Comprehensive Guide to Dog Exercise

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Daily walks aren’t just an easy way to get your dog’s tail to wag at warp speed — they also play an essential role in keeping your furry best friend healthy. Regular exercise keeps dogs physically and mentally fit. It also helps them build confidence, develop social skills, and even help keep anxiety (and the destructive behaviors that often come with it) at bay. 

Here’s everything you need to know about exercising your dog. How much exercise does their breed, age, and health status require? How often should you and your pup engage in physical exercise each week? What are the benefits of exercise in different forms? And what are some go-to activities if you’re running out of your own ideas?

Remember: “Safety first” when exercising your dog

This should be your mantra when exercising your dog. A few simple steps can go a long way in preventing problems! Make sure:

  • Your dog’s collar or harness fits properly
  • Their leash is the appropriate length for the environment you’ll be visiting (maybe a long line for a decompression walk at a large park, and a shorter six- or eight-food standard leash on your neighborhood sidewalk with lots of blind corners)
  • You have plenty of water and some sort of collapsible or travel bowl if you’ll be going on a longer adventure
  • To check the weather ahead of time for extreme heat, cold, or storm warnings (it’s especially important to avoid strenuous exercise in warmer months during the hottest times of the day and to avoid walking on burning asphalt)
  • To pay attention to your surroundings

How much physical exercise do dogs need?

Exactly how much exercise per day does your dog really need? While it’s important that every dog has the opportunity to move their body, not all breeds and temperaments have the same physical activity requirements.

Every dog is (wonderfully) unique. That means that the ideal amount of exercise will vary from pup to pup! While there are no hard-and-fast answers, a few factors can help you determine accurately how much exercise your dog needs.

First, consider their breed (or mix of breeds). Then use your pup’s age, physical health status, and your long-term goals to create an exercise gameplan to keep them fit and happy.

We’ve summarized some key points below. You can read more about calculating your dog’s exercise needs in our deep-dive article here: Dog Exercise Calculator!

How does breed affect my dog’s daily exercise needs?

Generally, larger dogs require more exercise than their smaller counterparts — with the exception of a few giant breeds whose bones and joints are actually more sensitive. It’s best to focus on your breed’s original purpose rather than size alone.

High-energy breeds and working dogs require more exercise and enrichment than smaller toy, non-sporting, or low-energy breeds do. Think about the difference between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Shih Tzu, for example. Herding breeds were selectively bred to drive cattle across long distances and protect their family’s property — accordingly, they have seemingly endless energy levels that a typical neighborhood walk might not satisfy. On the other hand, Shih Tzus were developed to be largely sedentary companions. (Not to say they don’t still need exercise to stay healthy — the lap dogs just won’t be an ideal, miles-and-hours-a-day hiking companion.)

How much exercise does my puppy need?

If you’re a puppy parent, you’re probably more than a little familiar with the “zoomies.” That’s the term commonly used to explain the phenomena that occurs when a puppy has way more energy than their body can contain. Symptoms include rapid running around the room, wiggles, and general silliness. The zoomies don’t last long but can happen at any time of the day or night (and are guaranteed to occur just as you’re drifting off to sleep). 

Puppies grow out of zoomies, but until they do, they need plenty of short walks or other forms of exercise to use some of their energy. This is a good time to teach them leash skills on walks (these will exercise their mind, too). 

While you may be tempted to take your adorable bundle of fur to the dog park or on a long walk, we recommend avoiding these kinds of outings for a couple of reasons. Young puppies need to use their bodies to develop muscle strength and coordination (not to mention get important socialization to the world around them) — but you should err on the side of caution with any intense or high impact activities before their growth plates close. This can prevent long-term joint damage and reduce the risk of problems like hip dysplasia.

Alternatives to long walks can include:

  • Training in new environments
  • Taking breaks every few minutes on a longer route to rest (and practice relaxing out in the busy world)
  • Engaged playtime like tug-of-war
  • Enrichment activities
  • And more!

How much exercise does my adult dog need? 

Your dog will need the most exercise per day when they’re between about two and eight years old. This is the “prime” of their adult life! Your dog is fully developed and still young enough to maintain their stamina.

How much exercise does my senior dog need?

Your senior dog may not need as much physical exercise as they once did. That said, they still need enough activity to stay strong and agile! Moderate exercise is also essential for older dogs' weight management to keep obesity at bay. (Being overweight is one of the leading causes of joint problems and chronic pain in our pets.)

