Controlling a dog’s weight is most important factor in treating joint problems. Overweight dogs suffer from joint problems at an earlier age. Their extra weight increases the stress on their joints, accelerating their decline and causing more intense pain.
The Other Crucial Factor Is Exercise.
Dogs are born to be active. Their ancestor’s roamed large areas hunting for food, they defended their territory and - being social animals - they played with each other.
Most of today’s dogs are human companions. Instead of hunting to eat, their food appears in a bowl every day. They’ve lost their freedom to roam and explore, with many spending much of their day in a small, restricted space. Few have other dogs to socialize and play with at home, and a lot of their time is spent alone.
Happy, healthy dogs benefit from daily exercise that gets them panting, satisfies their playful nature and stimulates their brain. Ideally their exercise allows them to use their natural instincts and breed strengths.
Which Breed Group Does Your Dog Belong To?
These dogs were bred to herd sheep and cattle and Collies are probably the best known members of this group. One surprising member is the Corgi, which was bred to drive herds of cattle, nipping away at their heels.
Other members include Australian Shepherd, Bergamasco, Briard, German Shepherd, Old English Sheepdog, Puli and Shetland Sheepdog.
These are intelligent dogs and most have plenty of stamina, enjoying long walks. They love to be stimulated with hide-and-seek games and adore chasing balls and leaping for a Frisbee. Collies are brilliant on agility courses.
These dogs were bred for hunting. Some used their phenomenal sense of smell (Bloodhounds and Basset Hounds) and stamina to follow a trail, whilst sight hounds (Whippets and Greyhounds) relied on short bursts of speed to catch their prey.
Scent hounds love the freedom to sniff and explore, whilst sight hounds relish shorter bursts of intense activity.
Hunters used these dogs to find and fetch small game. They relish long walks, swimming and will wear your arm out retrieving balls and sticks. They’re intelligent and love to play.
Labradors, Pointers, Retrievers and Spaniels are all sporting dogs.
These are determined, energetic dogs bred to hunt and kill vermin. They are particularly active, love to dig, play games and walk for hours.
With naames like Airedale, Border, Cairn, Glen of Imaal, Irish, Kerry Blue, Scottish, Skye and West Highland Terriers all suggest that vermin were a particular problem in Ireland and Scotland!
They’re not exactly toys, but they were bred to be affectionate, loyal and small enough to sit comfortably on their owner’s laps. They need less exercise than the other groups, but they still need some daily vigor in their lives to keep them healthy. Many will determinedly compete with far larger rivals in ball games.
Affenpinscher, Chihuahua, Maltese, Pekingese, Pomeranians, Pug, Shih Tzu and Yorkshire Terriers all belong to this group.
These are big, strong, protective dogs bred to guard, rescue or pull sleds. They are intelligent and love games. They’ll wrench your arm off in a tug-of-war and need a good walk to use up their energy.
Members of this group include the Akita, Alaskan Malamute, Bernese Mountain Dog, Boxer, Bullmastiff, Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Komondor, Newfoundland, Siberian Husky and St. Bernard.
This is the most diverse group, populated with dogs that don’t obviously belong in the other groups. Consequently there’s a wide range of temperaments and appearance. Their exercise needs vary considerably, depending on their size and body type.
What other group can match the variety that includes the Dalmatian, Bichon Frise, Chow Chow, French Bulldog, Poodle and Xoloitzcuintli?
Agree An Exercise Plan With Your Veterinarian
Dogs suffering with joint problems should follow an exercise plan agreed upon with their vet. The plan will aim to protect the joints from further damage, but also maintain muscle mass and joint elasticity.
Veterinarians encourage activities like swimming and hill walking that help strengthen the joints and hips. At the same time they will seek to limit activities like running and rough play that cause pain. This isn’t about stopping all the activities your dog loves, but sensibly moderating them to minimize the damage and pain they cause. Your veterinarian will recommend the best exercise plan for you to follow with your dog.
Senior dogs should remain active. It helps to prevent weight gain, keeps their heart healthy and stimulates their immune system. Regular exercise maintains their flexibility and muscle tone, which is essential to support healthy joints.
