Puppy Exercise & Biological Fulfillment
How appropriate daily exercise and biological fulfillment help your puppy thrive and grow into a healthy, confident dog.18 minute read
A tired dog is a good dog. Ever heard that? It's a common phrase among dog parents, but it’s not exactly true. While regular exercise is important to keep any animal healthy, physical activity is just one piece of meeting your puppy’s needs.
How much movement is too much? When will your dog be ready for more intense types of exercise? And how can you safely satisfy his canine instincts in our modern human world?
We know it's tough to sift through the mountain of information out there about how to get your puppy exercise. That’s why we’ve put together everything you need to know into a single guide.
- Regular exercise helps your puppy develop muscle strength and coordination. It also supports cardiovascular health, mental acuity, physical well-being, and an ability to learn.
- Give your puppy chances to use his body and stay at a healthy weight. The ideal amount of activity will vary from dog to dog and change as they grow.
- Too much exercise can increase your puppy’s odds of being injured or developing problems. Pay attention to your puppy’s signals, keep activities varied, and stay in touch with a veterinarian you trust.
- Domestic dogs aren’t wolves, but they do have canine instincts. Biological fulfillment gives them opportunities to satisfy their genetic drives. This can reduce frustration and prevent conflict as your puppy grows up.
- A tired dog isn’t necessarily a good dog—a fulfilled one is. While physical exercise is part of satisfying your puppy’s needs, it isn’t the whole picture.
- Consider your dog’s breed when coming up with fulfillment activities. Be proactive about giving him opportunities to act on his natural tendencies.
ContentsPart I: Exercise
- Why is exercise important for my puppy?
- How much exercise does my puppy need?
- How can I provide adequate exercise?
Why is exercise important for my puppy?
Regular exercise helps your puppy develop muscle strength and coordination. It also supports his mental acuity and improves his ability to learn. This ultimately makes your dog easier to raise and train.
Physical activity is important for your puppy’s overall health
From increasing cardiovascular and lung capacity to strengthening the immune system to releasing mood-boosting chemicals, exercise provides most of the same benefits to our dogs as to us humans. And physical activity is particularly important while your puppy’s body and brain are still growing.
Muscle movement helps your puppy build strength and coordination
Your puppy develops muscle, tendon, bone, and cartilage strength through consistent physical activity. The more he moves his body, the better his coordination and proprioception (ability to sense his own body’s position, force, and movement) will be too.
While these skills are especially important for working and sport dogs, they’re also valuable for your family pet. Your puppy is less likely to get injured if he’s strong and steady on his feet! That means more adventures with you and fewer vet bills to worry about along the way.
Exercise encourages your puppy’s mental acuity
Neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change over time) is aided by regular exercise. An increased heart rate pumps more oxygen to your puppy’s brain, and physical activity can trigger the release of hormones needed to encourage cell connections. This helps him be open to new socialization experiences and master skills like house training and basic commands.
Once your puppy hits four months of age, he starts to become less impressionable. But old dogs can learn new tricks! Regular exercise can help your dog stay sharp into adolescence and adulthood.
Adequate exercise makes other parts of puppy raising easier
Physical activity ultimately makes it easier for your puppy to pick up on patterns, learn new behaviors, and settle in distracting situations.
- As mentioned above, exercise increases your puppy’s mental acuity. A clear-headed dog is simpler to train!
- The healthier your puppy feels, the more energy he’ll have to play and grow with you.
- Your dog relaxes best when he’s physically satisfied. While you don’t want to push your puppy to the point of exhaustion, it is important to get some of his zoomies out before embarking on a calm socialization outing or asking him to play impulse control games.
- Routine walks also go hand-in-hand with potty training. Stacking tasks together can make your puppy raising schedule feel more manageable.
- Some tricks (like backing up on cue or walking in a focused heel) require a high level of kinesthetic awareness. Getting your puppy used to moving his body at a young age will help him grow into a coordinated adult.
How much exercise does my puppy need?
The ideal amount of activity varies from dog to dog (and month to month as they age). What’s most important is giving your puppy opportunities to use his body and preventing him from becoming overweight.
While high impact movements aren't recommended for dogs whose bones haven’t finished growing (you’ll want to check with your veterinarian before embarking on a running or agility regimen), puppies still need daily exercise.
How to estimate your puppy’s exercise needs
There are two common rules of thumb:
- Puppies can exercise ten minutes a day for each month of age.
- It’s better to give a growing dog frequent, short bursts of activity than one, long exercise session.
Based on these guidelines, a two-month-old puppy would get 20 minutes of structured activity over the course of the day (five or ten minutes at a time). A four-month-old puppy would handle 40 minutes of total exercise (maybe ten or twenty minutes each session), and so on until physical maturity between one to two years of age.
