Line Østerhagen | How much should I exercise my puppy? | SEASON FINALE
JEANETTE: I see a lot of questions on social media about what distances a puppy can walk, when they can start pulling or carrying a backpack, or whether they should walk on stairs or not. Today’s guest has worked with physical therapy for 20 years, and she can help find answers to these questions. Line Østerhagen, welcome.
LINE: Thank you.
JEANETTE: Your goal is to make life better for dogs by spreading knowledge about how their bodies are working and how we can take care of them in the best way possible. Therefore, you have been working on a book for the past year.
LINE: Yes, during 20 years of work and contact with dog owners, I found out that many courses and many places where they teach normal dog training, they actually don’t teach training physiology. So there is a lot of myths and wrong information out there, and I wanted to create a book with all the things that I think are missing from all the ordinary courses and all the important knowledge to all the dog owners so they can take good care of the body of their dog.
My book is about training exercise, but also about making a well-balanced program for the dog, how to train strength, endurance, and core muscles, and also how to put all these training methods together. But it’s also about how to train a dog according to their age, because there are certain practices that you need to take care of when maybe you’re training a puppy or training a grown dog. But it’s also a little bit about rehabilitation, harness, and how to actually do an easy physical checkup routine for your own dog and a little bit of stretching and massage. I think my book can help a lot of dog owners out there.
JEANETTE: The beginning of the dog’s life is very important. As a puppy, how do you prepare it for an active life?
LINE: There are so many misunderstandings, so many myths. Many people say that you have to keep the puppy quiet, don’t do any physical activities, be careful about exaggerating their training. But actually, it’s more like if you don’t do any exercises with your puppy, it will not be prepared for the exercise it’s going to do later in life.
In the beginning, when a puppy is born, it is really important that we let the puppy experience a lot of different stuff and a lot of different stimulation to the body because the body will develop to manage the things that we tell it it has to manage. And if you don’t tell it to manage anything, the puppy might easily get injured.
Actually, in the United States, in the military, they start stimulating the puppies when they are 10 weeks old. They have had quite good results with that. I’m not saying that you should exaggerate. You shouldn’t do anything that the puppy doesn’t actually manage to do by itself. But the puppy has to be in activity. You are not going to stop the puppy from any normal activities. For example, walking on stairs. Puppies can easily walk on stairs. It’s actually just if the puppy is so small that it cannot manage the stairs that you might wait a little bit with it. But if you make small stairs, even a small puppy will manage to do that.
So when they’re old enough to manage it all by themselves, they can do anything. You shouldn’t stop the puppy from anything. But I recommend that you don’t have a tired puppy. If you’re walking, for example, in the woods, you should notice if the puppy is tired. Maybe you should take a break. But the puppy should be in activity.
Of course, as it grows, it should be in more and more activity, and you should present to it more and more different kinds of stuff.
JEANETTE: Does this include jumping, different surfaces, and everything?
LINE: Yes. Surfaces are really important to teach the body how to control itself on different surfaces. Also, of course, mentally so that a puppy is not afraid of anything. A body that is afraid of a surface will also have a very tense body, and a tense body will easily get injured. I believe there are many factors that make it important to present all kinds of stuff, actually.
JEANETTE: I know one question many have is: for how long can I walk my puppy?
LINE: I wrote a blog about this, the 5-minute rule. Here in Norway we have something called the 5-minute rule that says that the puppy should increase with 5 minutes of walking every day. Actually, that makes maybe a six-month-old puppy say that it should only walk for half an hour. As I have border collies, I can tell you that if I kept my puppy from walking or moving more than 30 minutes a day when she was six months old, she would go crazy. After a trip in the woods, she would run hours in the garden.
I think that the puppy must decide itself. As long as it’s not human-driven exercise, they should move as much as they want. And as long as you take breaks when you go into the woods, I believe it’s totally okay. I think it’s really different walking a small chihuahua to walking, for example, an Alaskan husky. You cannot use the 5-minute rule for both of those two. A chihuahua will walk maybe twice or three times as many steps as the other dog when they’re in the woods.
It also depends on how well-prepared their body is at that stage. If the puppy has been in normal activities since it was small, then it will also be able to walk further. But of course, if you keep a puppy from walking and then start later on, then you have to start more carefully because the body is not built up to manage that kind of exercise.
