New puppy owners are usually aware that we should not over-exercise labrador puppies.
But is it really that important to avoid strenuous puppy exercise?
Or have the risks been exaggerated?
And just how much exercise is too much?
The question of hip dysplasia
The current position taken by those advising new puppy owners, to restrict exercise quite severely is largely based on concerns about joint disorders, and on concerns about hip dysplasia in particular.
You can find out more about the disease of canine hip dysplasia on this page Hip dysplasia but essentially this is a disorder of the hip joints which is believed to be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.
The stresses and strains placed on the vulnerable growing joint by excessive exercise are believed to be a contributory environmental factor in the development of inadequate hip joints.
What is the evidence?
A recent study in Norway based on five hundred dogs, which included labradors, showed that puppies given the opportunity to exercise in a park before the age of three months were less likely to develop hip dysplasia.
Whilst puppies that had to climb stairs on a regular basis during the same period were at increased risk. You can read about this study in Science Daily
So can puppies’ hip joints can be damaged by excessive exercise or can’t they?
We don’t know for sure. It seems likely though, that a puppy that had inherited a tendency for poor hips, could have its soft and still forming hip joints made a good deal worse through prolonged or hard exercise.
It is also possible that a puppy that has inherited excellent hips, will come to no harm whatsoever through hard exercise.
We just don’t know.
The advice you have been given is really a safety precaution, and it makes sense to pay attention to this advice simply because we believe that ‘playing it safe’ will not harm your puppy
Playing it safe
The evidence seems to suggest that a puppy will come to no harm from given opportunity to exercise/play on a flat or gently undulating surface. But that strenuous exercise such as stair climbing may increase the risk of poor hip development, particularly (and possibly only) in a puppy that has inherited a tendency to hip dysplasia.
Therefore, taking a puppy for long walks or asking him to negotiate very steep or uneven surfaces when he is little, is probably a bad idea.
You have no way of knowing what state your puppy’s hips are in until and if, they are x-rayed when his growth is complete. Obviously if your puppy’s parents had low hip scores he stands a good chance of having good hips.
But this is not a guarantee.
Puppies with severe hip dysplasia are sometimes produced by dogs with great hips. Even if your puppy has inherited great hips, you cannot be sure that hard exercise will not damage them whilst they are growing.
Therefore you may feel that the sensible course for you to take is to restrict your puppy’s exercise to within moderate limits until he has finished growing. But how do we define ‘moderate limits’?
How much exercise should your puppy have each day?
Many breeders suggest the ‘five minute rule’ This rule says that a puppy should have no more than five minutes ‘organised’ exercise per day for every month of his age. So that would be fifteen minutes a day for a three month old puppy, twenty minutes for a four month old and so on. Organised exercise means exercise that you are controlling or arranging such as ‘walks’ or ‘training sessions’.
Puppies under three months old probably do not need any kind of ‘walks’ at all, just access to a ‘play area’ outdoors where they can run about for a few minutes several times each day.
You do not need to attempt to prevent puppies trotting about the house or playing with another dog for a while, provided that the puppy is free to stop and rest whenever he wants. Beware of letting a puppy play for too long with an older dog that does not want to stop. And keep an eye on children who may inadvertently exhaust a puppy by encouraging him to play when he needs to sleep.
Keeping a balance
Try and keep a balance. If you have been to visit a friend with your five month old pup and their dog has played for half an hour in the garden with yours, your dog does not need a walk as well. Walking is only one form of exercise and is no more valuable or important than games or training exercises. It is the total exercise that counts.
Once the pup is over a year old, then provided fitness is built up gradually, most healthy dogs can be exercised as hard as is appropriate for the breed.
Some breeders also prevent dogs from jumping for the first twelve months to reduce impact on the shoulder and elbow joints. This may be especially important for some of the heavier breeds of dog, and those that are slow to mature.
Talk to your vet
Do talk to your vet about exercise at your first appointment with your puppy. We are still learning about hip dysplasia. Research is ongoing, knowledge increases all the time.
Your vet should be up to date with the latest information regarding the optimum amount of exercise for your new puppy.
This article was written by Pippa Mattinson. Pippa’s recall training book will be available from July 2012: Total Recall A complete recall training programme for dogs and puppies.
The Labrador Site is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson. Pippa's latest book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs