- There's no single rule of thumb about how much exercise dogs need.
- Every dog is different, and each dog-human relationship is unique.
- Common sense should also come into play.
I receive numerous queries such as this and they speak a lot about the nature of dog-human relationships and being fluent in dog, especially knowing as much as you can about your dog as the individual they are, the sort of relationship you have with them in terms of how much time you spend together and how well you get along, and whether you are paying close attention to what they're trying to tell you at any given moment. Context—what is happening at any given moment—is critical to what you decide your dog wants and needs, including how much physical exercise they want and need or how much they're yearning to exercise their senses.
As I've stressed in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Dogs Demystified: An A-to-Z Guide to All Things Canine, there is no one-size-fits-all rule for how much exercise a dog or dogs in general need. Why is this so? Dogs are different, their humans are different, dog-human relationships vary quite a bit, and what people call a "walk" or "exercise time" differs because of these and other factors.
During the past few months, I watched people walk their dog and then asked them how much exercise their dog received. Of the 25 for whom I had enough information to make some general conclusions, 19 overestimated how much exercise their dog actually received and six were sort of on the mark based on my observations. For example, Anna said her dog, Morgan, had had a 30-minute walk, but actually, of the 30 or so minutes I observed them, Morgan only walked for 17 minutes, and sniffed for around 2 minutes because Anna kept yanking Morgan along while saying things like, "Come on, I've got to get home," or "Let's go, there's nothing there." She also stopped for a few minutes to talk with a friend. Most of the other people weren't as far off as Anna, but they all told me their dog got more exercise than they actually got. I had nice conversations with 16 of them who were very receptive and told me they really had no idea what was happening, and five told me to "buzz off," to put it nicely.
What I learned from free-ranging, homed dogs
When I lived in the mountains and my and others' dogs could run free, I was at first surprised and then truly learned that when given a chance to walk, run, or simply hang out and rest, their activity schedules varied and were unpredictable. It seemed that when I let them out of my house early in the morning, they were sort of "wired" to pee, poop, and sniff here and there. But after they did what they had to do and got some breakfast, all predictions were sketchy. On a number of occasions, I'd let them out and the first thing they did was pee and poop and sometimes they just laid down and didn't want to go anywhere when, in fact, they knew they could go on a long walk or run. I thought perhaps they were telling me something, like they had a bad night of sleep or didn't feel well, but I didn't detect any connection between their lack of interest in walking or running and their well-being. Over the course of two weeks, my canine companion Jethro, when going out after sleeping indoors, wanted his usual 2- to 3-mile walk nine times, didn't want to do much three times, and twice went out, ate breakfast, and laid down and went back to sleep. There was no indication that he was ill. He simply didn't want to do anything at that time, but when his friends Maddy and Zeke ambled down the road, he jumped and they ran around for around an hour. However, sometimes they said "hello" and they all laid down. Many people don't realize that a good number of wild animals, including dogs' wild relatives, spend 85% to 90% of their awake time resting.
What about tethered dogs?
I know when dogs have to be tethered to their or another human, it's different. But a dog's walk is for them, not for their human(s), so be sure they get enough time to exercise their bodies and their senses. Dogs typically sniff around one-third of the time they're on their own. Let them look around and try to locate sounds if they're attracted to them. I've heard some people brag about how much exercise their dog gets, but they're constantly yanking them along on their lead or, even when their dog is free to run around when they're on path or at a dog park, they're constantly helicoptering them and controlling how much their dog can actually exercise their bodies and senses.
How much exercise do dogs need?
Dogs differ, humans differ, and dog-human relationships differ. It's important to get to know your dog as the individual they are and learn what they're telling you. It's often pretty easy to detect what they want when a person pays close attention to them and knows their dog's personality and temperament.
There are no overarching scientific answers to the question, "How much exercise do dogs need?" If you're looking for a general rule of thumb, such as dogs need X minutes of walking and other forms of exercise, I don't think there is a single reliable answer to this question. The simple thing to do is to pay careful attention to your dog and what they're telling you and asking of you and I bet you'll come to learn what they need in terms of physical and sensory exercise.
Common sense also comes into play. If your dog is "wired," see if exercise calms them down. If they look exhausted and are panting and lying down when there are opportunities to continue exercising, they're likely tired and simply want to rest. As I noted above, my dogs showed unpredictable patterns of behavior when they had golden opportunities to romp here and there. I let them tell me what they wanted, and when I wanted to run an hour and they told me they didn't, they stayed home and I ran. If they wanted to go off on a long walk and I didn't, I was most fortunate that there usually was a neighbor or friend who could take them while I rested.