These generalizations can be helpful, but it’s important to remember they’re just guidelines. The “ten minutes a day” suggestion is not a hard-and-fast rule for every dog! Many things affect your individual puppy’s capacity for exercise:
- High energy working breeds might need more activity to relieve frustration and prevent boredom, even as young puppies. These dogs often have higher heat tolerances and greater natural stamina (especially compared to short-nosed breeds like Bulldogs).
- Some puppies are born with a predisposition for hip dysplasia or other structural problems. Dog parents might need to follow a customized canine conditioning process to minimize the risk of long-term damage as they grow.
- Large breeds develop more slowly than small dogs. Because of this, we should use caution when asking them to cover long distances or move in strenuous ways.
That brings us to one of the central questions new dog parents ask…
Is it safe for my puppy to exercise while growing?
We know exercise is healthy for us and our dogs. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing though. Overdoing physical activity can increase your puppy’s odds of being injured or developing chronic problems like arthritis.
When and how to exercise puppies is a topic of debate among canine professionals. The short answer: Yes, it’s safe for your puppy to exercise while growing—to a certain degree. Dog parents need to find the happy medium between “not enough stimulation” and “too much stress.”
Typical puppy development
The fundamental reason vets, trainers, and dog parents worry about over-exercising puppies is that their bodies need the chance to develop properly.
Physical activity builds important strength and coordination, but too much strain can damage your puppy’s muscles, joints, and growth plates (soft areas at the end of long bones that allow them to grow). This can lead to conditions like hip dysplasia and early-onset arthritis. If a growth plate is seriously injured, parts of your dog’s physical development might slow down or even halt completely.
Most dogs reach physical maturity between nine and eighteen months of age. If your puppy is a particularly large breed (like a Great Dane or Newfoundland) his growth plates might remain open until he’s even older—around two years at the latest.
Avoid high impact, strenuous, or forced exercise
While some canine professionals are more risk averse than others, most agree that puppies should avoid intense exercise during their formative months.
- High impact activities like jumping up and down stairs increase the chance of problems like hip dysplasia.
- Prolonged or jarring exercise, like repeatedly sprinting after a toy, might also lead to conditions such as osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). This causes the bone underneath joint cartilage to die and eventually break off, hindering your dog’s long-term motion.
That said, don't lose sight of the fact that the greatest contributor to joint disease is being overweight as a puppy. Many types of moderate exercise carry a low risk of structural damage and keep your dog in shape.
- Joint damage is unlikely to occur without high impact activities. Walking and short bouts of light jogging—even when your puppy is young—are actually associated with beneficial cartilage strength.
- Unstructured off-leash time might also have a protective effect against joint and bone conditions. In these situations, your puppy is able to self regulate and decide when to rest on his own.
How can I provide adequate exercise?
To reap the benefits of physical activity while avoiding the risks, it’s important to learn your puppy’s individual signals. Varying your dog’s types of exercise keeps him mentally engaged and prevents excessive strain on any one muscle group.
Listen to your individual puppy’s signals
Some dogs show that they’re tired more readily than others. If you have a puppy who takes breaks on his own, that’s great! Follow his lead. Don’t encourage him to get moving again until he’s ready.
Many high-energy breeds were specifically designed to “go all day” though. It’s not uncommon for your young dog to lack self preservation. He might need you to step in before he pushes himself too far.
It can be hard to tell if your puppy is overworked or simply ready for a nap. These signs suggest he’s getting too much exercise:
- Stiff or slow movements
- Sudden behavioral changes, like constantly adjusting position during the day, being unable to settle, or expressing discomfort when touched
- Worn, thin paw pads
- Extremely short nails
Over time you’ll be able to learn your puppy’s personal threshold and plan your activities accordingly.
Vary your puppy’s physical outlets
A variety of different activities is important to evenly develop all of your puppy’s muscle groups. It’s also a great way to prevent either of you from becoming bored!
- Exploratory neighborhood walks get your puppy moving at a sustainable pace. Take plenty of time to sniff and observe the world around you (This is a perfect socialization opportunity too!).
- Games like tug are classics for a reason. You can easily adjust the intensity of your fight over the toy to meet your puppy where he’s at.
- Play wrestling can help your puppy build strength, hone coordination, and develop bite inhibition. It’s also a great way to help him learn when it’s play time and when it isn’t. You can teach him to engage with you when invited but leave your hands alone otherwise.
