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Exercise – How to Raise a Strong and Balanced Puppy into Adulthood

I remember bringing my puppy Xena home like it was yesterday. It was such an exciting and exhilarating time. From the moment she arrived Xena became not just a pet but a cherished member of the family. Her zest for life and playful spirit was infectious, turning the simplest of moments into heartwarming memories. However these exciting times were also filled with uncertainty. As a new pup parent, I found myself questioning how much exercise does my growing puppy need? Which activities are appropriate? and could I be inadvertently causing damage to my growing puppy? Motivated to foster Xena's growth and development into a strong, balanced, and healthy adult dog, I set about researching, and seeking answers.

Photo Credit: Alan Castle

This blog discusses the validity of the long-standing "5-minute rule," and explores the physiology of your developing puppy's body. Subsequently, it outlines which exercise are deemed safe and which should be avoided by categorising them based on their impact levels - low, high and high risk. It is only through this comprehensive understanding that I hope you will feel empowered to raise a strong and balanced puppy into adulthood.

The 5 - Minute Rule

The UK Kennel Club states, "puppies need less 'formal' exercise than fully grown dogs," yet they do not state what 'formal exercise' is. They also say, "a good rule of thumb is a ratio of five minutes of formal exercise per month of age (up to twice a day) until the puppy is fully grown." Many clubs, trainers, veterinarians, associations and so on also follow this guidance, but where is the science to support such recommendations?

The main reason for the UK Kennel Club's 5 - minute rule is to ensure pet parents do not over-exercise their puppies until their growth plates are closed as this "can increase a puppy's risk of developing certain joint problems that can be permanent, painful and debilitating."

It is crucial to minimise the risk of injury to growth plates, especially in growing puppies by avoiding two main types of activities

  1. Impact trauma - such as being hit by a car or rammed by another dog - or jumping/ falling from a great height or running down the stairs.

  2. Repetitive activities - games of fetch, tight turns, agility wing wraps and drills etc.

Despite this, I personally cannot find any scientific literature or evidence that states premature closure of growth plates is caused by exercises like walking or running (I am happy to be proved wrong). The only study I where I found harmful effects were ones where dogs were running 12 miles/ 20km everyday for a year ,and only then was there some softening of the cartilage (sighted, Dr. Darryl Millis). I think you will agree this is very excessive amounts of exercise, on a consistent basis and it is very unlikely that any pet parent would exercise their puppy to this extent.

So, with the 5 - minute rule coming into question and no hard evidence to suggest vigorous exercise causes damage to a puppy's growth plates, why do we need to be concerned with the amount and type of exercise/ activities our puppies partake in? To answer this question, we firstly need to look at the physiology of puppies and how they develop. There is a lot more to a puppy than just developing bones which I would like to share with you, but if you want to skip the science, go straight to the Exercises & Activities. I will not be offended but I personally think you will find the science fascinating.

The Triangle of Development

There are 3 systems of the body that we (the pet parent) can have both a positive or negative influence over during our puppy's development and throughout their adult life. These are the Skeletal, Muscular and Nervous systems.

1.Skeletal System

The skeletal system contains approximately 320 bones (depending on length of tail) and has many structural functions including providing: support, shape, protection, movement, and attachment for muscles.

Puppies grow extremely rapidly, especially within the first 6 months. For the purpose of this blog, we will be focusing on the growth of long bones which are situated within the limbs. Bones grow by a process called ossification. Ossification occurs within the growth plates (physis) which are situated at both ends of long bones. These areas of soft tissues are where new bone cells are laid down, enabling the bone to lengthen and the limb to grow. Once your puppy has finished growing (usually at 18 months but this varies greatly depending on breed) their growth plates close and are replaced with dense, hard bone.

Growth plates are fragile and vulnerable to injury as they are near the articulating surfaces of joints. If a growth plate is injured this can often result in premature closure of the growth plate. This can cause shortening of the limb or altered angulation. Despite this bones and joints can adapt to the many different loading forces and stresses placed upon them as puppies develop. This is known as bone remodelling. Therefore, it is crucial to select exercises and activities for puppies that are balanced and offer the correct amount of loading forces.

2. Muscular System

The muscular system accounts for around 45% of an adult dog’s body weight. It has many functions including providing movement and posture. The skeletal and muscular system could not function without each other. Therefore, the systems are known collectively as the musculoskeletal system. The primary function of the musculoskeletal system is to create movement via pulleys and levers. The bones are the levers and the skeletal muscles, which attached to bone are the pulleys that create movement. Skeletal muscle can only create movement through contraction. It cannot actively extend (lengthen).

