In the US, obesity is the most common preventable disease in dogs, affecting up to 45% of the adult canine population, according to VCA Hospitals. Overweight dogs are more prone to many diseases, including joint trauma, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
Luckily, the cure for canine obesity isn’t complicated or expensive. And, in fact, it can be quite enjoyable for you and your pup!
Active play can help overweight dogs lose weight, but the health benefits don't stop there. Keep reading to find out how exercise and play can make for an overall healthier pooch and find out the best ways to exercise your dog inside and outside the home.
The Health Benefits of Exercise for Dogs
If you think exercise is only good for shedding a few pounds, think again. Here are six ways dog exercise can improve your best friend’s health.
Helps Maintain a Healthy Weight
Ninety-seven percent of veterinarians attribute dog obesity to owner-related factors. These include, most notably, feeding and exercise routines. This means that you have almost full control over your dog’s weight.
By providing a quality diet fed in appropriate amounts and enough exercise to maintain your dog’s ideal weight and muscle mass, you can literally add years to their life expectancy.
Reduces Anxiety and Behavioral Problems
Exercise isn't just great for physical conditioning; it can also contribute to better dog mental health. Dogs that have an excess of pent-up energy are more likely to engage in destructive and anxious behaviors, including furniture chewing, obsessive barking, and counter surfing.
Habitually understimulated dogs are more likely to develop long-term anxiety problems such as separation anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. By getting your dog out for exercise and active play, you take away the excess energy that fuels the production of stress hormones like cortisol while helping to increase the production of serotonin, dopamine, and other calming endorphins.
Improves Urinary and Digestive Health
Getting exercise outdoors has benefits that extend beyond burning energy. Getting dogs outside their familiar territory induces the instinctual behavior of urinary marking. This continual emptying of the bladder to mark helps improve muscle control of the bladder and the health of the kidneys. In addition, this process helps offset the effects of excessive urine holding that occurs when dogs are locked inside for long periods during the day.
Activity outside also stimulates the bowel. This is likely a combination of factors, including the instinct to fecal mark, increased blood flow to the digestive tract due to increased heart rate, and the effects of stimulatory hormones produced during physical activity. Dogs that are given the opportunity to empty their bowel more frequently are less likely to suffer from constipation, diarrhea, and intestinal inflammation.
Keeps Muscles and Joints Limber
A dog's physical health isn’t just limited to their weight and the health of internal organs. The elasticity and strength of their muscles and joints also play a huge role in their overall health and wellbeing.
Dogs that get frequent, appropriate physical activity are less likely to suffer joint injuries and premature joint inflammation compared to sedentary dogs. This has as much to do with exercise's potential to maintain a healthy weight as it stimulates anti-inflammatory factors within joints and muscles during low-impact, moderate physical activity.
Improves Immune System Function
Humans have long understood a connection between exercise and immune system function. Animal studies throughout history have shown that sedentary animals are at a greater risk of infection and death from pathogens than their counterparts who receive adequate physical activity.
Further research into this connection has shown that exercise has the power to shape immunocyte dynamics, the release pattern of stress hormones, the expression of different molecules, and the redistribution and apoptosis of certain immune cells. While this relationship is still somewhat of a mystery, the conclusion that appropriate exercise leads to improved immune function is widely accepted as fact.
Strengthens Your Bond
In addition to improving your dog's health, exercising and play also has the valuable effect of strengthening your bond with your dog. It is no secret that taking your dog on walks, hikes, or just playing a game of chase in the backyard can improve your relationship with them. A strong bond can improve your and your dog's mental health and wellbeing.
The Best Ways to Exercise Your Dog
Now that you know the importance of exercise for your dog, here are some great tips for assuring they get adequate daily activity, whether it takes place in the house, outside, or with the help of your local doggy community.
Get Out of the House
Exercising your dog outside the home has the added benefits of helping you both get more fresh air and of introducing your dog to new sights, sounds, and smells to help them become more well-rounded.