Consult your veterinarian before starting a new activity
If you’re ever in doubt about your puppy’s exercise regimen, consult a veterinarian you trust for guidance. A routine physical exam can tell you how he’s growing and help you define next steps to keep his bones, joints, and muscles in good shape.
Your vet can also clear your dog for more intense activities, like joining you on runs or hikes, once he gets older. Better safe than sorry with our family members’ long-term health.
What exactly is biological fulfillment?
At its simplest, biological fulfillment is what is sounds like: Fulfilling your dog’s biological needs. Most dog parents don’t think twice about properly feeding and exercising their puppies. But what about giving them opportunities to safely express their other natural instincts?
- Dogs are scavengers. They’re biologically inclined to sniff and dig around the environment! As much as we’d like them to, puppies don’t automatically understand our human taboo on grabbing day-old chicken bones off the sidewalk. Eating things they find on the ground feels normal to a canine.
- Dogs are also predators. While selective breeding influences the exact type and intensity of their instincts, most puppies have at least some prey drive. That means they’re attracted to fast-moving objects (especially small animals like birds and squirrels). Dog parents can use this to our advantage during play and training games.
- Even young puppies will emulate parts of the predatory sequence during play: searching (sometimes called orienting), stalking, chasing, fighting (often broken down into “grab-bite” and “kill-bite” parts), celebrating, and consuming.
- It does our puppies a disservice to think of them as tiny, furry humans.
Why does my puppy need fulfillment beyond physical exercise?
Back to “a tired dog is a good dog." Exercise is just one piece of your puppy’s biological fulfillment, not the whole picture. Walks alone won’t satisfy all of your dog’s canine instincts. The last thing you want to do is create a conditioned athlete who can physically go forever but has no idea how to slow down his brain.
Fulfilling your puppy’s drives can prevent bad habits
The average domestic dog’s lifestyle is very different today than it was even just a hundred years ago (and it’s a far cry from the early days of our 15,000+ year partnership). Consistent food, shelter, and advances in veterinary care absolutely improve the lives of our pets! But tightly packed cities, short leashes, and lack of opportunities to “be a dog” can create conflict and frustration.
- Many problem behaviors like excessive barking, whining, or pulling on the leash come from unmet fulfillment needs.
- If you don’t provide your puppy with a way to channel his instincts, he will find his own. Odds are good you won’t like his choices.
- When you accept your puppy as a dog with deeply ingrained drives, you can more safely—and fairly—integrate him into our human world. Giving him safe chances to follow his natural tendencies can prevent resentment on both ends of the leash.
Respecting your dog’s instincts will deepen your bond
Dogs are social, cooperative mammals just like us. The more you meet your puppy’s needs with fulfillment as opposed to frustration, the more you charge his trust battery. This helps you more confidently navigate the world as a team!
Understanding who your dog is can also be a source of inspiration. Seeing your dog thrive makes puppy raising more meaningful. When you learn what makes his heart sing, you enrich both of your lives. And you might find that learning to respect your puppy’s natural instincts can help you reconnect with your own.
How can I fulfill my dog’s canine instincts?
Think about your dog’s specific breed and ask what drives are most innate to him as an individual. Have any strong behaviors come naturally since you first brought him home? From there, provide a variety of opportunities for him to safely express those instincts.
Ask how your puppy’s breed affects his fulfillment needs
While many traits are associated with canines in general, we’ve also selectively developed breed-specific tendencies into certain groups of dogs. Breed isn’t the only thing that determines who your puppy is. His direct ancestors and early socialization play a role, too. But it’s a good starting point for his biological fulfillment needs.
- Herding breeds are known for being hyper aware of the environment. It’s natural for these dogs to want to control people and objects.
- Hounds love to use their noses. Remember that your puppy’s sense of smell is more than 10,000 times stronger than your own.
- Terriers were bred to hunt pests. These dogs are likely to have intense prey drive and a strong desire to chase fast-moving objects.
- Aptly named, retrievers enjoy picking up and carrying objects. Many retriever puppies are notorious for lugging socks and shoes around the house.
Engage in thoughtful play based on your puppy’s instincts
Playing with your puppy is one of the best things you can do for both his healthy development and your bond as a team. In fact, play is a key way that social mammals learn! Puppies naturally emulate the predatory sequence (searching, stalking, chasing, fighting, celebrating, and consuming) when engaging with littermates, toys, and human family members.
Any play is better than no play. Don’t be afraid to get down on the ground and simply have fun together! To maximize your puppy’s biological fulfillment, you can engage in specific activities to light up his breed-specific instincts:
- Consider getting your herding dog a herding ball (or just a regular basket, soccer, or volleyball) so he can practice controlling its movement. You can also spend a lot of time in the stalking phase of play. Let him get low to the ground and size you up before pouncing.
