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Sports Medicine

How Much Can You Exercise Your Dog? Expert Conditioning Tips

How much exercise is too much for your dog? Learn how to train for activities and keep your dog active in their adult and senior years.

By Krista Halling DVM CCRP DACVS

While hiking, trail running and bikepacking with your dog can be rewarding experiences, fostering the bond between you and your furry friend, it is important to ensure that your dog is physically prepared for these activities.

Since each dog may differ in their own activity tolerance, rather than stating a maximum distance for a dog, let’s look at science-based guidelines for safely exposing your dog to exercise while minimizing the risk of injury or overtraining.

Note: In this article we focus on the adult, or skeletally-mature, dog whose bones have stopped growing. Puppies have different considerations and will be discussed in another article.

Components of an activity

When you engage in outdoor exercise with your dog, the activity is composed of three variables:

  1. Intensity: this refers to the difficulty level of an activity. Factors influencing the intensity include speed, terrain (flat is easier than hilly; firm, dry dirt is usually easier than performing the activity through snow or sand), and environment (high altitude and/or high ambient temperature will increase the intensity)
  2. Duration: the time over which the activity occurs
  3. Frequency: the number of times per day or per week the activity is performed

These can each be selected to be low, medium or high so you can dial in a conditioning program that is “just right” for your dog and one that allows your dog’s muscles, joints, and cardiovascular system to adapt while avoiding overtraining.

8 tactics for safely exercising your dog

These general guidelines should work well for a healthy adult dog. If you are uncertain whether this is suitable for your own dog, or if your dog has health conditions, we recommend you discuss this with your veterinarian before increasing your dog’s exercise.

1. Start Slow

If your dog is new to the activity, begin with short walks or runs (5 min walk or jog; or 1 min swim). If your dog has been doing an activity for a while, start at that duration.

2. Gradually Increase

  • Aim for no surprises. I like to ask myself this question: “Is what we’re about to do likely to surprise my dog’s body?” You’ll usually have a gut feeling whether the answer is “Yes”, in which case stick with something closer to what your dog’s body has recently been used to.
  • Most dogs will tolerate a mild step-wise increase (10-15% increase per week is usually safe)
  • Increase only one variable (intensity, duration or frequency) at a time. For example, one week you could increase the duration of a hike from 8.5km to 10km. Since the duration has increased, the intensity (speed or challenge of the terrain) should remain the same or even be lowered a bit. The next week, you could increase the intensity while keeping the duration/distance at 10km.
  • Continue gradual increases one at a time in intensity, duration or frequency until you have reached your target for the activity.

3. Warm Up and Cool Down

Try to incorporate a warm-up period before and a cool-down period after each exercise session. This can be as simple as 2-3 minutes of walking.

4. Monitor Your Dog’s Response

While there is no firm upper limit on what your dog may be able to endure over time, always pay attention to signs that you’re doing more than your dog wants. If you are staying within your dog’s desire and ability, they should easily be able to keep up with you. Heavy panting, lagging behind, or limping are indicators that your dog needs a break. Your dog may even outright stop or turn around. Listen to these messages and adjust accordingly. If your dog is overly tired or limping the following day, that indicates the activity was too much. Allow your dog to rest and, when recovered, start back at the level that your dog tolerated and then increase more gradually.

5. Rest Days

Just like human athletes, dogs need rest days to recover. Aim for at least one rest day per week. For those of you conditioning your dog year-round, include a minimum of one month off, with only low to moderate intensity during this period. If the intensity is always low to moderate, you can continue that year-round with weekly rest days as long as your dog is responding well to the exercise and showing no signs of overtraining or injury.

6. Paw Care

Trails and roads can be rough on your dog’s paws, especially the nails and footpads. Check their paws regularly for cuts, abrasions, or foreign objects, and consider using dog booties (e.g. Ruffwear’s Hi & Light Trail Shoes or Dogbooties.com) for protection. If you plan your dog to run on hard surfaces (e.g. for a road running event), try to do most (60-75%) of the training mileage on forgiving surfaces (e.g. grass lawns, dirt trails) to protect your dog’s paws and footpads. Also note that surface such as asphalt and sand get hot! If the surface is too hot for you to touch, it’s likely too hot for your dog’s bare paws.

7. Hydration and Nutrition

Always carry enough water for both you and your dog to drink and to wet them down, and take breaks to hydrate. High-energy snacks or dog-specific trail food can help maintain their energy levels (more on their caloric needs in an upcoming article).

8. Strength Training

To complement endurance training, you may enjoy doing some simple strength training with your dog. This can be as simple as 12 repetitions per day of some of the following:

  • Give a paw: shoulder extension, elbow flexion, paw extension. Try to do both left and right paw.
  • Sit-to-stand: works your dog’s quads and gluteals
  • Dancing: hold your dog by both front paws while he/she is standing on their hind feet. This works core muscles, hip extenders and quads
  • Bowing: shoulder and elbow flexion; also works core muscles

9. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There may be some benefit, in highly athletic dogs, of supplementing their diet with omega-3 fatty acids to reduce the inflammatory effect of heavy exercise on musculoskeletal soft tissues. See comment below under “Arthritic Dogs”.

Special considerations

Puppies: A dog’s growth plates close generally at 12-14 months of age. Until this time, skeletally-immature dogs are highly susceptible to acute and chronic problems if they embark on endurance exercise or high-impact activities. We will cover puppies in another article, but please note that the guidelines mentioned here don’t apply to puppies.

Senior Dogs: Older dogs may have concurrent conditions that limit their ability to exercise – in which case check with your veterinarian – but in general “a body in motion stays in motion”. We thus highly recommend keeping your older dog moving and following the aforementioned guidelines, although you may wish to be very gradual as you increase the activity and see how they respond. If your senior dog is already quite active, kudos to you and do keep them that way. If your geriatric dog has become sedentary, try increasing their activity as described above. Short yet frequent will probably be best tolerated.

Arthritic Dogs: Despite a common myth to the contrary, exercise does not cause arthritis. If your dog has arthritis (unless they also have an unstable CCL and knee) then remember that “motion is lotion” and keep your dog moving. Movement is like WD-40 for arthritic joints, so the best that you can do for your dog is to keep their joints moving and their muscles strong. You may find that they do better with a higher frequency yet shorter duration (e.g. three 10-minute walks per day rather than one 30-minute walk). There is also evidence that omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplementation may have a beneficial anti-inflammatory effect, improving the comfort and mobility in dogs with osteoarthritis. Speak with your veterinarian about whether omega-3 FA is beneficial for your dog. (Glucosamines and chondroitins do not show consistent benefit and are no longer recommended by most orthopaedic veterinary specialists.)

Brachycephalic Breeds: Short-nosed dogs such as bulldogs and Boston terriers are inherently at an exercise disadvantage. Their airway anatomy includes narrow nostrils, thickened and long tissue in their throat region, and a narrow windpipe. These collectively make air exchange and cooling a challenge. So keep this in mind and pay extra attention to how your brachycephalic dog is breathing, while also avoiding exercising them on hot days. Low intensity (low speed, easy terrain) will work in their favour (think surfing and skateboarding!) and may allow you to increase the frequency or duration while staying within their comfort limits.

Time Constraints: You may love the idea of doing long activities with your dog yet just don’t have the time. That’s okay – even some staying active is staying active. Short-duration is better than no duration when it comes to keeping your dog mobile. So if a long endurance activity doesn’t work for your schedule, try for 10-20 minutes 5-6 days a week. A short activity performed frequently is still beneficial for their physical and mental well-being.

By understanding your dog’s exercise tolerances and conditioning them gradually, you can ensure successful and enjoyable adventures. Always listen to your dog’s signals and prioritize their well-being, and you’ll both be set for many happy trails together.

About the author

Krista Halling is a veterinarian board-certified with the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and co-founder of Dogpacking.com.


Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, 2nd Ed. Zink C and Van Dyke J, Editors. 2018, John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey.

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