. This is especially suited for high energy dogs such as the Border Collie, the Weimaraner or the Australian Shepherd, but it can be done with any dog provided he is in fairly good condition already and likes running. For those of you with smaller and/or less energetic dogs, you may want try Cani-Walk, which is the same but involves walking rather than running. Essential equipment includes a waist belt for you, a harness for your dog and a bungee running line that attaches the two of you together.
- Obedience tests your dog's ability to walk at the heel, to jump, to fetch objects, and to socialize with other dogs and humans. Especially suitable for lighter dogs, it is less physical but just as demanding and can be performed to music, also known as 'Dog Dance'!
- Flyball is a straight obstacle course to be completed without instructions, and at the end of which your dog must fetch a ball and bring it back through the course in the opposite direction as fast as possible. Played with teams of four dogs, competitively and for fun, it involves running, jumping, catching, and retrieving. It is best for high-energy dogs.
- Disk dog is another very popular sport partly because all you need is a flat playing area such as a field, a disk, commonly referred to as a Frisbee, and a handler or you. The handler throws the disk at varying distances and heights, while the dog catches it in mid-air. This can be very spectacular at the competitive level, involving dogs doing remarkable leaps, spins and catches. However, many people enjoying playing an informal form of disk dog on their own.
- Dock jumping or dock diving involves your dog competing in terms of height or distance jumps from a dock. You or a handler throws a toy into a pool of water, which must be at least 4 ft deep, and your dog jumps off the dock in after it. This is a great sport for dogs who especially love water such as Labrador Retrievers or poodles, but even dogs who may not naturally swim well can learn to do so. You can also have fun with your dog by simply throwing a ball or toy in water and encouraging him to jump in and retrieve it.
- Stand up paddleboarding (SUP) with your dog is also a fun, increasingly popular sport. All you need is a paddleboard, you and your dog, and a large enough body of water to paddle around in. In this sport, you are the one who will be getting the real workout, and your dog is along to enjoy the ride and your company. However, it can be fun and stimulating for him to be on the water as well as giving him the opportunity to swim if he likes to jump in. However, to do SUP safely, make sure that you are totally comfortable and well balanced on the board before taking your companion out with you. Help your dog get used to the board on land before taking him out on the water and make sure he wears a dog life jacket even if he knows how to swim.
- Sheep dog trials is a competition sport where dogs are directed by a handler to herd sheep around a field, fences or other enclosure. Naturally, this is the ideal sport if you have a herding dog such as a Border collie or Pyrenean shepherd. Obviously this sport is not easily accessible if you live in an urban area.
- Bikejoring is a recreation sport where a harnessed dog or team of dogs runs ahead of a cyclist who is basically being pulled by the dogs. This is a great sport for active dogs who are already in good condition and like to run such as Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Border collies or Huskies. However, it is also suitable for many other types of dogs as the Boxer or the Jack Russel Terrier. Keep in mind that you may fall off your bike, especially at first, as the dogs may pull in unexpected directions. Avoid bikejoring around cars and always wear a helmet. Your dog will need a harness and a tow line to pull you. Also as in all dog sports, but especially such an intensive one, be sure to frequently allow your dog to drink. Make sure you always have fresh, clean water and a bowl for him to drink from.
Whether on land or in the water, in your own back yard or on a competition field, there is a dog sport to suit every dog’s natural abilities and inclination. And while one of the primary reasons for introducing your dog to a new sport is often to increase his level of exercise, you will soon discover that it will also challenge your dog’s mental faculties and create new mutually satisfying ways for you to spend time together. Whatever sport you decide to try with your dog, just make sure to start slow, training your dog gradually and patiently, keep it fun and make it safe by consulting with your vet beforehand.