Dogs are born to work for a living. They’ve worked alongside us for thousands of years, and most are bred for a particular purpose, like hunting, herding livestock or providing protection. Dogs’ wild relatives spend most of their waking hours scavenging and hunting for food, caring for offspring, defending territory and playing with each other. They lead busy, complex lives, interacting socially and solving simple problems necessary for their survival.

The most common job for our companion dogs today, however, is Couch Potato! They no longer have to earn their keep and instead have to adjust to our more sedentary lifestyles. They get their food for free in a bowl and are often confined, alone and inactive, for most of the day. This lack of purpose leaves dogs no outlet for their naturally active tendencies—physical and mental—and it contributes to the development of behavior problems.

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Another problem modern dogs face because they rarely work anymore is a lack of opportunities to exercise. Some pet parents make the mistake of assuming that if a dog has access to a yard, she’s getting exercise. But your dog doesn’t run laps by herself in your yard—or do much of anything besides waiting for you to come outside or let her back inside. It’s the interaction with you that counts!

Problems That Result from Lack of Exercise and Play

Dogs can be like young children. If you don’t give them something constructive to do with their energy, they’ll find something to do on their own—and you may not like it! Some of the most common behavior problems seen in dogs who don’t get enough exercise and play are:

  • Destructive chewing, digging or scratching
  • Investigative behaviors, like garbage raiding
  • Hyperactivity, excitability and night-time activity
  • Unruliness, knocking over furniture and jumping up on people
  • Excessive predatory and social play
  • Play biting and rough play
  • Attention-getting behaviors like barking and whining

Benefits of Exercise and Play

The good news is that keeping your dog healthy, happy and out of trouble with daily exercise is a lot of fun and provides many benefits, including:

  • Helps to reduce or eliminate the common behavior problems listed above, such as digging, excessive barking, chewing and hyperactivity
  • Helps to keep dogs healthy, agile and limber
  • Helps to reduce digestive problems and constipation
  • Helps timid or fearful dogs build confidence and trust
  • Helps dogs feel sleepy, rather than restless, at bedtime or when you’re relaxing
  • Helps to keep dogs’ weight under control

Before you Start your Dog's Exercise Program

Check with your dog’s veterinarian before starting an exercise program. He or she can check your dog for any health issues that may be aggravated by exercise and suggest safe activities. Some size, breed and age considerations are:

Breeds with short or flat noses (brachycephalic breeds) can have trouble breathing when exercised vigorously, especially in warmer climates.

Exercise is great for energetic young dogs, but sustained jogging or running is not recommended for young dogs (under 18 months) whose bones haven’t finished growing.

Because large dogs are more prone to cruciate ligament injuries, arthritis and hip dysplasia, sustained jogging can be hard on their joints and bones, too. If you’ve got a large dog, make sure she’s well conditioned before you start jogging together.

Once a dog reaches her golden years, osteoarthritis can cause pain and lameness after strenuous exercise. It’s much better to discover that your once-sprightly dog’s joints can no longer handle long hikes, for example, before you hit the trail.

Exercising Your Dog

With today’s more sedentary lifestyles, dog parents are often challenged to find enough outlets for their pets’ considerable natural energy. Dogs are more athletic than us. But take heart—there are a variety of ways to exercise your dog, from activities that don’t demand much energy on your part to activities that exercise both you and your dog. Dogs’ need for exercise varies depending on their age, size, breed and individual traits. Most dogs benefit enormously from daily aerobic exercise (exercise that makes them pant, like fetch, tug, running and swimming), as well as at least one half-hour walk. Choose activities that suit your dog’s individual personality and natural interests. Experiment with the ideas below to see what’s most practical and enjoyable for her and for you.

Exercise That’s Easy on You

Giving your dog enough exercise doesn’t mean you have to be athletic yourself. If you’d rather not run around or take long, brisk walks, consider two approaches to exercising your dog:

Focus on brain, not brawn. Exercise your dog’s brain with food puzzle toys, hunting for dinner, obedience and trick training, and chew toys instead of excessive physical exercise. 

Focus on games that make your dog run around while you mostly stand or sit still. Games that fit the bill include fetch with balls, Frisbees or sticks, Find It, Hide-and-Seek, catching bubbles (using a special bubble-blower toy made for dogs, such as the Bubble Buddy™), chase (a toy on a rope or stick), and round-robin recalls for the whole family.  If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, other easy options include taking her to the dog park, organizing play groups with friends or neighbors who have dogs or signing her up for dog daycare a few days a week. These options give your dog a chance to experience invigorating social play with other dogs. Please see our articles, Daycare for Dogs, Choosing Playmates for Your Dog and Dog Parks, for more information about finding friends for your dog.