Labradors not only love exercise, they need exercise. We all look forward to taking our puppy for a walk, however it is important not to over-exercise your puppy.
In natural play, puppies will romp until they are tired and then stop to lay down for rest. When walking a puppy on a leash, they cannot stop when they normally would for rest. Even if they wanted to stop, they keep going to ‘keep up’ with their family.
Puppies’ bones and joints are still developing until they are at least 18-24 months old. Too much exercise or walking can severely damage their bone and joint structures irreversibly.
This should be taken seriously. Exercise that is not appropriate for the puppy’s age and development can cause significant and irreversible damage, setting the course of the puppy’s life as one of damaged joints and tissues, constant pain, hip and elbow reconstructions, costly vet bills, and compromised quality of life thereafter.
THE RULE is: No more than 5 minutes of exercise for every month of age
So that means, at 2 months old (8 weeks), your puppy only needs to exercise or walk for 10 minutes per day. At 3 months of age 15 minutes of exercise and so on.
If you walk your puppy too far too soon, your puppy may develop hip and elbow dysplasia as they get older. Labradors have been known to develop dysplasia younger than other breeds of dogs. In many of these cases, it is often due to environmental factors such as over-exercise, running on hard or strenuous surfaces (such as concrete or sand), continual jumping or agility work.
Things to avoid with your puppy:
- No jumping in or out of car, especially larger cars. This is because all the weight is on the puppy’s front legs and elbow joints as he lands. Lift the dog or use a ramp.
- No throwing balls or frisbee great distances for your puppy to chase. The sudden stopping and over reaching with the front legs is dangerous.
- No agility, jumping or flyball before 2-3 years old
- Do not let other dogs knock or push the puppy over continually, includes body-slamming
- Avoid much stair climbing which can increase the risk of dysplasia
- No fast turns or roll-overs
- Swimming is great, since there is no weight-bearing impact on their joints. Remember, labradors love water!
- Walking on leash, for no longer than the recommended length of time for their age
- Self-directed play is an overriding rule for any puppy under 18 months old. The majority of exercise should be free play, exploring, and noodling around
- Hide and seek games are fantastic, as the dog can move at its own pace looking for its toy or treat or you. It’s great for their mental stimulation and learning
- Kibble trail is a learning game in which you hide kibble or small treats along a trail or route and the puppy sniffs them out, this way covering a good amount of ground in a natural way
- Playing with a well-matched gentle playmate is ideal. Size is a factor as large dogs, especially ones that like to play with paw whacks, can inadvertently injury a young puppy.
- Supervised play is critical. Be ready to throw down a handful of kibble to interrupt overly physical play, as body slams and crazy rolls are spiral fractures and torn ligaments waiting to happen…
- Toy-tug is ok to play, providing you hold the toy low and the puppy’s neck is in a straight line. Don’t pull on the toy, allow the puppy to tug against you. You need to teach the puppy a release command.
All these games are forms of exercise for puppies and are a great way to help your puppy learn useful lifelong skills and qualities.
Growth plates and bones: Development and injury
Growth plates are soft areas that sit at the ends of the long bones in puppies and young dogs. They contain rapidly dividing cells that allow bones to grow longer until the end of puberty. Growth plates gradually thin as the hormonal changes approaching puberty signal the growth plates to close. In puppies, this closure normally completes between 18 to 24 months old in labradors.
Until the growth plates close, they’re soft and vulnerable to injury. After sexual maturity, the growth plates calcify and the rapid cell division ends. The growth plates become a stable, inactive part of the bone, now known as an epiphyseal line.
Dogs bones are held together with muscles, tendons and ligaments (soft tissue). In an adult dog, if a joint experiences a stress such as bending the wrong way or rotating too much, the bones will hold firm and soft tissue will be pulled, resulting in a sprain or tear. In a puppy, however, his soft tissues are stronger than his growth plates, so instead of a simple sprain, his growth plate is liable to be injured – the puppy’s own soft tissue can pull apart his growth plate.
Why this matters so much, is that unlike a sprain, injuries to the growth plate may not heal properly or not heal in time for the puppy to grow up straight and strong. Injury to a growth plate can result in a misshapen or shortened limb, which creates an incorrect angle to a joint resulting in yet more future injuries when he grows up, including dysplasia.
These xray images show open and closed growth plates in a puppy and adult dog.
In addition to having soft growth plates at the end of long bones, puppies bones in general are softer. They don’t reach maximum bone density until after puberty.
Spiral fractures of the tibia (lower leg bone) are very common in puppies. More than 50% of fractures occur in puppies under 1 year of age! A spiral fracture is where the bottom half of the bone twists in the opposite direction of the top half. This juvenile injury is known as ‘Toddler Fracture’ in humans. Any exercise that puts torque (twist) on a bone puts the puppy at risk of a fracture. For an example, movements such as twisting and turning suddenly can cause these type of fractures.
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia
This is where we recommend you read our Health and Genetic Testing page, where we talk about hip and elbow dysplasia. It is critical that you, as a puppy owner, understand as much as you can about hip and elbow dysplasia, how you can help prevent it, and what your breeder should be testing for.
Weight and Nutrition
A dog’s fitness and weight also play a role in joint growth and potential for injury. A fit dog is far less prone to injury than a deconditioned, overweight dog, who’s joints are under alot of stress due to the excess strain placed on them. On the other hand, an underfed or malnourished puppy or dog is also at higher risk of injury. Muscles mass directly influences strength, likewise inadequate calcium and nutrients affect bone density.
Knowing how to assess your dog’s body condition score is very important in managing his or her weight, and should guide your feeding regime for your dog. A body condition score of about 5-6 is healthy for a young puppy. Once an adult, the ideal body condition score would be about 5 for a healthy, fit labrador.
In larger breeds, sterilising young puppies at a young age has shown to increase the risk of joint disorders and injury. Some research suggests that the risk triples if the dog is spayed before reaching sexual maturity, because removing the dog’s sex hormones influences growth and development. We recommend sterilisation occurs between 12- 24 months old for this reason. This recommendation is outlined in our Health Guarantee.
We discuss this more under Desexing or Sterilisation.