Correct muscle development in a puppy is critical. The Canine Conditioning Academy states “core stability is vital for correct movement.” Core muscles are more than just the abdominals. They include multifidus (innermost back muscle), transverse abdominis, diaphragm and pelvic floor. Puppies that do not engage in appropriate and balanced exercises & activities can develop a weak and unbalanced musculoskeletal system. “Movement can be uncoordinated, and joints become unstable,” resulting in puppies that are more prone to injury and susceptible to musculoskeletal conditions i.e. arthritis. Therefore, it is imperative puppies are given opportunities to develop their core strength and stability which will support them throughout their life."The best way to activate the core is to alternate between static and dynamic muscular activity. Switch on, Switch off." This involves activating the neural pathways using simple, slow, multidirectional movements.

3. Nervous System

A neural pathway is a series of connected neurons (nerves), which transmit signals from the body to the brain and brain to the body. It is the motor neurons that control muscle movement.

The easiest way to visualise the development of a new neural pathway is to imagine a field of long grass. You want to get from point A to point B by following the path of least resistance. Each time you do this the path becomes more established until there is a clear, well-worn, brown, dusty path visible across the field. Once this well-trodden path is established it is very unlikely you will cross the field using a different route. This is how automatic movement patterns (habits) are formed. However not all are beneficial and can result in forming bad habits e.g. poor posture.

There are so many other potential pathways that could have been created in the field of long grass. By creating extra paths (neural pathways) it would ensure that your puppy develops, the coordination, balance and muscle control required to create a balanced and strong body which is less susceptible to injury. Therefore, it is imperative that your puppy’s motor neurons are stimulated in as many ways as possible during their development so many neural pathways can be created. This will enhance:

  • Spatial awareness – an awareness of where their body is in relation to other objects.

  • Proprioception - the body’s ability to sense movement, action and location. Without proprioception, puppies wouldn’t be able to move without thinking about their next step.

  • Coordination – the ability to use different muscles together to create different movements. It is also the ability to isolate muscle groups to create complex movements.

To ensure your puppy develops as many neural pathways as possible, they need to be introduced to as many different stimuli as possible. This can be achieved by encouraging your puppy to use different movement patterns, directions, and speeds (appropriate to their age and stage of development).

Exercise & Activities

Now that you understand the basic physiology of puppies and how they develop, we can start to look at appropriate exercises and activities which are going to aid their triangle of development (bone, muscle & nerve). The development of the skeletal system is often ahead of the muscular system (think long-legged, gangly puppies with large paws). Therefore, it is critical to provide exercises and activities that are sympathetic to the rapidly developing bones and joints alongside the slower development of the soft tissue. The following activities have been categorising based on their impact levels - low, high and high risk.

1.Low impact

Low impact activities can be played up to 20 minutes a day (divided up through the day) or until your puppy becomes disengaged/tired. This time can be slowly increased to 60 minutes a day once your puppy has reached 6 months. Low impact exercises & activities should be part of your puppy’s daily routine and continued throughout their lifetime as they will support their triangle of development in the following ways.


A puppy’s superpower is their nose, but they still need appropriate stimulation to fully activate their neural pathways ‘use it or lose it.’

Aim – to develop puppy's olfactory system (scenting skills). Move with their head lowered to assist with hind limb function, enable flexibility of the neck & spine and free range of motion through the shoulders. To develop core muscles.

Equipment – natural environment (inside or outside) – a safe area where good scents and sniffs can be found, with no interference from other dogs or humans. Longline and harness. Treats.

How to play – a sniffari is very different from a walk. This is time when your puppy is allowed to sniff whatever they want to sniff and go in any direction that they choose to go in. Allow them free rein to explore their environment at a slow and steady pace (hence the longline and harness). Food can be scattered to encouraging sniffing.

This short video helps so show the difference between a sniffari and a walk.

Pick up sticks

Did you ever play the game pick up sticks as a child? Well, this game is a much larger version however your puppy is required to navigate their way over the sticks instead of picking them up.

Aim - To encourage your puppy to walk over a maze of poles to naturally enhance their coordination, proprioception and spatial awareness. They should walk slowly and multidirectional.

Equipment – Plastic poles, large plastic hoops, long sticks, treats

How to play - Lay poles in a random pattern on the floor, some can be crossing each other. This layout will give your puppy differing heights, stride lengths and foot placements to think about. Scatter some treats and allow your puppy to investigate in their own time and at their own pace.

The next two low impact activities are taken from the best-selling book ‘Stop walking your dog’ by Niki French. This book is full of great low impact games you can play with your dog. Buy your copy HERE!

Novelty Surprise Party

There is a lot of different items and objects in the home that our puppies will need to become familiar with as they grow and develop. They might be used to seeing a sweeping brush propped up against the wall but lay it down on the floor and they might not be as confident.

Aim – To encourage your puppy to freely navigate their way over, around, through, under a range of different novelty items. They should walk slowly and multidirectional over different items.

Equipment – objects from around the home – mop, sweeping brush, umbrella, vacuum cleaner, metal trays, cushions, clothing, get creative.

How to play – Set up a couple of different novelty items on the floor. Scatter some treats and allow your puppy to investigate in their own time and at their own pace.

Cardboard chaos

Who doesn’t love having fun with a cardboard box?