How do my dog’s health and our goals affect their exercise needs?

You should also consider any health conditions — like heart disease, hip dysplasia, arthritis, or other issues — when determining how much exercise your dog needs. If your dog has any medical concerns, make sure to work directly with your veterinarian to create a safe exercise plan. Building strength is important! But it’s important not to overdo it.

Beyond a baseline level of activity to keep your pup healthy, extra physical conditioning is up to you. Every dog parent gets to decide what lifestyle — and therefore, what exercise program — works best for them!

For example, you might put more effort into your dog’s body conditioning if you:

  • Are an avid hiker and want to prepare your pup to tackle summits with you
  • Hunt with your dog
  • Participate in dog sports like agility or dock diving
A dog and owner run together on a wooded trail, getting some daily exercise

How often should I exercise my dog?

Your dog’s individual exercise needs will depend on their breed, age, health, and your overall goals like we talked about above. No matter how much distance you plan to cover with them, though, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when it comes to exercise frequency.

Maintain a steady average amount of physical activity — increase slowly

You don’t need to do exactly the same thing with your dog every day. (In fact, we wouldn’t recommend that since it would get boring for both you and your pup.) But you should be conscious about keeping up a somewhat regular routine.

What we mean by that: It’s absolutely okay if you usually exercise more on the weekend, or if you have a few lazy rainy days here and there — just ensure your dog still gets some form of activity or at least a few minutes of exercise, like some basic cardio, on most weekdays or “off” days too.

The idea is to keep things consistent so your pup’s body can stay in top shape. Too much quick variation (like being sedentary Monday through Friday and then hiking a dozen miles on Saturday) can increase the chance for injury. Just like in us humans!

Incorporate rest days

If you ask your dog to join you on a big adventure, remember that their muscles and joints can get sore just like yours. Don’t be afraid to take a rest day or two to let everyone recover before getting back out there for another strenuous day of activity. Short neighborhood walks, decompression “sniffaris,” or extra indoor mental enrichment are great mild to moderate exercise options on these occasions.

How can I keep track of my dog’s daily exercise requirements?

If you live in a household with other people, we recommend creating a short exercise log to keep everyone on the same page about your dog’s care. This will also help you catch any potential problems (like muscle soreness) right away!

Are there fitness trackers for dogs? 

There are also a range of fitness trackers out there for dogs.

One example, Whistle, makes a monitoring device that works for your pet much like a FitBit or a Garmin fitness tracker would work for you. The small device attaches to your dog’s collar and monitors their daily activity, including how much they rested in one spot and how many minutes of exercise they engaged in. You can set activity goals based on breed, age, and health (the key factors we mentioned above).

Don’t forget about mental exercise, too!

We’ve talked a lot about physical exercise here, but this article wouldn’t be complete without making sure to address a common myth, too. Have you ever heard that a “tired dog is a good dog?”

While traditional exercise absolutely is important to keep our pets healthy, too much physical movement without appropriate mental stimulation can actually cause problems and even more undesirable behaviors. We might create companions whose bodies never feel tired — and who have no idea how to slow down their brains! (Canines tend to develop cardio and muscle strength faster than humans do, so it’s easy to create a dog who can outlast us on the trails.)

Mental enrichment can be the perfect solution here. Paired with appropriate physical fulfillment, things like food puzzles, snuffle mats, and thoughtful training sessions can keep your dog entertained without running either of you to the ground.

An added bonus: Your pup can play cognitive games even if they’re entering their senior years or recovering from an injury. In fact, mental exercise is possible in just about any situation: during inclement weather, at your own home or a friend’s house, out in a public park, if you’re ever stuck in a small space, and more. The opportunities are endless.

Looking for some activities to get your dog’s brain going? We’ve put together some of our favorite mental exercises in this article. You can also read more about canine enrichment overall in our comprehensive guide!

Inspiration: 10 fun ways to exercise your dog 

There’s bound to be a few ideas on the list below that you and your dog will enjoy doing together.  

Walk, jog, or run around the neighborhood 

Grab the leash and take your dog for a stroll or a run to explore the world just outside your front door. Not only are these outings a great opportunity to meet neighbors, it’s also an easy way for your dog to get in their daily steps. Change it up on the regular by choosing to go a different direction or walk down different blocks. 

