By Teresa K. Traverse
Dogs need regular exercise, just like people. If your dog isn’t getting enough physical activity, he may put on too much weight, become bored or frustrated, or release his pent-up energy in undesirable ways.
Keep in mind that individual dogs have different needs. Your dog’s age, breed, size, and health status will affect how much exercise he needs, says Dr. Deborah Linder, head of Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals in Medford, Massachusetts. For example, a growing puppy will generally require more exercise than an older dog.
Here are six common signs that your dog may not be getting enough exercise, as well as tips on how to get your dog moving.
Weight gain is one of the first signs that your pet needs more exercise. If you’ve noticed that your dog has put on a few pounds, it might be time to ramp up his exercise routine. But be sure that you’re not overfeeding your dog either.
“Putting on extra weight is part activity and part calories, so it’s important that owners take both into account,” says Linder, who is also a research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “An otherwise active pet can still be overweight if they are not watching the total calories per day.”
To help your pet lose weight, speak with your veterinarian about creating a diet and exercise plan. “You can help your vet by bringing a diet journal and list of all the foods you give your pet—food, treats, table scraps, and chews,” Linder says.
If your pet starts destroying items in your home or acting out, it may be a sign that he needs more physical activity. “Because pets can’t talk to us, they may start acting out behaviorally if they don’t have a positive outlet for their energy, like walking, running, agility, or swimming,” Linder says.
Specific behaviors to watch out for include chewing on shoes or furniture, eliminating in the house, getting into the trash, destroying items in the household, or increased aggression toward people or other pets. “Increasing exercise is a good start to reduce these unwanted behaviors,” Linder says.
Keep in mind that a lack of exercise might not be causing your pet’s unwanted behavior. An underlying issue, such as separation anxiety or fear, may be to blame. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the root cause.
Some pets will become withdrawn when they’re not getting enough physical or mental stimulation, according to Dr. Neala Boyer, clinical assistant professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. “They won't engage with their owner,” she says. “Maybe they'll just lay in the corner, curl up and lay down.”
If your once-social dog no longer runs to the door in anticipation of a walk or acts disinterested when you enter the room, he could be depressed. Other causes of withdraw may include anxiety and pain.
If your dog is showing signs of withdraw, Boyer advises scheduling a vet appointment to determine the cause and help bring your pet back to his normal self.
Some dogs who become withdrawn with weight gain may be suffering from hypothyroidism, explains Dr. Katie Grzyb, medical director at One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. This condition can be easily diagnosed through blood testing, she adds.
Conversely, your dog may be too hyper when you take him out, if he’s not getting enough exercise. “They're more hyperactive or difficult to control on walks because they're not used to it,” Boyer says.
If you find that your dog gets over-excited when you take out his leash or when you’re about to head out the door, it may be a sign that he is restless and requires more physical activity. Excessive leash pulling may also indicate that your dog needs to burn more energy.
To improve your dog’s leash manners, reward him when he pays attention to you and walks nicely beside you.
If your dog hasn’t had regular exercise in a while, he may suffer from stiff muscles and low stamina. Pay close attention to how your dog acts, especially if these symptoms persist and don’t resolve on their own.
“Dogs can manifest pain in a number of ways,” Boyer says. Some signs may include immobility, reluctance to go up and down stairs, or difficulty sleeping.
If your dog is reluctant to exercise, work with your vet to determine the underlying cause and come up with a plan to increase his activity levels again, Boyer suggests. If your pet is suffering from a health condition, rest, pain medication, or weight loss may be recommended.
Some dogs will bark and whine when they’re not getting enough activity. Oftentimes, the excessive noise is a ploy to get their owner’s attention. If your dog is also spinning in circles, grabbing his leash, or running toward the door, chances are he’s eager to go outside.
“The key to introducing exercise is to take it slow and easy,” Linder advises. “Slowly build up to each activity and let the pet guide how much he can do while monitoring for any aches and pains after a new activity.” If you try turn your couch potato dog into a weekend warrior overnight, you run the risk of injury.
Healthy dogs without any medical conditions can start with a five-minute walk three times a day, Linder says. Gradually increase the time until your dog can walk for 30 to 45 minutes per day. Be mindful of high temperatures, she warns. “Each pet has a different tolerance for heat, but overweight dogs and those with short noses are especially at risk.”
Short-nosed (brachycephalic) dog breed owners should also exercise caution when starting an activity program. “Dogs with shortened noses or faces might not be able to get air in as effectively as their long-nosed peers, so be extra careful with dogs like Bulldogs and Pugs,” Linder says. Since these dog breeds generally don’t tolerate heat well, she suggests taking them on shorter walks with longer breaks in between.
Likewise, if your dog has health issues—such as joint problems or heart disease—Linder suggests seeking out veterinary physical rehabilitation services that can help improve your dog’s strength and mobility while limiting the risk of further injury or worsening cardiovascular disease.
Once you have a better grasp on your dog’s abilities and limitations, you’ll be able to find his exercise sweet spot.