Should My Dog Warm Up Before Playtime?

by Britt
Photo credit: Pixel-Shot /

Our dogs are always up for a good time, whether it’s a game of fetch or a hike on a local trail. But before you unleash your dog’s inner athlete, you may want to consider the importance of a proper warm-up.

Physical activity is an essential factor in setting your dog up for a happy, healthy life. However, just like humans, dogs need to prepare their muscles to avoid injuries during exercise. Even a casual game of fetch in the backyard could lead to an unwanted mishap.

Let’s discuss the importance of a warm-up routine for your dog, including how to tailor it to your dog’s breed, age, and fitness level. I’ll also share ways to make the process fun and enjoyable for both you and your pup.

Discover how a few simple warm-up exercises can prioritize your dog’s health.

Do All Dogs Need to Warm-Up Before Exercise?

One common misconception about warm-up exercises is that they are only for dogs who engage in dog sports and other high-intensity activities. While canine athletes should warm up before exercise, they aren’t the only ones who benefit from this step.

Often, we include our dogs in our favorite activities like running, hiking, or biking (as your dog runs alongside you). These activities can definitely put your dog at risk for injuries if they haven’t stretched or warmed up. There’s a good chance if you regularly engage in these activities, you likely take the time to stretch yourself. Your dog’s needs are no different!

What Injuries Can a Dog Suffer from Not Warming Up?

If you skip the warm-up before your dog’s physical activity, you are increasing the risk that your dog will experience a variety of injuries, ranging from minor discomforts to significant injuries that could sideline them for weeks or even months to come. In the most severe cases, your dog may suffer an injury that could have a life-long impact on their ability to run around and play like normal.

Here are a few of the more common injuries your dog may experience:

Muscle Soreness or Cramping

Have you ever experienced cramping or sore muscles after exercise? If so, you know just how uncomfortable this can be. While a warm-up isn’t going to prevent muscle pain entirely after rigorous exercise, it can help reduce the pain that develops after their play session. Luckily, these injuries are minor and will subside after encouraging your dog to rest and relax as their muscles recuperate.

Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains, the next step up in severity, are injuries that occur when a ligament, muscle, or tender has been stretched too far. There is no set limit on how far is “too far,” but a proper warm-up can extend this limit slightly, reducing the risk of this happening. Like muscle soreness, the treatment is generally nothing more than taking time off and resting. However, more severe cases may require some additional care.

Joint Injuries

These injuries carry the highest risk for long-term complications. Joint injuries can’t all be prevented with a simple warm-up. However, tight or stiff muscles around a joint will increase the risk of injury. You should also consider doing conditioning exercises to build muscle strength in the muscles around your dog’s joints, protecting them from damage during exercise.

If you have a dog that has previously experienced joint problems or is at high risk of joint issues, you may want to consult a certified professional canine fitness trainer or rehabilitation professional to design a set of exercises that will best condition your dog for their lifestyle and favorite activities.

How Long Should a Warm-Up Take?

One reason why many pet parents may skip the warm-up is due to time constraints. But your dog’s warm-up doesn’t have to be long and overly extensive. The most effective warm-up exercises will take only 10 to 15 minutes. You just need to get your dog moving long enough to get the blood flow effectively circulating through your muscles and increase your dog’s heart rate.

Some outside factors can influence this timeframe. On a hot summer day, your dog’s warm-up can be a little shorter than it would be on a colder day in late fall or winter. You can use a sweater or jacket to help reduce that warm-up time during the cool months.

I usually outfit my dog Lucifer in the Kurgo Dog Onesie Body Warmer when we’re heading out for winter activities and exercises. Unlike most dog coats and sweaters, it provides coverage to the whole body, including the legs, which is important when considering its use to reduce warm-up times.

Photo credit: sergey kolesnikov /

8 Activities and Exercises to Warm Up Your Dog

Now that we have established that a warm-up is an important part of your dog’s exercise routine, it’s time to discuss how you can put this into practice. Here are 8 fun activities and exercises that you can use to help your dog warm up and prepare for their next high-energy activity:

Start with a Walk

The easiest way to prepare for a run, or games that involve a lot of running, is to start slow. If you plan to run around the block with your dog by your side, start with a slow walking past to warm up their muscles and increase their heart rate. Slowly speed up, moving from a walk to a slow trot, then a job, and finally (after approximately 5 to 10 minutes), you will be ready to run.

