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raising your puppy

raising your puppy, Responsible Ownership

How much should puppies be exercised?

Those of you who are Facebook friends know that puppy exercise has been a bee buzzing around my bonnet for a while now.

Recently, there has been a flurry of “shares” for a few puppy exercise recommendations. All of them suggest restricting puppy exercise rather dramatically. Advice is given to calculate a certain number of minutes per day based on how old the puppy is (five minutes per month, for example) or to restrict walks to a few hundred feet or play dates to fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. The strong implication is that you will hurt (injure, even destroy the joints of) your puppy if you do not follow this advice.

My Facebook discussions showed that when I expressed horror and disbelief gentle doubt about these recommendations, the immediate assumption was that I was criticizing the person or people who put them together. Since that’s the last thing I want – I don’t personally know any of them, and they are probably amazing humans – I am not going to go piece by piece through the recommendations and explain or rebut. I’m just going to offer a chart of my own, based on the way we raise our puppies and on the advice we give to our puppy buyers. Clicking on the image will download the graphic as a PDF, which you are welcome to distribute at will.

If I can have you take anything away from my personal feelings on exercise, please let it be this: Puppies do best when they exercise all day long. They really are, biologically, wolves. That means that aside from breeds whose face shapes necessitate more caution – obviously, you know your breed best – once they are past the infant stage they should be hard, fast little rubber bands, who can easily move from a day-long play date to a run by the ocean or a child-paced hike up a mountain. If they cannot make those transitions, they need MORE exercise, not less. A well-exercised puppy is a protected puppy. Soft, underexercised babies who are asked to be weekend warriors (when they are used to barely moving during the week) are the ones who are injured. The only “bad” exercise is forced exercise. Never force, never jump, and never roadwork a puppy. Aside from those rules, the more the better.


Puppy exercise poster

dog diets, Dog Health, raising your puppy

When should I switch my dog off puppy food to adult food?

Answer: He never should have been on it in the first place.

This question is one of those “If I had a nickel” ones. It comes up pretty much daily on general-interest dog boards and breed discussion lists.

The problem is this: the whole idea of “puppy food,” which is just a higher-calorie (often vastly higher-calorie) formulation of kibble, is based on two flawed assumptions and one major marketing truth. Assumptions first:

1) Puppies need to be “supported” in rapid growth; just keep them from getting fat.

2) Rapid growth is better than slow growth.

And the marketing truth:

People love to feel that they are doing something special for their new baby. I’ve seen discussions on pet-food marketing boards about this, because numbers one and two up there are well known in the industry. They know perfectly well that there’s no reason to feed puppy food.

But people WANT it. They clamor for it. When it comes to a puppy, even those who are going to feed Ol’ Roy or Pedigree (the sales of which, by the way, so completely dwarf all other brands that it’s staggering) will pay the extra two bucks a bag to get Pedigree Puppy and Ol’ Roy Puppy.

Up at the higher end of the scale, you have companies whose main product is the typical chicken-based food in a carefully low-key high-end bag suddenly breaking their two-color-press rules to feature pictures of tiny puppies  so you’ll know they’re the right choice; even hipsters go mushy for baby dogs.

Even companies who will TELL you you don’t need a puppy food (like Innova) still make one. They lose huge wads of people who go buy a competitor’s product because it has the picture of the Golden puppy on the front if they don’t.

Here’s the truth:

After puppies are fully weaned, they need to grow as SLOWLY as possible. Slow growth is strong growth.

Slow-growing dogs have a dramatically lower rate of joint issues, including hip and elbow dysplasia, OCD, and so on. Part of this is because the growth of the bone doesn’t outstrip the growth of its tendons and muscles, and some of it is because slow-growing dogs are lighter dogs and don’t put as much strain on developing joints. Both are good reasons to keep a puppy growing for a long time rather than a short one.

Puppies will use every bit of food they’re given to grow. Puppies don’t get fat unless they have so many calories dumped on them that even their incredible metabolism is overwhelmed. You can’t judge whether a puppy is getting too much food by whether he or she is fat.

Puppies are not cows. You’re not finishing them for market before they’re a year old. They should not look adult or have anything close to an adult weight until they really ARE adults. If your puppy has 95% of his adult height and weight at six months – and many people consider this to be normal and expected – you’re following the principle of fattening a lamb for slaughter, not growing a dog.

