Top tips for walking with your recovering dog
- Your dog needs to walk slowly after injury or surgery.
- Do keep your recovering dog on a lead for all walks and toilet-breaks.
- It is best to attach the lead to a good walking-harness rather than to a neck collar.
- Don’t let your dog walk for longer than has been advised by his or her surgeon.
- Time the walks, and keep a note of how much your dog is doing.
- Your dog should not come home more lame or sore than when they left the house.
After injury or surgery, your dog’s exercise must be restricted for a while. Your vet or surgeon will give you some guidelines as to how much exercise your own dog is allowed to do.
Even if your dog is on strict “crate rest“, he or she still needs to be taken outside on a lead several times a day for toilet breaks (i.e. to pee and poo). These toilet breaks are initially kept really short, e.g. perhaps up to about 5 minutes at a time, or just as long as is needed for your toileting purposes. Check with the surgeon as to whether your own dog has a time-limit on these toilet break sessions.
Walk slowly with your recovering dog.
Early in recovery, do make sure that your dog walks really slowly. This will speed up recovery by allowing your your dog to place each leg safely. (Your dog isn’t yet ready to use all four legs at a higher speed.) This is the case whether your dog is recovering from an injury, or has had an operation on a leg or on the spine.
Keeping a slow pace is important during your dog’s toilet breaks. It’s also important if your dog is walking around indoors, e.g. if they have to walk from their crate or recovery room to reach the outdoors. If the surgeon has recommended that you take your recovering dog for timed “walks”, then you should also keep these to a slow walking pace early on.
Setting the correct pace
In most cases, the safest walking speed for your recovering dog will be slower than how he or she usually chooses to move.
During early recovery, your dog should be walking and not trotting. Watch out for this, as many dogs choose to trot whenever they go out “for a walk”. The trot is a bit faster than walking, and it is a bouncy, two-step movement.
So you shouldn’t take your dog faster than his or her walking speed. As a general rule for the average-sized owner, this means that you, the owner, should walk:
- slightly slower than usual if next to a Labrador retriever
- very much slower than usual if walking with a small dog, e.g. a Jack Russell terrier or whippet
- at an extremely slow shuffling pace if walking with a Chihuahua or other toy breed.
Of course, if you have long legs and tend to walk fast, then you’ll have to make even more of a point of walking slowly with your recovering dog. Glance down at your dog now and again, and check that they aren’t going faster than a walk.
Your dog should certainly not be running just after injury or surgery. Some dogs with very short legs, e.g. many Chihuahuas, naturally choose to run whenever they go “out for walk” with their owner, even if on the lead. The run is faster than a walk or trot, and is a bounding, asymmetric movement.
How slow should the walk be?
For at least the first couple of weeks after surgery, most recovering dogs should be encouraged to walk slightly slower than their usual walking speed. This is the case following cruciate ligament surgery, patellar surgery and after many other types of operation. In the first few days, this slow walking speed gives your dog the chance to start using their operated leg safely. During the weeks that follow, a slow walking speed allows your dog to use each paw properly, and will therefore help the operated leg to get stronger.
It is no good to rush ahead either with your dog on three legs, or with an obvious limp. Walking too fast in this way will not help the operated leg got stronger, but may result in the limp getting worse, and can cause back-ache and other secondary aches and pains.
Similarly, if your dog is recovering from spinal injury or surgery, then do follow the rule of walking slightly slower than his or her usual walking speed. During recovery, your dog’s legs may be weak or not yet work very well. Walking really slowly will give your dog a chance to start to use his or her legs properly again.
My dog has had a leg operation. Is it safe for her to walk on the operated leg?
In most cases, it is safe for a dog to walk calmly on an operated leg as soon as they feel able to do so, even just after surgery. This includes most dogs who have had cruciate ligament surgery or patellar luxation surgery. These dogs are also safe to stand with all four paws on the ground.
However, it is generally too risky for these dogs to bounce up and down on the operated leg, to run or jump on it, or to use stairs.
There are a few cases in which the leg is best not used at all for a certain period after the operation, but this is fairly unusual. Do ask the surgeon if you are not sure whether or not your dog is allowed to put their paw to the ground.
My dog finds it difficult to walk slowly. Does this mean that it’s okay to walk faster?
After injury or surgery, many dogs find it much easier to rush ahead without using the affected leg(s) properly. After all, they have four legs, so whizzing along on three legs, rushing ahead while barely putting one paw down, or even dragging both hind legs behind, can feel to the dog like an easy option.
As a general rule, this isn’t okay – it is safer and better if you slow your dog down to a slow walk. We want a good outcome for all four legs. We don’t want your dog to “learn” a habit of moving well on just two or three legs at a time. Such habits can be very difficult to break, and may also cause your dog to develop a nasty backache.
How can I help my dog to walk at the right speed?
Your recovering dog needs to be on the lead whenever they go outdoors. Depending on the dog, it my also be best for them to be on the lead whenever they are outside their crate or recovery room indoors.
It is best to clip the lead to a well-fitting walking harness. This avoids the delicate neck structures, and also means that the lead attachment is as close as possible to the dog’s centre of gravity.