You can also use this approach after your run in reverse as a cooldown, slowly cutting back on speed and intensity until you’re walking in your front door.

This is an excellent opportunity to work on your dog’s loose-leash walking skills. Focus on encouraging your dog to walk alongside you without pulling, changing directions as needed when they try to pull ahead. It’s a warm-up that both prevents injuries and improves your dog’s leash manners for future walks.

Low Tugs Close to the Ground

A great way to encourage your dog to stretch out their back and neck is by holding their tug toy close to the ground. As they brace against the ground trying to pull, it will also engage muscles along their legs, hamstrings, and groin. However, avoid allowing this game of tug to become too intense, or it is no longer a warm-up; it becomes a more engaged tug activity.

Practice a Play Bow

You may have seen the play bow on social media or in person. It is a cute and entertaining trick, but it can also serve a more practical purpose. When your dog engages in a play bow, they extend their spine, stretching their back and forelimbs.

If they already know how to perform this trick, great! Have them do a few play bows before getting into your exercise. If not, you can turn this into a short training session working on their play bow both to stretch now and to set them up to use this stretch in the future.

Figure 8s

Set up a couple of cones or similar objects approximately two times your dog’s body length apart. Then, start taking them through Figure 8s around the cones. Not only does this get your dog moving, much like walking, but the turns as they move around the cones focus on stretching and flexing the back and spine. The closer your dog is to the cones when turning, the more it will require them to flex. To get the most benefits from this exercise, make sure you change direction occasionally, requiring your dog to turn left and right.

Nose to Body Stretches

You will need an enticing treat for this stretch that your dog will follow. Show your dog the treat, then use it as a lure, bringing their nose to their right shoulder and holding them there for approximately 5 seconds. Give them the treat and allow them to return their head to neutral. Taking another treat, lure their nose down to their right hip, holding again for 5 seconds before giving them the treat. Repeat this process on the left side.

Side Stepping and Backing Up

Asking your dog to move in a way that is different from their usual forward movement will require them to use different muscles while also offering a mental challenge. Side stepping is effective in warming up your dog’s hips and glutes. Meanwhile, having your dog backup warms up the muscles in their rear end.

You can try to guide your dog through these exercises by luring them with a treat. However, if you are going to prioritize warm-ups regularly in the future, I recommend teaching these movements as a command. This not only makes it easier to run your dog through their warm-up but also ensures that they are doing the movements properly rather than becoming frustrated trying to follow a treat.

Positional Changes

Also known as “puppy gymnastics,” this warm-up exercise involves talking your dog through the basic obedience commands that they learned as puppies. Ask them to sit, lie down, stand up, circle right, and circle left, all in succession. Repeat this pattern multiple times, rewarding them with a tasty treat every couple of moves to keep them engaged.

Targeting with Their Feet

Targeting refers to asking your dog to touch a specific item with their feet. In this case, it will involve asking your dog to place their front feet up onto a specified surface, standing on their hind legs. If you have a platform that you use for conditioning drills, you can use that. If not, consider using a bench or chair. Hold a treat out when your dog is up on the platform or surface and have them stretch forward to reach it. As they reach, it will stretch out their hips.

Final Thoughts: Warming Up Your Dog for Exercise

Much like with people, a warm-up or stretch before running or playing is a great way to prevent injuries in your dog. This includes not only canine athletes engaging in activities like agility or canicross but also family dogs before any high-energy games or activities, including intense fetch sessions, running, or hiking.

Luckily, there are many ways to turn an effective warm-up into a fun game. Try using a training game with your dog’s favorite treats to encourage stretching, or start your next run with a simple walk or light trot to get their heart rate up.

A few simple exercises today will ensure your dog is ready for fun games and exciting activities for days and weeks to come!

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Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs – Lucifer and Willow – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.

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