Five Force-Free Fun Fitness Activities to Do with Your Dog

By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Behavior & Training Instructor

Spring is almost here, and the sunny skies may be calling you and your dog. What should you do together?

Exercise and games are important parts of any healthy dog’s life. Let’s look at five different ways you can help your dog get needed exercise without using force. 

Go Swimming

Adopted WHS dog, Sherlock, spends a day on the beach. Photo by Nichole Myers-Youngquist

Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not born knowing how to swim. They need to be introduced to the water carefully in a supportive environment.  A dog life jacket is one way to keep your dog safe during deep water swimming.

How to teach a dog to swim without using force

  • Start on the shoreline while holding a long leash attached to your dog. 
  • Allow the dog to make a choice to go into the water.  
  • If your dog looks relaxed (such as splashing with their paws, body and mouth), toss a ball or stick just a few feet from the shore and wait for the dog to chase after it and bring it back. Remember to practice patience.
  • Continue to toss the ball or stick, gradually increasing the distance from the shore.  
  • Do reward your dog for bringing the ball or stick back to you with a treat for the first two or three times, then tossing the ball becomes a valuable reward.
  • Don’t toss the ball too far away from the shore. Your dog is still learning and needs to build confidence in the ability to swim. But once your dog has mastered the skill, swimming can be great exercise. 

If the water outdoors is too cold for you, it’s likely too cold for your dog. Consider an indoor option (such as Bailey’s Journey) with trained staff to support your pet.

Try Retrieving

Chasing a ball is instinctive for many dogs. Bringing it back is a trained behavior. Retrieving is such a great team sport that it’s worth working on! 

How to teach a dog to fetch without using force

  • If your dog doesn’t want to bring back the ball, try practicing in a small area, such as a hallway. 
  • Do not reach for the ball when he brings it back.
  • Do pet him and cheerfully praise him. 
  • After at least a minute, trade him for a treat or an equal toy (another ball). Most dogs that like to chase balls soon realize that bringing it back gets you to throw it again, and then you can forgo the treat trade. 
  • Repeating this many times will build the habit of proudly bringing it back rather than avoiding you. 
  • Begin to expand to larger areas with more options. 

If you have children, they can also participate. For small children, have the dog release the toy to you. Then you can hand the ball to the child to throw. This helps avoid accidental misunderstandings about whose ball it is and the re-grab mishaps that sometimes occur.

Head Out On a Hike

Volunteer Linda does parkour with her WHS alum, Pam, during our outdoor group class, Public Smart Start.  
Photo by Nichole Myers-Youngquist

Getting outdoors together and enjoying a walk can be a super way to give yourself and your dog some exercise. Follow a few tips:

  • Be safe and courteous on the trail. When you are likely to encounter others, keep your dog on a regular, fixed-length leash. Not every dog wants to greet other dogs.
  • Be sure to bring water with you to hydrate yourself and your dog along the way and additional water in the car. 
  • Load up on high value treats like hot dogs and cheese, too. Kibble is not going to cut it in a highly distracting outdoor environment. Hand out a snack when your dog checks in with you on the hike. 

You don’t always need to go into the woods or a remote trail.  A “hike” can be a walk in the park, too.

Ride Your Bike 

People have been road-conditioning dogs long before treadmills were created. Having your dog run alongside you while you ride is excellent exercise. But it’s also one of the riskiest sports as there are dozens of ways to get hurt. 

Tips for biking with your dog

  • Check your dog’s feet frequently. Paws can burn, so test the road surface. Make sure the running surface is cool to your touch. Paws that are soft will rip on asphalt and concrete. Make your first trips short and check your dog’s paws often. They will eventually toughen up, just like yours did back in your barefoot days.
  • Don’t tie your leash to your bike. Hold the leash, and you can drop it when your dog chooses the other side of an obstacle. Or purchase a mechanism that attaches your dog to the bike with a spring. This allows give-and-take that necessarily happens, yet keeps your dog in a safe position. Or try pulling a dog trailer behind your bicycle. Like an Uber for your pooch!
  • Wear a helmet. This should be the case when you ride with or without the dog. Crashes happen.
  • Don’t go “all out.” Your dog will actually run until he drops. Pay attention to his panting. If his tongue is huge and red, you went too far or too fast. A steady jogging trot is much better for conditioning than a gallop. Keep it safe and fun while you build his body condition.

If your dog shows any signs of being afraid of the bicycle, stop. Start a process of slowly associating the bicycle with good things like treats or toys. This process should be done gradually and systematically until the dog is comfortable. For more information read my previous blog on desensitization and counterconditioning to triggers.

Remember to follow all traffic rules and regulations as they pertain to bicycles.

Wave a Flirt Pole

A must-have for active breeds with high prey drive like shepherds and terriers, I call the flirt pole “the lazy handler’s toy.” A flirt pole is like a huge cat teaser toy with something tied on the end for catching. You stand still and twirl the toy on the ground back and forth and around you.  No physical strain for you but a whole lot of exercise for your dog!

Dogs love these toys, but be sure to wave with control. Keep your puppy’s feet on the ground (no twisting/leaping). And stop before any risk of injury to his feet if the surface is too rough for tender puppy paws. 

Check With Experts

A word of caution: With any new activity, please check with your veterinarian beforehand to make sure your pet is up to performing the task. His age alone isn’t the sole determining factor. Your dog’s physical conformation, the structure and angles of his or her skeleton, the flexibility and integrity of joints, the body condition and musculature can all affect your dog’s comfort and enjoyment of physical activities.

If you’re struggling to get your dog interested in exercise and games, or you’re trying to use exercise alone to handle difficult behaviors, let us help. Access our free Behavior Helpline by sending an email to Be sure to include your name, your pet’s name, your email, your phone number, and the best time to contact you.