To slow your dog down, “check back” now and again on the lead. If your dog is constantly pulling forward on the lead, then try a “give and take” action on the lead, i.e. pull the lead back quite briefly, and then release the pressure slightly once your dog has slowed. Use just enough lead pressure to slow your dog down. Do not pull your dog off his or her feet by jerking the lead too strongly backwards.
Try to position yourself level with your dog’s shoulder when walking together, as this will give you the best control. Also remember to walk at the correct slow speed yourself (as described above). For more information on keeping your dog safe and slow on the lead, click here.
Above: It’s best to clip the lead to a walking-harness.
Is it okay for me let my recovering dog out into the garden for a toilet-break?
No, it is generally not okay to allow a recovering dog go off-lead in the garden. If you have been told to put your dog on “crate rest“, or to do “lead exercise only”, then this means that he or she should not be allowed to roam free in the garden. Moving around off-lead in the garden may well cause your dog either to put too much weight on their affected leg, or to rush around on the other three legs, both of which can cause problems. There is also a chance that your dog may run or jump, e.g. if they see a bird, squirrel or cat, and this could be disastrous. Do therefore go outside with your dog on the lead, even for toilet breaks.
Above: Avoid letting your dog off-lead in the garden during recovery in case they run unexpectedly.
If your dog is generally reluctant to pee and poo when on the lead, then try a few times and they should eventually manage this. It will help if you allow your dog to sniff the ground first. You can let their lead go a bit slack while they sniff the ground and as they get ready for toileting. But be ready to stop the lead with your free hand if your dog suddenly starts to move off again.
Be sure to follow your surgeon’s advice regarding stairs and so on. If your garden has sets of steps, then you may need to avoid these while your dog recovers. If garden access involves just one or two steps or stairs, then you may be okay to walk your dog slowly over these (check with your surgeon first, as safety guidelines vary between patients). Use your dog’s lead to encourage them to walk slowly over this type of obstacle or if needed, steady your dog using the top strap of a walking-harness. If your dog is small, then the best option may be to lift them over any obstacles.
On which side of the dog should I walk?
In many cases, it is best now and again to switch sides when walking your dog. So you’d perhaps walk on their left side in the morning, and on their right side in the afternoon. This helps muscles to build up more evenly on each side.
If your dog has had cruciate or patellar surgery on one hind leg, then it is usually best to walk mainly on the side of the operated leg during early recovery. If you can keep the dog to a slow walking pace, then this positioning encourages the dog to place their operated leg more safely.
If you walk your dog on a slip lead, choke chain, or one-sided head-collar (none of which are advisable during recovery, as discussed here), then this will restrict which side you can restrain them from.
How long should the walks be?
The safe amount of exercise varies from case to case, so your vet or surgeon should give you some guidelines.
An example of an exercise regime prescribed by a surgeon for one particular dog is as follows (NB each dog has different exercise requirements, and this regime is just shown as an example):
“Week 1 and 2: lead-walk Fido to allow urination and defecation only. This can be up to 5 minutes at a time, up to four times daily. Week 3 and beyond: In addition to the lead-walks to urinate and defecate, now add in 2-3 extra lead-walks. Start these lead-walks at 5 minutes each, and gradually increase their length by 5 minutes each week up until the 8 week recheck. Aim for Fido to be walking for twenty to thirty minutes at a time, 2-3 times daily, by the time of their 8 week recheck”.
From a practical point of view, it’s important to time the walks, and to keep a note of how much your dog is doing each week. Do stick to your own vet surgeon’s guidelines regarding amount of walking exercise per day.
Do also keep an eye on how much your dog is managing to do. Each dog recovers at a different rate, and some dogs don’t do well if walking exercise is built up too fast. If your dog seems sore, lame or uncomfortable following a walk, then let your vet know. You may need to reduce the duration of walks or the number of walks per day if this happens.
It’s also a good idea to watch out for signs of tiredness in your dog during each walk. Your dog should come home walking just as well as when they left the house. Signs of tiredness are listed below. If you notice these getting worse during the walk, then it’s a good idea to come home early, to make the next walk a little shorter than usual as well, and to let your vet know if problems continue.
Signs of tiredness:
- Lameness worsening during the walk.
- The dog starting to look more one-sided, skew or wonky during the walk.
- The dog carrying his or head lower and lower.
- Hesitating or stopping more and more during the walk.
- Pulling on the lead more and more during the walk. This last one is surprising, but many dogs do pull on the lead more when their injured area is starting to hurt. The dog tries to go faster and faster when he or she actually needs to take a break.
I’m desperate to walk for longer with my dog. What can I do?
This is a frustrating problem for many owners. It is essential not to exceed the amount of walking that has been prescribed by your surgeon. Take some comfort in the fact that, if you follow the surgeon’s advice, then your dog should have the best chance of a good outcome. So you can look forward to enjoying good walks together in the future.
If your dog is small enough, then you may find it helpful to buy or borrow a dog pushchair (stroller) for use during the recovery period. This allows you to go out together with your dog for quite some distance. Lift your dog out of the pushchair for the prescribed amount of exercise, then put them back in ready for the walk home. Keep a very close eye on your dog and clip their harness to the pushchair if possible as, for obvious reasons, it is essential that they don’t try to jump out.
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