By Kimberly Burgan, Dog Walking Academy director and Austin, TX DWA instructor
Who doesn’t love the sweet smell of puppy breath? Most of us jump at any chance to work with puppies and teenagers, and their owners are all too glad to have us wear out their whirling dervishes. But there’s a downside to too much exercise for dogs who haven’t yet reached sexual maturity: high-impact play and exercise can damage a growing dog’s growth plates, causing ongoing damage.
Here’s what you should know about growth plates and how to balance their protection with much-needed exercise for young dogs.
What you should know about growth plates
Growth plates are regions of cartilage that sit at the ends of the long bones of the legs. They are ultimately responsible for healthy bone growth. As a puppy grows and develops, moving and working their muscles, hormonal changes trigger this cartilage to calcify and develop into a denser matter. This calcification ultimately fuses and becomes a stable part of the bone. Until fusing completes at sexual maturity, these soft areas are much more prone to injury from hard impacts, repetitive impacts, and even too much exercise. And a fracture during this time can present problems for proper healing, prevent the growth plate from fully forming, and create uneven pressure on the other legs that produces secondary physical health challenges over a dog’s a lifetime.
A good rule of thumb to keep you on the safe side of preventing injury is to assume sexual maturity and growth plate fusing by 9 months for small dogs, 12 months for mid-sized pooches, 18 months for big dogs, and 24 months for the giants. A fully mature canine client may now safely enjoy things like jogging or running on hard surfaces, doing stairs regularly, jumping, and high-impact activities like catching a Frisbee in the air that might also involve any leg twisting.
Spay/neuter timing & growth plates
Recent studies and findings indicate that altering a dog prior to reaching sexual maturity removes the sex hormones needed for physical maturity to fully occur.
With nationwide early spay/neuter campaigns still on the rise (for all of the right reasons including overcrowded shelters), veterinarians are seeing a greater number of adult dogs experiencing problems such as early-onset of arthritis, shortened leg length, functional gate abnormalities, twisted limb or paw, and non-healing fracture sites—all of which mean unnecessary and possibly avoidable pain and discomfort for the aging dog (as well as secondary health problems often attached). Veterinarians are now choosing to wait for sexual maturity or are now choosing alternate options. Responsible breeders will regularly promote delaying alteration until sexual maturity and inhibit early spay and neuter options within their contract.
The increase in these practices among vets and breeders means an increase in unaltered young dogs needing your services.
How does this impact my work as a professional dog walker?
Carefully planning increasing exercise for puppies and adolescents is a must. Doing so provides a potential niche for dog walkers who can factor in screening parameters such as: Are you in a position to lift the puppy or teenager in and out of your vehicle to avoid injury? Are you comfortable including an unaltered dog on your route and is it safe to do so? If you’re walking off leash, can you control the environment to keep the puppy from jumping over logs, for example, or running too hard with her group mates? It’s also best to keep very young puppy walks a bit shorter to avoid stressing growth plates, and, where possible, choose routes with soft substrates like grass and dirt rather than concrete.
For intact dogs, can you keep un-neutered males safe from targeting by other males, and intact females safe from unwanted attention and impregnation? Do you walk on leash so you can avoid an intact male running off to investigate a female scent? Many professional walkers choose not to include the menagerie of additional responsibilities that come with walking intact dogs. Given that more prospective clients will be holding out for longer durations of time before altering, it might be a good place to put some thought into your screening policies: What works for you? If you decide the risks involved in walking intact dogs remain too high for you, stick to your policies.
If the additional challenges that come with walking puppies and teenagers aren’t for you, consider networking to find walkers willing to work with puppies or adolescents that don’t fit your walking model so you can provide quality referrals when your answer is no. Pet parents will appreciate your professional knowledge, ethical integrity, and insight even if you ultimately have to decline their business. Healthy walking is happy walking, after all.
Kimberly Burgan, CPDT-KA, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a professional member of the APDT, an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, and a nationally recognized, award-winning dog trainer with over 12 years of experience. She is one of only a handful of U.S. trainers accredited through renowned behaviorist John Rogerson’s Northern Centre for Canine Behaviour (UK). As Director of the dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Certification Program, Kimberly also teaches the program in Austin, TX. A wearer of many hats, Kimberly additionally lends her teaching and support talents as a dog*tec business consultant, helping dog pros reach their career goals. She is the author of the children's book, Poppy and Puppy Are Friends: A Child's Introduction to Responsible Dog Ownership and continues to be a driving force for proactive education for dog-bite prevention and rewards-based training.