- Explore the world of nosework with your hound. You can use supplies you already have at home like hiding food from their daily meals.
- Embrace your terrier’s prey drive through toys like a flirt pole. Emulate a squirrel or rabbit’s fast movements by quickly jerking a toy side to side and letting him chase. You might also look into casual dog sports like barn hunt.
- Teach your retriever to play an easy game of fetch. Keep the distances short while he’s young. Remember to avoid jarring exercises like jumping or turning sharply.
- The opportunities are endless. Ask yourself what job your dog was bred to do. How you can help them tap into those instincts?
Provide your puppy with a variety of enrichment activities
Make mealtimes more exciting with food enrichment
Food enrichment is becoming more popular with dog parents around the globe. It’s easy to do—every puppy needs to eat! And most of us already have the supplies on hand to set up a variety of mealtime games.
Here are some simple ways you can spice up your puppy’s meal times:
- Let your dog engage in natural foraging behavior by sniffing his food out of a snuffle mat. You can also simply toss his kibble into the grass or scatter it on the floor.
- Consider investing in a simple puzzle toy (or making one of your own with things like old cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls, and plastic bottles). Encourage your puppy to perform a range of natural behaviors like digging, pawing, and chewing in order to earn his food.
- Hide your puppy’s meal in small containers around a room. He can use his nose to sniff out its location! If he struggles at first, consider placing a few smelly treats on top of his kibble.
Get his puppy brain thinking with cognitive enrichment
We know that proper physical activity sets your dog’s brain up to learn. A variety of problem-solving challenges further his mental capacity and build attention skills over time. As a bonus, mental work is often more tiring than physical exercise. These are the perfect activities to do before asking your puppy to settle in his crate or out on a patio.
Cognitive enrichment can look like many different things:
- Play simple training games that encourage eye contact, name recognition, and impulse control. Domestic dogs are hardwired to bond with humans! As long as you keep things fast-paced and fun, your puppy should naturally love working with you (It’s worth noting that some breeds are more independent than others, but most young dogs are eager to affiliate with their family members).
- Teach fun tricks. While not necessary for daily life, trick training is fun for both you and your puppy! Many behaviors like rolling over, spinning, and waving his paws double as light physical activity, too.
- Expand your dog's training, either on your own at home or in a professional trainer’s group classes for added guidance and socialization.
- Use puzzle toys, food searches, and other types of food enrichment (whether for full meals or just occasional extra treats). One of the best things about biological fulfillment is that many activities overlap with each other. Natural behaviors like sniffing and searching generally require mental work too.
- Try formal agility or other dog sports once your puppy is cleared for more strenuous activity.
How to incorporate biological fulfillment into your puppy raising schedule
As a general rule, try to include more biological fulfillment (like sniffing and playing) in each day than hard work (things that might drain him like impulse control or navigating stressful environments). This will make sure your dog feels satisfied and has the capacity to tackle all the adventures you want to share together.
Consider “stacking” fulfillment activities on top of other necessary tasks in your puppy’s daily routine. This might look like:
- Pairing each bathroom break with a short sniff walk or play session
- Giving meals in food enrichment setups or through short, fun training sessions
- Playing during socialization outings
Will letting my dog chase or chew things create bad habits?
This is a common concern, and for good reason. It’s important to think about how we’re coming across to our dogs! Consistent expectations are vital to live well together. No one wants a puppy who thinks he can scrounge on the sidewalk, chew up your favorite shoes, or suddenly chase prey while out and about.
Thankfully, you can allow your puppy to engage in biologically fulfilling behavior without creating problems down the line. When we orchestrate enrichment activities ourselves, we can structure them in ways that work for our individual lifestyles.
As long as you’re clear with your dog about when it’s time to chase, chew, or dig (and when it isn’t), he’ll be able to pick up on appropriate patterns quickly:
- Use a consistent verbal or visual cue to announce the start of play time. Use another to let your puppy know when it’s over.
- Only allow your puppy to chew objects you give him.
- You might put most of your dog’s toys away when you aren’t playing with him to encourage his ability to settle on his own in between games.
It might seem counterintuitive to let your puppy shred a cardboard box when you don’t want him to make a habit of exploring old trash, but think of it this way: The more you give him clear opportunities to follow his instincts, the less likely he is to have pent-up drives that explode in situations you don’t want.
Don't forget that every dog has different needs
Every puppy has different preferences. Every dog parent has different expectations. What matters most? That you and your dog both feel fulfilled in your life together. Taking the time to understand his exercise needs, canine instincts, and personal traits from the get-go will help you build a bond for years to come.