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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

The Myth of the Big Backyard and Dog Exercise

The most persistent disconnect that I have encountered in 30 years of veterinary practice is the owner perception that if they have a fenced, large backyard, then their dog is active. I have lost count of the number of veterinary exams that feel like the movie Groundhog Day, where I live the same scene over and over.

For example: I am in an exam room and an overweight dog is lying on the floor in the exam room and hasn’t moved in the first 10 minutes of the history-taking portion of my exam process. When I finally do get to the issue of weight and exercise information the owner insists that this immobile lump of canine at my feet is an unbelievable athlete when it is alone in the backyard.

As I try to elicit some voluntary movement from my patient that would help me perform my physical exam, the owner rambles on about how this dog is a perpetual motion machine in the backyard. I finish my exam in a pant due to efforts to move my patient. Attempts to convince the owner that this pet is not fit and really needs more exercise are unsuccessful. I complete the needs of the appointment and eagerly enter the next room for my next exam and encounter another immobile lump of canine athlete that also lives in a house with a big backyard.

A big backyard does not equal an active dog, yet the belief persists. Why?

Dr. Ernie Ward, in his book Chow Hounds, examined this misconception. He notes that when they are initially put out in the backyard, dogs naturally run the perimeter of the yard to ensure the family "pack" borders have not been breached by intruders. The owner sees this as they turn and close the door to return inside and leave the dog to exercise. Finally when the owner opens the door, the dog is at full steam returning to the owner. As Dr. Ward writes about the owner response ("Wow, that dog never slows down!") without realizing that the dog did nothing but lay around the yard during its entire time alone.

Other researchers have confirmed that pet dogs and wild dogs spend most of their time resting. For wild dogs it is a way of conserving energy between scarce meals. The behavior has not changed with domestication. A study in 1992 confirmed that solitary dogs rest 80 percent of their alone time, while multiple dogs rest 60 percent of the time. Dogs, like humans, need a reason to exercise. Although multiple dogs in a confined yard may play more than the solitary dog, owners still overestimate the amount of their activity.

If it wasn’t measured, it didn’t happen.

Dogs are pack animals and if the human members of the pack provide company and a reason to exercise, they will. Walking, fetching, swimming with the family (or as a family member watches), agility courses, etc., will motivate dogs to move. Time is measurable.

Time alone, however, is not the only component of productive exercise that burns calories. Dr. Ward notes that a stroll with a dog, although a great social event between dog and owner, is inadequate to burn meaningful calories. Dr. Ward researched data from NASA and other studies on exercise in dogs that indicate that a pace of 4-4.7 miles an hour, or 14-15 minute miles, are necessary for meaningful cardiovascular effects and caloric burn. Owners who are unable to walk at this pace will need to substitute fetching, agility, or swimming activities that are more cardiovascular intense. Ideally these strategies should be a daily event for at least an hour.


Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: picbyst / via Shutterstock

Comments  2

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  • Fit dogs and owners
    02/14/2013 07:43pm

    Saying your dog is fit because you have a big yard is like saying you are fit because you have a treadmill in the garage. Playing alone in a backyard is about as much fun for a dog as trudging on a treadmill in a garage is for a human. My sheltie and I hike up and down our local hills every morning, except on days we are going to do longer obedience training (that usually happens twice a week.) I keep a fast pace so I know we both are getting exercise. I also walk dogs for other people and I make sure they walk briskly as well, no constant stopping to sniff or pee...it is a WALK!
    I feel sorry for those poor, bored dogs in backyards. They'd be better off in apartments with owners that took them hiking, played ball or did obedience or agility every day.
    Dogs and people need exercise. Since anything we do with our dogs is more fun than anything we do without our dogs, we should exercise with them daily. (Oh, and my dog even helps me with my indoor workouts, licking me when I am within reach doing such things as push-ups or stretching. He is smart so he runs when he sees me swinging the kettlebells!)

  • Out Back
    02/14/2013 11:16pm

    I find it concerning that so many people put Fido in the back yard and don't supervise him/her. Once in awhile there is a rash of dog thefts. I personally know of one case where a standard poodle was almost stolen from a back yard. The human came to the rescue when the dog screamed in pain. It was a case of someone trying to lift the dog over a chain link fence and the dog's tail got caught in the fence, breaking it.

    This article provides another important reason for going with Fido to the Great Outdoors.

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