Aim - To encourage your puppy to freely navigate their way over, around, through, under a maze of cardboard. They should walk slowly and multidirectional, crouching, leaning.

Equpiment – Carboard boxes lots of different shapes and sizes

How to play – Pile up the cardboard boxes leaving some bigger boxes open to create spaces to crawl under and through. Create nooks and crannies. Scatter some treats and allow your puppy to investigate in their own time and at their own pace.

Watch the video from Stop walking your dog with Niki French, YouTube channel to see how it is done.

Low Impact - Does & Don’ts

  • Always ensure activities are conducted on a non-slip surface

  • Never leave your puppy unattended

  • Don’t overwhelm your puppy. Start with a few objects they are happy with and build up slowly.

  • Start with your puppy on a lead and harness to support and guide – remember we want slow and steady movement.

2. High impact

This is where the UK Kennel Club’s 5-minute rule may come into play! Research suggests that high impact activities can be played twice a day at five minutes for each month of age of your puppy. When your puppy reaches 6 months the time can be increased to 30 minutes. This is the maximum amount of high impact activity I would recommend for a growing dog. (Check growth plate chart above). High impact activities will support your puppy’s triangle of development in the following ways.

Now can you see why low impact activities & exercises are so much more beneficial than high impact?

Free running

This is running off lead in a safe environment, without any stimulation/ interference from another dog or human.

Aim – To receive the appropriate forces/ loads required for building strong, dense bones

Equipment – An open area i.e. garden or non-slip area of the home. Toys can be placed in the area.

How to play – Allow your puppy the freedom to run and play. Self-initiated play with a toy is great but don’t engage with the play as this will create over excitement and stimulation. When left alone puppies will be able to self-regulate i.e. burst of running followed by periods of rest when they choose. This is vitally important as your puppy should stop when then need to as too much running can be detrimental to their physical development.

Too much running can …

  • Cause over-excitement or stimulation – this makes it difficult for puppies to self- regulate as they are running on adrenaline.

  • Be detrimental to joint and bone formation – too much concussive loading through the growth plates and newly formed bone.

  • Unbalance the muscular system – it will promote the use of the power muscles and demote the core muscles. This causes instability and imbalance, which puts your puppy at risk of developing skeletal issues and injuries.

Tuggy Play

Tugging is a natural behaviour for puppies. Playing with your puppy can be massively rewarding and can be a great bonding experience for both human and puppy.

Aim – develop strength through appropriate and gentle resistance (the amount of hold the human offers) and loading (direction of the pull). This games also helps develop strength and flexibility of the neck and jaw.

Equipment – Select a toy that is a good size for your puppy’s mouth (comfortable fit), a suitable length (to create distance) and soft in texture. ‘Road-kill’ toys or a rolled-up tea towels are good toys to start with however, each puppy will have their individual preference. It’s about trial and error until you find that perfect toy your puppy loves.

How to play – Keep play sessions short. 2 minutes is more than enough. Be aware of your own strength, it is crucial that you tug to your puppy’s strength and height. It’s a game of give and take. Get down on your puppy’s level. Movement should be smooth and fluid. Keep your arms straight. No jarring or sudden movements.

Incorrect tugging…

  • Tugging when the spine, hips and/or elbows are out of alinement can have a detrimental effect on the natural loading and resistance that a growing puppy needs.

  • Tugging with too much resistance and height causes the vertebrae to become compacted. It also places a heavy load through the puppy’s lumbar (lower back) pelvis, hindlimbs, stifles and hocks.

  • Know when to stop – tuggy play is both very mentally and physically tiring, it also raises adrenaline levels making it increasingly difficult to settle afterwards.

  • Teething – your puppy’s mouth can become very sore and sensitive when they are teething. If your puppy is showing any signs of discomfort cease play immediately.

Walking on lead

Walking on lead has been classified as high impact as it can restrict the natural movement of your puppy. Stick to the Dos otherwise walking on lead can become high risk.

3. High Risk

High risk activities should be avoided or kept to an absolute minimum. This is because these activities have no positive effects on your puppy’s triangle of development as they are usually performed at high speed when your puppy is over-aroused.

In my blog “Silent pain in dogs – Harmful Habits” I shine a light on the common, fun habits and behaviours our dogs exhibit daily which can result in discomfort, pain, and even long-term health issues. This includes…

• Chase Games

• Zero to Sixty

• Jumping in/out of the car

• Standing on hindlegs

• Pulling on lead

Click HERE to find out more.


If you have got to the end of this blog… Well done! When I embarked on this research Xena was only 10 weeks old. She is now 6 months old. I have invested countless hours researching professional advice, ensuring it was backed up by accurate scientific research. Only then could I be confident in raising a strong and balanced puppy. I hope this blog helps you too, whether you have a puppy, adult or senior dog these simple exercises and activities will ensure your dog’s body is able to function at its optimum level throughout its lifetime.

Photo Credit - Alan Castle

References & Further Reading

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