Go for a Walk
For most owners, walking the dog is the first thing they think of when exercise is mentioned. That doesn't mean this form of exercise is any less worthy than others; you just have to make sure you do it right to receive all the benefits.
When you walk your dog, make sure you give them the full leash so they can sniff, mark, and explore to their heart's content. Not only will this result in more movement and calories burned overall, but it also stimulates them mentally, so they'll be more exhausted when the walk is over.
Run, Hike, or Bike
Got an especially active pup at home? Higher endurance activities like hiking, jogging, and biking can help tire out active dogs more quickly than a simple walk. Just be sure you spend some time training your dog to stay by your side and mind your commands before you try to use biking and jogging as their daily exercise.
Because surfaces like concrete and asphalt can be hard on dogs’ joints, it is best to keep biking and running to dirt or gravel jogging paths if possible. Young puppies shouldn’t get involved with high endurance activities until their bones have stopped growing, which happens between nine and eighteen months in most breeds. Once your dog is old enough, be sure to start easy and work up to longer outings as their endurance increases.
Go to the Park
The park is a great place to exercise your dog. For less sociable animals, stick to the trails and fields. If your dog doesn't have a strong recall or your city ordinances require leashes, use a long line to give them more room to roam and burn off some energy while keeping them under control. The dog park can be a great place for social pups to run, play, and meet new friends.
Exercise Your Dog At Home
If time constraints or the weather doesn’t allow you to exercise outside, don’t worry, there are still plenty of activities for dogs around the house.
Play Chase or Fetch in the Backyard
If you have a fenced yard, you have a great opportunity to let your dog run off some steam without leaving the property. A game of fetch, frisbee, or even chase is the perfect way to strengthen your bond with your dog, work on their obedience training, and help tire them out. Just be sure to start slow, so everyone has time to warm up their muscles and joints before the real games get underway.
Use Mental Stimulation Toys
Fifteen minutes of focused mental activity has the same effect on a dog’s energy levels as a 30-minute walk. So if that rainstorm is keeping you and your dog inside, don’t worry, you can actually do more to tire them out by pulling out the puzzle toys and making them use their brain.
Play Hide and Seek
Another great mental stimulation game for your pup that doesn’t involve purchasing or making a special puzzle toy, is hide and seek. This game can be played using treats, toys, or yourself as the item to find. Simply show your dog the item, put them in a stay, hide it out of sight, then encourage them to go find it.
Whether it’s obedience, trick training, or a home agility course, training your dog is a great way to tire them out mentally and physically. Plus, you’ll get the dual benefits of a tired dog who minds really well.
If you don’t know where to begin with training, start by joining a class and learning the basics. Once you know how to train and communicate with your dog, you can use those skills at home to build their arsenal of learned behaviors.
Let Someone Else Help
In a perfect world, we would always have enough time to give our dogs the exercise and attention they need. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case and your dog’s exercise needs don’t change just because you aren’t available. Luckily, there are some options for exercise that don’t require you to participate.
When a long day at the office prevents you from participating in your dog’s daily walk, a dog walker is a perfect solution. While this option does require some financial investment, it can pay off in the long run by reducing future vet bills and preventing home damage caused by a bored and under-stimulated pup.
Dog daycare is another costly, but often worth it, financial commitment that you may want to consider if you struggle to give your dog the exercise they crave. These facilities are a great option for highly social dogs and those with excess energy. If your pup is a good fit, they'll get the benefit of physical, mental, and social stimulation all in one action-packed day.
Play Every Day
How much exercise your dog needs will depend on several factors, including their breed, age, physical limitations, and personality. In general, all dogs need at least half an hour of physical activity each day, with younger dogs and working breeds needing that amount multiple times throughout the day.
The more time you spend playing with and exercising your dog, the better you’ll get to know how much activity they need and which of the above options works the best to tire them out.
Whether it's a morning walk or a full day at doggy daycare, you’ll be rewarded for helping keep your dog active with the benefits that come from a healthier companion and a stronger bond that will last for a lifetime.
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Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.