Dogs make the best running partners because they are always happy to be by your side and never complain. BUT… It is because of this that it is up to us as their owners to learn about when it is safe for them to do so and what limitations may come into play.
Puppies (especially large breeds) grow a lot in their first year, and running them too soon can be harmful and they should not engage in forced exercise before their bodies have had the chance to mature. This means avoiding sharp or repetitive impact exercises. Most of your dog's growth occurs between four and twelve months of age and to accommodate for this growth, their cartilage and bones are soft and contain many extra blood vessels.
Puppies growth plates are softer than other parts of the bones and are therefore more prone to injury. These plates at the end of limbs allow their bones to keep growing and lengthening until they reach maturity and seal closed. The exact age at which this occurs can be different for each breed and even dog to dog so it is always best to consult with your veterinarian (one who has done research in this particular field is ideal), about the appropriate time to commence running with your dog. An x-ray can be performed if you want to know for sure that your dog’s growth plates have closed. You can request your Veterinarian to take a lateral radiograph of the stifle and check the growth plate at the tibial tuberosity (which is the last growth plate to close).
The below gives you a rough guideline for when it is appropriate to commence your running journey for different sized dogs. Unfortunately since they all develop at different rates based on size and breed, there is no one rule that fits all and that is why you will always require the assistance of your veterinarian.
By ensuring the natural closure of your dog’s growth plates, any injury incurred won’t cause overwhelming damage or deformity as it would in a younger dog.
Since growth plate injuries typically occur on one side of the plate or the other, the damaged side of the bone quits growing, but the healthy side continues to grow. This is how the bone ends up anything but straight.
– Karen Becker DVM
If injury was to occur to an immature growth plate, the damaged cells stop growing but the uninjured cells continue to grow. This can lead to permanent deformities in your dog’s bones. In severe cases the bone can rotate, bow and curve. When these problems aren’t diagnosed early and corrected with surgery, it can lead to much bigger problems such as arthritis, abnormal joint movement and complete loss of function in the affected limb.
So What Exercise ‘Is’ Appropriate for My Puppy?
Many puppy owners stick to a model of not going beyond the level of exercise that your puppy would naturally take part in or ‘free play’. This is where they can explore or run in the yard or zoom around the house, or wrestle with a fellow playmate. This enables them to set their own pace without overdoing it and they can flop and rest at any time.
Playing with your puppy in the house, practicing obedience and short walks in a safe environment is considered to be an acceptable level of exercise. While they’re learning to focus and gaining confidence, teaching them commands at an early age will build a great foundation for when they are physically ready to start their running journey with you. As with any exercises, make sure to give your puppy breaks and a chance to rest. Mental exercise can be just as tiring as physical exercise.
For a more comprehensive breakdown of exercises specific to age you may wish to refer to the Fit For Life Puppy Exercise Guidelines. These guidelines have been developed by Chris Zink who is one of the world’s top canine sports medicine and rehabilitation veterinarians and researchers, and Gayle Watkins - the co-founder of Avidog International where she works with dog breeders around the world to design breeding programs that produce healthy, stable, long-lived dogs of all types.