Hit the trails

Find a dog-friendly hiking trail near you and spend some time taking in the great outdoors with your dog.

Look for trails that are paved or routes that aren’t too steep in places to keep things safe for you and your dog, especially if yours is still mastering leash skills. Remember to bring water (for both you and your pup) and rest when needed.

Swimming for the water puppies

Got a water-loving dog? If so, head for a nearby creek or lake for a dip. Not only is swimming a great way for your dog to cool down on a hot summer day, it’s also an excellent form of low-impact exercise!

We recommend that dogs wear a properly fitted life jacket when swimming, especially if they’re novices in the water. Be sure to check any local warnings about algae (blue green algae is particularly toxic) or other potentially hazardous wildlife before letting your pup dive in.

Attend obedience training

Whether you have a puppy or an older dog who needs to brush up their manners, they’re sure to benefit from basic obedience training.

While it may not seem like traditional exercise, obedience training is actually a great moderate workout for your dog. It’s hard work learning new things — don’t be surprised if your dog takes a very long, well-deserved nap afterwards! Plus switching between positions like sit and down can help build your pup’s core strength.

Sign up for agility or other dog sport courses

If you’re looking to take your dog’s exercise up a notch (or several), consider signing them up for some agility classes or explore another dog sport like flyball or maybe even skijoring.

Organized dog sports are a fantastic way to join a community of fellow dog lovers, provide mental stimulation, build confidence (on both ends of the leash!), and improve your pup’s body awareness.

Host a puppy playdate 

If you have a fenced in yard, why not get friends, family, and neighbors with dogs together for a puppy playdate? You could even start a neighborhood group and take turns hosting playdates in different fenced-in yards to keep things interesting. 

Before your four-legged guests arrive, make sure you have a few extra water bowls on hand and that you haven’t left anything in the yard (like tools or piles of poop, for example) so that the pups can romp around safely.

It’s also imperative to remember that not all dogs enjoy interacting with other canines up close and personal, especially on their own territory. Playdates can be an awesome option for many pets — but they aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay! When in doubt, consult with a professional trainer you trust before inviting anyone your dog hasn’t already met over.

Invest in interactive toys

If your dog wants to stop and smell roses on walks, let them, because the more chances they get to use their nose, the better they’ll feel. Nose work and interactive toys, like those with pockets to hide treats or a flip boards strategy game, provide mental stimulation, and can even help keep them calm and develop confidence. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite dog enrichment toys in this article!

Pro tip: Have a few interactive puzzles on hand for rainy days when your furry friend can get plenty of brain exercise until the sun comes back out.  

Visit dog-friendly shops 

Need to run errands? Before you go, check to see if the places you’re going are pet friendly. If they are, it can be a great moderate exercise and training opportunity to have your dog keep you company while you’re out and about.

Home improvement stores including Lowe’s and Tractor Supply welcome leashed dogs. Many other spots like Nordstrom, Home Goods, and even Apple Stores do too! Always call ahead or check your location’s rules online to confirm before arriving with your pup — and make sure your dog is ready for a distracting environment (shopping on a busy Saturday morning probably isn’t the best idea if your pup is still working on leash skills or overexcitement around strangers).

Take a day trip 

Does your dog love car rides? If so, pick a day to hit the road to visit a nearby town and explore new hiking trails, dog parks, and maybe even a dog-friendly shop or two like mentioned above.

A day away can do wonders for you and your pup, who will get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation taking in all the new sights and smells of a different city. 

Sign up for Sniffspot

Don’t have space for your canine exercise routine? Find a Sniffspot host near you and let your dog have a ball (we also mean that literally) in a new fenced-in yard. You can do things like:

  • Set up scavenger hunts in an environment you know is safe
  • Play a game of fetch, tug, or hide and seek
  • Enjoy a wide variety of other training and brain games
  • Practice recall
  • And more!

If you make it a regular excursion, you’ll be able to rest a little easier, knowing your dog is getting the exercise they need to stay healthy.

Trainers that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

These are the trainers that reviewed this article:

Erica Marshall CPDT-ka, CDBC,
Owner/Trainer of Wicked Good Dog Training in Christiana TN
Author of "New Puppy, Now What?"
www.wickedgooddogtraining.com

Hallie Wells
Owner-Lumos Dog Training, Atlanta, GA
Certified Professional Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Fear Free Certified Professional (FFCP)
Applied Animal Behavior Analysts (UW-AABA)