New Forest Dog On The Forest Off The Lead

Do we need to reconsider our approach to exercising our canine companions?

One fundamental aspect of ensuring the well-being of dogs is the significance of appropriate exercise. Daily walks offer dogs the benefits of exercise, social interaction, opportunities to exhibit species-specific behaviours, and enjoyable experiences. Many of us envisage those idyllic walks through picturesque countryside or pristine forests. But how often do we reflect on the impact of the physical activity we provide on our dogs' musculoskeletal system?Dog chasing ball

While off-lead interactions can result in increased opportunities for play, dogs off-leash can be challenging to control. They also face an elevated risk of both intraspecific and zoonotic infections, potentially causing harm to themselves and other animals. This off-leash freedom exposes dogs to variable terrains and unpredictable environmental factors, including slippery surfaces and harmful obstacles.

When dogs are allowed to run off-leash, they primarily engage the muscle groups necessary for locomotion and agility. However, the muscle groups less active during running have crucial functions in various aspects of a dog’s life. Inadequate strength in muscles responsible for joint stabilisation, or an imbalance between opposing muscle groups, can predispose a dog to adopting compensatory movement patterns, altered limb loading, and, ultimately, injuries such as Cranial Cruciate Ligament Disease.

Engaging in high-impact activities like ball throwing, which involves repeatedly running and abruptly stopping, can also contribute to additional strain on a dog's body. Dogs may inadvertently collide with objects, slip, or fall, or they could encounter other animals, all of which may result in injury.

Walking dogs on a lead is an effective means of mitigating the aforementioned risks and when performed slowly over varied or challenging terrain, increases limb active range of motion, engages core stability and improves proprioception (the sense of movement and the position of the dog’s limbs).

When a dog persistently pulls on a lead, the repetitive force exerted through pulling can negatively affect a dog's joints, potentially leading to injuries. Such injuries encompass tracheal damage, muscle strain or soft tissue damage. A dog that pulls on the lead also poses a notable risk to the handler, with reported injuries including finger fractures, shoulder strains, and even traumatic brain injuries.

On the other hand, exclusively walking a dog on a lead may not provide the necessary level of physical activity required to maintain a healthy weight. Over time, inadequate physical activity can result in weight gain or obesity in dogs.

We recommend encouraging good lead etiquette and incorporating a suitable warm-up and cool-down regime into your dogs exercise routine. Controlled lead walking at the beginning, implemented during the walk when the terrain or level of physical exertion necessitates, and at the end of your dogs exercise, will prevent overexertion and risk of injury caused by microtrauma.

Participation in a tailored muscle-strengthening programme that targets your dog's unique areas of muscular weakness, and activities that are low-impact and mentally stimulating, such as scent work, puzzle toys, working for food, and allowing your dog to sniff and explore, are all recommended alternatives to high-impact physical exercise.

A balanced approach that incorporates leash walking and off-leash play, while being mindful of health, safety and the environment is vital. If your dog is unfortunate enough to sustain an injury, controlled lead walking will be an essential part of recovery, and if your dog is familiar with this task, they will be better enabled to undertake rehabilitation.

Angelina Di Folco-Brooks & Andrea Good from The Centre of Veterinary Physiotherapy & Rehabilitation

You can contact Angelina and Andrea (who are based in the New Forest) through their website: www.veterinary-physiotherapist.co.uk

The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of NFDOG.