There is nothing cuter than a little puppy exploring the world, jumping at butterflies, grasshoppers and grass, racing around the yard and tripping over its feet. Exercise is important for puppies, but when should you you start walking a puppy on a leash and how much distance should you plan to cover with your little fur friend?
There is some debate among vets and dog experts as to how far a puppy should walk on a leash and how long the walk should be. Cesar Millan of Cesar’s Way says, “My feeling is that as long as you are careful and attentive to your puppy, the puppy is the best one to tell you what is too much exercise.”
However, many experts, including my own vet, recommend the 5 minute-rule: walk the puppy five minuets for each month of age, so at 3 months old, a puppy should walk on a leash for 15 minutes and at 6 months, they can walk for 1/2 hour. The reason many vets recommend the 5-minute-rule is walking a puppy on a leash is considered “forced exercise.” The repetition of walking steadily, especially on asphalt and concrete, can cause permanent damage to the puppy’s growing skeleton.
Depending slightly on the breed, a puppy’s skeleton doesn’t fully mature, and the growth plates do not fuse until the puppy is 18 months old or older. The growth plates, which are part of the bone structure, typically fuse during the puppy’s tenth month, but after that the skeleton continues changing as the bones adapt to the various kinds of stress put on them. The skeleton is not fully formed and bones are not hardened until 18 months or later.
Before the growth plates close, too much exercise can jar and loosen little joints, and cause stress to the skeleton, which can cause permanent damage including elbow and hip dysplasia, joint problems, and growth abnormalities in the cartilage that can cause pain and lameness.
While bones and joints can be damaged by overly strenuous exercise including too much walking during the puppy’s first 18 months, the resulting problems may not show up until later in the dog’s life. Climbing up and down stairs is equally bad for little puppy legs.
My beloved little papillon Miss Katy lived to be 17. In her last years she had arthritis and back pain, and an x-ray showed quite a few old injuries to her joints and skeleton. I am convinced my early walks with Miss Katy and allowing her to dash up the stairs (as well as a friend who shocked me by tossing Katy in the air and catching her like a ball while I hollered “Noooo!”) damaged her puppy skeleton and joints and caused her pain in her later years. Little Katy never let on during our many walks that she was in pain, but the x-rays showed the damage. Since had had no bad falls or other trauma until she was 15, I believe too much walking and stair climbing as a puppy caused most or all of her old injuries.
My new papillon puppy Jack is being raised much more carefully. If anyone ever tries to toss him in the air, I won’t just holler “No,” I will probably slug them. I carry Jack up and down the stairs, and we walk 5 minutes for each month of his life. At 6 months of age, Jack gets 1/2 hour of leash exercise a day.
It is my hope that making sure Jack’s bones and joints are allowed time to grow and develop properly will help build a skeleton system that will support him well for the rest of his life.