I would not let a puppy jump all the time as exercise, but normal jumping in the garden, jumping over trees in the woods and everything, of course they can do that. As long as they physically manage it by themselves, then they can do it.
JEANETTE: How do I know if my puppy is tired? What signs should I look for? If it’s my first dog, it could be difficult to know if the puppy is tired or not.
LINE: Yes. The most normal sign, of course, is that it maybe walks a little bit slower, wants to sit down. Maybe it doesn’t manage its movement as well anymore. But actually, a puppy can also be overtired and get even more active than it normally does. Of course, it’s important to learn this from the beginning and to know their signs before you go on a long trip. I would recommend all people get knowledge about this because every dog is a little bit different as well, so it is really important that you know your puppy.
JEANETTE: A lot of our listeners have sports dogs. Many of them are doing pulling sports like bike drawing or canicross. One important question for them is: when can the puppy start pulling, and how do you start?
LINE: We recommend that a young dog learns how to do everything with only its own body first. So they build up their muscles, they build up their movements in maybe their first and second year. At approximately two years of age, a young dog can start to pull something or carry a backpack. But of course, this is also relative because the dog has to be prepared for the work. It doesn’t matter if the dog is two years old if it just laid on the sofa for that long. It needs to be prepared for every work that it’s going to do. If it’s well-prepared, then about two years of age.
You have to remember that we have to carefully build their body up progressively from the beginning. Those rules, for example, in agility, it says that as long as the dog is approximately one year old, it can participate in training. But of course, the dog has to be prepared in their body, so it doesn’t help to be the right age if they have not done the right preparation.
Actually, I have a kickbike, and although my dog is one year old this year, one of my dogs, she is walking beside the kickbike. She has a harness on, but she doesn’t actually pull. But I teach her techniques and I teach her commands and I teach her to be safer on the kickbike and everything. She also goes on the trip, but without pulling.
So I believe it’s really important that we prepare the dogs. That is what it’s all about with a puppy as well because it’s really a big difference if the dog is maybe three months old until it’s a year. We have to very gradually increase the exercise. Also, when the dog is maybe about a year, maybe eight months – depends on what it’s going to do – I would also start to prepare it for the sport or the thing that we want it to do later in life so the body gets the right preparation.
JEANETTE: Do you start with easy weight and not very long sessions? How do you build it up?
LINE: Yes. Actually, many times I start with no weight or no pull. As I told you, with my puppy, she’s just joining the trip, learning the technique, but she’s not pulling. I have also with my own dogs started to make them comfortable with carrying the backpack without anything in it in the beginning. Then we start with a really easy weight. For normal training, I recommend that you use the body weight of the dog and train with approximately 10%.
I know that there are certain dogs doing a lot heavier than that, and for short trips and if it’s really well-trained for it, of course it can carry more. But for normal weekly training, we recommend that.
There are also some contraindications. For example, a dog with weak carpus, I would never make those carry a backpack. So you should really know what you’re doing when you’re putting external weight or pull on the dog, that your dog is capable in every way.
JEANETTE: Maybe get a checkup from the vet before you start training?
LINE: Yes, I believe that’s a good idea. Also maybe read about it. Get help to make a good training program so that the body will build itself up to the thing that you want your dog to do.
JEANETTE: What benefits can it have for a dog to pull or to carry a backpack?
LINE: I believe it has many benefits. We use pulling also for strengthening the side of the thighs. For example, if a dog needs to have more strength in their shoulder muscles, a backpack can be a good thing. But it depends a little bit on the way we train them. It depends a little bit on what the goal is. But if it is to get stronger in the body, it’s really great for building up certain parts of the body.
We also use the backpack in rehabilitation. There, the goal is not always to carry all of this weight, but to make a frame for the shoulders – for example, for dogs with shoulder instability, the backpack will actually help the shoulders to keep together so that the dog will build the right muscles. Then we might not use any weight at all.
JEANETTE: When we’re talking about rehabilitation, swimming is something that’s commonly used. It’s quite light on the body. When can a puppy start swimming?
LINE: Actually, a puppy can start swimming as soon as they’re swimming willingly. But of course, how far they swim and how much they swim – and I would also be careful of puppies swimming in very cold water because the body reduces warmth really fast in cold water. Swimming is not actually a good exercise for endurance when the water is cold because of the temperature loss of the muscles.