As they get older, adjustments should be made for their age and breed. Low-impact exercise like walking, hill walking and swimming should replace running and games – the Frisbee should definitely be retired. Two or three shorter walks may be much better than a longer walk.
Keep playing with them, especially low impact strengthening games like tug of war. Their brains need to be stimulated too, so keep them on their toes with mental stimulation. This can be an ideal time to bring in a younger dog.
Remain vigilant for injuries and any sign of impaired movement. Catching these early is essential to prevent further damage and to ensure that correct treatment prolongs their active lives.
Walk at a good pace to get your dog moving and panting a little. Monitor their recovery time after a walk, making adjustments if they seem very tired. Avoid jogging or running because it’s too hard on their joints and bones. A low impact hill walk is an ideal cardiovascular exercise that also builds muscle mass and joint strength.
Watching a well-trained, responsive dog enjoying off-leash freedom is one of the joys of pet guardianship. They can exercise at their own pace, naturally exploring the sights and smells they encounter. Bursts of speed can be balanced with pauses for recovery. It’s simply the best exercise. If they walk slowly without varying their pace try to get them running with gentle play or put them on the leash to increase their activity.
Dogs are social animals. As we know, they evolved from pack-living wolves. Wolf cubs learn their place in the social hierarchy of the wolf pack through play. Warning growls, nips and fights punish poor behavior, whilst extended play and social acceptance act as a reward.
Dr Emily Blackwell, a canine behavior expert at Bristol University, studied 4,000 dog owners and discovered a clear link between behavioral problems and a lack of play. The less they played, the more likely the dogs would misbehave, with aggression, anxiety, jumping up at people, pulling on the lead and not returning when called amongst the 22 behavioral problems identified.
"There is a clear association in the results," says Mark Evans, the former RSPCA chief vet. "There is a growing acceptance among scientists that play is very, very important and the type and frequency of play are a really good indicator of a dog's quality of life."
Play is so important to dogs that they are one of the few mammals that continue to play throughout their lives. In fact their need to play is so strong that larger dogs often make games with smaller companions last longer by not using their size and strength to win. Dogs also use tricks, like slowing down or not bringing a ball back to prolong games with their owners.
Emily Blackwell's study found that 20% of dog owners play with their pet six times a day. 50% play two or three times a day and 10% only play with them once a day. 75% of dogs showed they wanted to play by fetching a toy, whilst 20% whined to initiate a game. Their favorite game is fetch, then chase, tug-of-war and wrestling.
Use Play to Reward Behavior
Many top trainers use play to reward new skills. They also use play to correct bad habits and poor behavior. Every game should have rules to reinforce training and behavior. Make sure your dog doesn’t get overly excited and several short play sessions are better than one long one.
Dogs love variety and are stimulated by a mixture of mentally and physically demanding games.
Exercise their brain with agility, obedience and trick training. Hide their food (or treat) and get them to hunt for it. Use food puzzle toys.
Play physical games like tug-of-war to teach them to get the toy and to let go of it. Do the same with games of "fetch".
Be very cautious with your choice of games for dogs at risk of hip and joint problems. Watching the athleticism of some dogs as they leap for a Frisbee is amazing, but it’s not a game for dogs at risk of hip and joint problems.
Swimming is a fantastic exercise for older dogs because the water supports their weight, easing the strain on their joints, and gets their heart and lungs working. It’s no surprise that canine swim therapy has become so popular.
All larger dogs, especially those breeds susceptible to hereditary hip and joint problems, should be encouraged to swim. Some are natural swimmers: Newfoundlands, Labrador Retrievers, Weimaraners, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Standard Poodles, Golden Retrievers, Setters and Portuguese Water Dogs, Irish Water Spaniels and English and Irish Setters.
Others will need encouragement. It’s best to get them used to water when they’re puppies. Start with shallow water and keep your dog on a long leash. Let them splash and play, allowing the water to reach their belly. After a few of these sessions let them swim a little to gradually build their confidence. Choose where you allow your dog to swim with great care, avoiding strong currents and steep banks.