In a wolf pack, which is how your dog’s body evolved and how its metabolism still works, when puppies are eating EVERYBODY’S on a low-calorie diet and the puppies are on the lowest of all. The size of the pack is indirectly related to the number of calories consumed; when there’s a litter growing up (and in wolves this is until about 18 months old, when they leave to form their own groups) everybody’s skinny. After the regurgitation phase is over, puppies are not given anything close to the choicest bits. They’re supposed to survive on what they can get their heads in and grab. That’s a very good rule of thumb for growing dogs as well; 18 months is when you should see full growth and (close to) full weight. Males in particular will often put on a little bit more later, but you should be able to visibly tell between a 12-month-old and an 18-month-old.

In my experience this also translates to a much later maturity in other ways; I don’t get first heats in the girls until they’re well over a year old. Calories are given first to maintenance (living), then to growth, then to reproduction. If the calories are low enough to limit growth, they don’t get put into reproduction until growth slows. This follows the wolf rule as well, and protects everybody. Bodies shouldn’t be reproducing until the structure can support them, and a first heat at 15 months is a breedable heat and the bitch will be fine. (I haven’t even bred on a first heat, before anybody freaks out, but at that age I would not hesitate to do so from a health standpoint; she’d probably have an easier time of it than most!)

So what should you do?

In all breeds but the toys, if you’re not feeding raw you can wean right to an adult food and keep them on an adult food their whole lives. And there’s no magic in a single brand, either; go ahead and mix six of ’em if you want to.

The toy breeds, which are prone to hypoglycemic crises, sometimes need a more nutrient-dense food for a few more weeks so that every bite has enough calories to keep their blood sugar from dipping too low. But even the toys can go on adult food as soon as that danger period is over.

Whatever you feed, if you have a normal healthy puppy who eats eagerly, you should NOT be feeding to satiety. The puppy should not be walking away from food. A good healthy puppy should be lovingly licking the bowl or the floor for a few minutes after he or she is done, wishing for more. If your puppy is not a good eager eater, you may need to coddle them a bit more, but don’t fall into the trap of feeding too much just because the puppy only takes a few mouthfuls at a time.

Your puppy should be smaller than the other puppies his age at the dog park or training class. Since most people ARE going to be feeding way too much, your puppy is going to look small and wiry and they’re going to look big and sleek and beautiful. Don’t feel bad! Your puppy is going to be much better off in the long run.

What’s thin-but-not-too-thin?

One of the most often misunderstood directions for dog weight is “can you see a waist from the top.” You can ALWAYS see a waist from the top. Very few dogs, even the tremendously obese ones, have no indentation where the waist is. Heck, I have a waist and I’m (mumble mumble bad number). What you want to see is that there is a clear sinking in behind the bulk of the BONES OF THE ribcage (the top arrow up there on Juno, who conveniently stretched out so I could show you) and then a clear widening where the BONES OF THE pelvis and femur come out (the bottom arrow). Not “the big mounds of fat vaguely associated with the bones of the ribs and pelvis.” A proper “waist” is relatively long and rather square.

Juno was 19.8 lb yesterday; she’s almost 7 months. If I was letting her grow as fast as she wanted this would be a DISASTER, because it would mean she was going to top out at 22 lb or something. But since I know she’s going to grow for a long time I’m not at all concerned. Juno’s never going to be big, which is exactly what I wanted, but she’ll make her mom’s size (typically 26-27 lb) just fine.

A small, hard, wiry puppy? Great. A skinny puppy? No. If you’re looking at a puppy you should not be able to see the bones of the individual ribs or put your fingers between them. You should not be able to see the bones of the hips or put your fingers between them. The femur should be surrounded by good strong muscle, and you shouldn’t be able to grab any bone ends. When the puppy breathes or runs, you should see the trailing edge of the ribcage and (on short-haired dogs) count the last two or three ribs. You shouldn’t be able to count all the ribs unless the puppy is a sighthound.

On the typical 9-point scale, which is commonly used by vets to characterize body condition, I like to see a puppy at about a 4 and that’s where I keep my adult dogs too. I’ll bring them up to a 5 to show in order to smooth out the topline a little, but that’s about it.

Clue says: I can hardly wait until my puppies are eating; that is my favoritest time ever. Also, I am NOT at a 4 right now. (Sigh; true! I am anticipating that she’ll get really sick again this time so I’ve brought her up to about a 6, the heaviest I’ve ever let her get. She’s about 29 lb now and she looks weird and bad to me.)

News on the home front: Clue is taking her sweet time. She’s beginning to get super affectionate and mushy with the other dogs, and spends long minutes carefully grooming Friday and Juno. She’s not very enthused about Bramble yet; she is flagging but I have learned to completely ignore that as a signal for her, the hussy. She still barely looks in heat, so I am guessing she won’t really do much until next week. Last time we bred her days 16, 17, 19, 20 and the 19 was the magic one. If that holds true this time I will ONCE MORE be shipping semen over a weekend. Geez. If you want convenience, don’t breed dogs!