Canine Massage Guild

Managing Restricted Exercise

At some point unless your dog is extremely careful, bombproof or just plain lucky, they’re likely to have some kind of injury and need their exercise restricted. Managing restricted exercise comes with a number of challenges and considerations, which will vary slightly depending on your dog and their injury.

My Finn is currently recovering from a cruciate ligament sprain, which means very restricted exercise and a long recovery time. I’m not qualified to give exercise advice, that needs to come from a qualified physiotherapist, this is an owners perspective on managing restricted exercise and things to consider.

Do you know exactly what your dog can and can’t do? If your vet or physio meant 5 minute toilet walks, and you assumed on lead walks meant usual walks but on lead, your dog won’t recover as well as they should. You need to know how long they can walk for, how often, any restrictions around the house, and when you can increase exercise again.

Where will you walk? The two things I’ve had to consider have been the surface and distractions. Finn needs a solid non slippery surface to make sure he’s weight bearing evenly. Being winter that’s meant roads, paths or the occasional flat field which still has grass and isn’t muddy (took a while but I found one!) In summer I’d have more choice, but would need to avoid cracked ground. I’m also avoiding hills, those will come in later in his recovery.

For Finn distractions in the form of dogs and people are a problem. Finn can be very sociable and is very frustrated at not being able to run and play. If I walk him around unfamiliar dogs I risk him getting excited and jumping around, potentially causing damage. So I’ve been mixing up walks through housing estates with walks in quiet fields, so far it’s mostly worked. I’m avoiding busy walking areas like parks like the plague, that would just be mean to take Finn there without being able to let him play. My other dogs wouldn’t have this issue as they aren’t as interested in other dogs, Poppy’s distraction would be birds, we’d avoid the river!

I’ve had to change what I use to walk Finn to have better control. Normally he’s in a harness, or just collar and lead. But knowing that he’s frustrated and over excited, he’s likely to leap around and pull like an idiot. I’ve been walking him in a head collar instead, he’s used to one anyway and walks nicely in it, and I have more control.

Managing if you have more than one dog - This really is dog dependent. Finn isn’t happy staying at home without another dog, Poppy is older and doesn’t need a huge amount of exercise, but Fly needs a good run every day. I’ve worked hard to make sure Finn can walk nicely on a lead if the others are running free, if he couldn’t I’d need to do extra walks with individual dogs more often, or work on leaving him alone. My dogs don’t do a huge amount of playing together and I can interrupt them easily, if they played a lot I suspect walks would need to be separate. 

Because I can walk all the dogs together, they’ve been doing a short morning on lead walk together, then their afternoon walk has been somewhere that the other dogs can run free while me and Finn walk a short way slowly. They get their exercise without Finn doing too much. If they still need more I pop him back in the car and let them carry on running. A couple of times a week I take Fly out for a long walk by herself to try and run the crazy out of her!

Again you need to know what restrictions are needed in the house. Is it crate rest alongside restricted exercise? Can they move around at all? Can they do stairs? Finn is being allowed relative freedom, because he’s actually very calm in the house. If he wasn’t, he would spend time in a crate or pen. I confine him to one room while I’m out and Fly stops him from getting on the furniture! I have stair gates at the top and bottom of the stairs to stop Finn climbing them by himself, and all my floors are carpeted anyway so I don’t have to worry about him slipping.

I have a car ramp for Finn anyway, but if not I’d need to get one, or I’d need to lift him in and out of the car to avoid him jumping and injuring himself further. The garden is another area I need to control, he’s always taken out on lead for the toilet as he’d race out madly if I just opened the door.

It can be hard to keep your dog calm and entertained, but every dog is different in what will keep them happy, and what they can cope with. I haven’t been able to do even static training with Finn because he goes nuts and puts a little bit too much enthusiasm into it. So I’ve relied on food - scatter feeding, kongs and long lasting chews. Other than that I’ve mostly ignored Finn or given him calm cuddles, I’ve tried to keep the house calm, and he finally seems resigned to his fate.

It’s important to have a proper recovery plan in place. If you heavily restrict exercise and then when the injury has healed you just let your dog straight off lead, they will more than likely injure themselves again. Muscles will atrophy if not used regularly, making them more likely to develop strains if they’re suddenly overworked.

I’m treating Finn weekly at home because I can, but he is also having fortnightly physiotherapy. It’s important to get him using the affected leg properly again so that he returns to full mobility, while building up his muscles to further support the joint and hopefully prevent reinjury. Each time as well as assessing and treating Finn, we agree on how much and what type of walking he can do until the next visit, as well as any specific exercises.

If there’s something you honestly can’t do, don’t know how to do, or don’t understand, tell your vet or physio. Better to do that, and make adaptations if necessary, than it is for you to agree but then go against the plan and potentially affect your dogs recovery. For Finn that meant agreeing slightly longer walks as he wouldn’t go to the toilet too early in a walk. We also changed the type of exercise he was doing to promote weight bearing as he was pretty good at cheating with the original one!

If your dog is really struggling, talk to your vet about medication. A herbal remedy might be able to take the edge off any anxiety or restlessness, or they may benefit from prescription medication. Finn had a couple of very restless days right at the start and with fireworks, and medication on those days really helped, otherwise he’s been fine. Do speak to your vet before trying anything though.

And remember that although rest and restricted exercise is frustrating, it’ll be much worse if you rush things, the injury reoccurs and you have to start from scratch!