But puppies can swim from the beginning. Here in Norway, it’s possible to use indoor swimming pools when the puppy is small because there is ice on the water and it’s too cold. There are some breeds, of course, that swim less well. If you have one of those, they should wear a swimming vest, I think, just because it will make it easier and more comfortable from the beginning.
I also recommend using a life vest for dogs that have issues in their body and for dogs that are moving their front legs a lot when they swim because it makes them more comfortable, and then the technique will be a lot better and you will get more out of swimming as exercise.
JEANETTE: Is there anything else you can do or you should not do with a puppy?
LINE: I think that it’s important not to jump from really high places. It’s really normal to maybe lift the puppy up on the sofa, but we have to remember that the puppy was not able to get onto the sofa by itself, and then it’s also really important that it doesn’t jump down.
The body must be able to do the stuff that the puppy is doing, so if you are lifting them up, then you should also help them down and not let them jump from the sofa. The surface on the living room floor is also often very slippery, and then it will be a double risk having them jump down.
JEANETTE: We talked a little bit about age. With competitions, in some sports you can start when the dog is about a year or a year and a half old. What do you think about these age limits? Is that too early, or is it okay if the owner is experienced and knows how to prepare the dog?
LINE: For me personally, I would never recommend doing stuff faster than the dog’s body manages. Of course it’s nice to have limits because then we at least help younger animals not to exaggerate what their body can manage. But I think that how mature a body is is different. It’s different concerning breed and it’s different concerning how well-prepared they are. But of course, if people are really well-prepared and have done a good job without exaggerating, maybe it can be ready at that age.
But I always recommend that you make it individual, that you look at it individually so that we don’t start too early with a dog that is not mature enough in the body.
JEANETTE: Is there anything else we should know about puppies and training?
LINE: I think it’s really important to know that we have some myths out there that are saying that if you do exercise with your puppy or if it goes down stairs, they can actually develop hereditary diseases or develop mental diseases. I think that is a myth. Of course, everything that is exaggerating stuff for the body, no matter what you do, can be a bad thing. But normal movements, normal activities, you should never be afraid of that.
I think it’s really important to know that when the puppy is born, at the end of every bone in the body, there is cartilage. This cartilage will form as we are stimulating the body. If you don’t stimulate the body, this cartilage will not form normally, so it’s really important not to be afraid of letting the puppy do the stuff that they want to do. Just make sure that they are not tired. Just make sure that they are not pulling, that they are not carrying weight until the proper age. But just live a happy life. Let the puppy do what it likes to do.
JEANETTE: Another myth I know you have some strong opinions about is growing pains.
LINE: Yes. Unfortunately, people are using “growing pains” a little bit diffused. We have a disease in the skeleton that many people call “growing pains,” but it’s really important to remember that every puppy that shows lameness should go to the veterinarian. We should never use any excuses of any kind because it can be a more severe developmental disease. We should really take the lame puppy. If it’s lame for two minutes and then it disappears forever, it’s okay.
But as long as a puppy is lame, it should always be examined by a veterinarian. It’s really important. Some puppies are struggling for too long and then the prognosis will be really bad. They could have had a really good life if they’d just come to the veterinarian and got the right help earlier.
I believe that it’s really important to teach both new and maybe more experienced owners how to prepare their dog for each sport. The body needs different kinds of preparation concerning the sport it’s going to be a part of. My dream would be that every club that is offering courses, for example in agility, has an introduction course – not for jumping or anything, but really teaching the owners how to prepare the body to be able to do all the stuff that they are going to do later.
Very often, people start at training with dogs that are not prepared at all, and it really is one of the biggest triggers for injuries when the body is not well-prepared. So if any race club or training club would start doing these courses, like preparational courses for the sport that the dog is going to train, that would be so great.
Of course, the instructor needs to have experience with this, but in a perfect world, there would be instructors that can help people build the body up for what it needs to be built up for.
JEANETTE: You are doing some dog sports yourself. You’re doing a bit of obedience and you’re doing a bit of agility, and as you mentioned, you’re pulling a bit. You haven’t competed in that yet. But we have one question we ask everybody on this podcast, and that is: if you had to do another dog sport with your dog, what would it be?
LINE: I believe for me it would be nose work. I think that’s really fun to do. I hope that I get to train my – I have actually decided to attend a course now, so maybe I will find some mushrooms in the woods this year. [laughs]
JEANETTE: Good luck with that, and thank you so much for joining us on this podcast.
LINE: Thank you too.