How I Exercise My Dogs Without A Large Yard

Not all dog owners have a fenced in yard. Luckily, I’m not one of them, but we do have a very small yard. We also live in a location in which there are bears at least two if not three seasons out of the year roaming in the area. Both of these things limit certain types of exercise the dogs can get.

I used to take the dogs to our other property to run off leash, but last time we were there, one of the dogs picked up and ate 1/2 of a cashew. This is not good. This means someone had thrown this into the yard from the road, I’m guessing purposely. It could have been much worse.

So now I’m not taking any chances and we’re finding alternative ways to exercise so that I don’t have to deal with the possibility of my dogs getting poisoned or injured.

All dogs obviously need the appropriate amount of exercise, but not all the same amount or type, and that will change as a dog ages.

These are the things I do to make sure my dogs are getting enough exercise, and mental stimulation:

Walking on Leash

Leash walking is important because it allows dogs to smell things that they wouldn’t normally smell. This is crucial for a dog’s mental health. Walking in itself is not a particularly good cardio workout, for dogs or people, but it does get you moving and experiencing the outdoors which is, in my opinion, just as important as the exercise itself.

Walking is also a warm up if you are planning to do any further exercise yourself, but especially for your dog, who needs to warm up before any conditioning or sports training. Even if just going for a run in an off leash area, a dog should have had at least 5 minutes of walking for warm up. This gets muscles warmed up and can HELP prevent injury when more strenuous activity is started.

My goal is to walk my dogs 2 days a week for about 20-30 minutes. This is mostly for variety in exercise. For warming up we do a five minute brisk walk if the weather is appropriate (i.e. not too cold or hot). Otherwise our warm-ups will incorporate other things I’ll discuss below.

Free Movement

Dogs naturally move certain ways. They don’t move like us humans do, but have specific doggie movements that we have all seen. For example, the bow stretch is a natural thing that pretty much all dogs do without thinking or training, as long as they are injury free. It is a natural way for them to stretch after getting up. Other movements are rolling in the grass, shaking themselves, stretching out one back leg after another, or possibly rubbing their faces to the floor or grass.

These movements naturally and gently stretch a dog’s muscles. I like giving my dogs a chance to move naturally like this after warm-up tricks and before training or doing any other exercise in our yard. I feel this is important especially if the activity we are going to be doing is not really natural for a dog, such as practising catching a disc. This is part of the dog’s warm up before training.

Conditioning Fitness

Dog fitness has become a very popular dog “sport” recently. It has become apparent that without proper conditioning a dog will most often experience a decline in mobility as she gets older. Some dogs also participate in active dog sports when they are not fully conditioned or do repetitive actions. They then experience repetitive strain injuries or other serious problems.

Ira doing some dynamic spine stretches.

I came upon conditioning fitness for my dogs when AJ, my first Kuvasz completely tore her ACL by suddenly running after being fairly sedentary for months and therefore poorly conditioned. After surgery to repair the injury, the vet, who had been taking education on mobility issues in dogs, gave me a rehabilitation program to do at home with AJ. That got me fully interested in the subject.

You can see the blog post describing our ordeal HERE.

Ira enjoying hiking on a portion of the Trans Canada Trail carrying his backpack. Weighted backpacks are the “STAMINA” part of conditioning fitness.

Conditioning is so important to a dog’s health that it deserves it’s own complete blog. All I can do here is emphasize how crucial it is to a dog’s mental and physical health to get and stay properly conditioned.

Conditioning is exercise all in itself. If a dog is not well conditioned, running off leash once a week at the dog park or even just getting up off the floor can be a negative experience. Conditioning should be included in every dog’s weekly exercise program. The exercises can be done with equipment you have in your house, or some with even no equipment at all. It can also be done in small spaces, which is why it’s appropriate for small or un-fenced yards.


General training is something that can be beneficial for dogs as exercise. Training can include anything that you need your dog to know for a normal life, or specific dog sports behaviours. It really doesn’t matter as long as your dog is engaged in the activity. Training can be mentally taxing for a dog. I have had many students tell me that their dogs fell asleep as soon as they got in the vehicle to go home from class. Mental stimulation can substitute for part of a dog’s exercise program because of this, but of course you will need to know your own dog to decide whether or not it is appropriate for you.

Training can also considered warming up. Tricks are very good warm ups if we can’t get out for a walk. Spins, wave, back up, down, sit and stands as well as many others are what we use to get the muscles warmed up before going out to play or doing a serious training session. Sometimes I do stretches with the dogs and tricks work well for us as a pre-training-session warm up before that.

Doing nothing

I find it can be a good thing to do nothing once in awhile. In fact, at least one day off a week is important for mental/physical health for both humans and dogs. In this house, we generally do nothing on Sundays. No training, no exercising. Nothing. We might possibly sit outside in nice weather for a while, but in the winter we don’t. We sit inside. I might take this day of doing nothing opportunity to do a bit of grooming, but nothing serious at all. It is a day of rest for the dogs.

I find that when I regularly include an day off from training, the dogs rest more and when we return to training the following day, they have absorbed their previous lessons better. It is also necessary to let muscles recuperate from anything strenuous done during the week, or even just the regular schedule of activity.

Running around in our small yard

Something to remember before letting a dog loose to run like a nut in an off leash area is that the dog needs to have already been warmed up. That is, the dog’s muscles must be properly warmed already before running. Allowing an exuberant take off into an off leash area un-managed also promotes excitability in dogs which is not always a good thing AND it has the potential to cause injury, either mild or severe.

Our small back yard. The dog’s portion is about 20 feet/20 feet.

I don’t do this anymore, although in the past this was how I let the dogs out every time into the big yard – with a great burst of energy. Luckily no one ever got hurt from a strain. Doing this might be something to avoid if at all possible.

Instead what we do is after warming up, the dogs play with toys and run around our small back yard. Emmett and JoJo are let out separately from Ira. All dogs enjoy about 45 minutes of free play/movement here 2-3 times a week depending on the weather. If it is too cold, we reduce the amount of time outside. Emmett is 12 years old and is only outside in reasonable temperatures.

Creating An Exercise Program

Obviously a dog’s exercise program will depend on age, weight, breed, condition, lifestyle and other factors. Anytime you start a program with your dog, even a training program, it is wise to have a vet exam to rule anything out that might affect your dog’s ability to do it. You definitely don’t want to make anything worse.

The main thing I’m trying to get across is that there are lots of ways to exercise a dog and have it be the correct amount/type for that dog. You don’t always need a huge yard or to let a dog run free to have a well conditioned and healthy pet. That is something that we’ve been conditioned (trained) to think that dogs need.

What dogs really need is for their humans to pay proper attention to them with regards to exercise and do what is right for each individual dog.