Powering into the Summer: How to keep from Overworking your Dog by Betsy Payne

Powering into the Summer: How to keep from Overworking your Dog by Betsy Payne

Powering into the Summer: How to keep from overworking your dog

Dogs are amazingly physical creatures. Amazing enough to have more types of muscle fiber than we do. They can also process lactic acid very quickly to be able to get up and move again without much delay. Their bodies, like ours, are a symphony of biomechanical rhythms working together to create movement and power.  

Just in the form of a quadruped, over our bipedal layout. 

They have systems that power, enact and adjust to the physical demands placed on them. These systems can, however, break down due to various factors, but we’ll focus on how much is too much and how to know the signs of fatigue.

So let’s talk about some of the systems that are driving our dogs to have some better context of why some of the behaviors you may see are signs of fatigue. 

The major one here is Metabolism. Like us, dogs have 3 energy systems derived from their Metabolism: 


Energy Sources

Available Energy

Primary Use




ATP-CP (Adenosine triphosphate-Creatine Phosphate)

5-10 seconds

Max-intensity, Short Bursts




5-20 sec up to 2 mins

High-intensity, Short Bursts



Glucose, Fats, Proteins

After 2 Mins

Low-Intensity, Longer Duration

They use these systems to power their muscles through walks, play, hikes, swimming and anything else that requires that they use their body, even their brain too. So, when we talk about overworking our dogs, we’re talking about a few things. 

These energy systems can get depleted during intense and/or extensive exercise that we engage in with them. They’re immediate stores of ATP-CP and Glucose can get used up chasing a squirrel or a tennis ball. These immediate energy systems, anaerobic systems, last for up to 2 minutes of activity.

After that, dogs then activate their Oxidative Aerobic system, once the previous systems are depleted. The difference between the two is that this system needs oxygen to fuel the creation of ATP along with fatty acids, carbohydrates (glucose) and proteins. This is why your cardio is so connected to your respiratory systems like your lungs and your heart to push that oxygenated blood to your muscles. We call this the cardiorespiratory system. If your muscles are getting that work in, they’re giving off by product to these chemical reactions. These reactions will break down into lactic acid, heat and hydrogen ions. Lactic acid is not the cause of sore muscles, by the way, it breaks down into glucose which can actually fuel the body a few hours after exercise.

The physical muscle fibers that are powered by these chemical reactions can even with basic exercises, can create micro tears that are the true source of those pesky DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness. This is normal and the more appropriate exercise you do, the less tearing will occur, if you’re working within your capacity. 

The muscles will be overworked if the physical demand is too great. This can be from those high intensity short burst exercises and those longer duration lower intensity activities too. This can result in soft tissue injuries due to a single traumatic event or too much activity for too long without rest.

So, let’s check in.

Our dogs have systems that power the function of their muscles and those systems can be overworked and depleted without appropriate rest and recovery. These systems can become more efficient with conditioning, which is a systematic way of increasing the body's ability to do the work that it’s designed to do. But to do that you need a systematic approach that utilizes the principles of fitness, but we’ll dive down that rabbit hole in another blog.

But our goal here is to understand that these power systems are not limitless and it can be quite easy to overwork a dog that has not gone through enough conditioning for the exercise they’re doing. 

This doesn’t even cover the ways that the physical body responds to the stress of exercise or the ways that the environment can affect these systems. 

So we want to avoid this, but how? 

How do you know when to end the walk or to stop throwing the ball? 

The best way is to use what’s called the Visual Analog Scale of Perceived Exertion (VAS). This is a model that helps us grade our dog’s exertion on a scale of 1-5. With this we can look at the external signs of fatigue for the individual. 

This is the human example of the ‘Talk test.” Which you’re assessed how much exertion your body is under based on your ability to talk during exercise. So, since dogs can’t talk to us, we have to look at their behavior. 

1 - No exertion. Dogs do not appear to have increased effort. Panting is acceptable, but the tongue is normal size and remains in the mouth. Dog appears happy, not stressed or anxious.

2 - Slight exertion. Same as above, except dog shows slightly increased respiratory effort. (Faster, deeper breathing)

3 - Moderate exertion. STOPPING POINT. Respiratory effort is increased - mouth is open wider, tongue is outside mouth, or starting to enlarge. Breathing is becoming noisier. Dogs may begin to whine.

4 - Hard exertion - this should not be encountered

5 - Maximal exertion - this should not be encountered 

Part of this is getting to know your dog. If you’re coming off a busy week and your dog hasn’t been on a walk all week, go easy on that all day hike up a mountain. Outside of this scale, below are a few, but not the only signs of fatigue. 

Some examples of Fatigue:

  • Refusal (walking away)
  • Repeated attempts without good form
  • Excessive panting, lip licking, yawning
  • Muscle trembling (excessive)
  • Becomes distracted/disinterested

Fatigue can be seen in physical expressions like excessive panting, lip licking, yawning, trembling muscles. It can be mental, like a dog refusing to walk with you or a dog becoming disinterested. 

Why is Overwork bad, other than that it sounds bad? 

Just like people, that accumulated stress on the body can have negative effects. We can look at the first Principle of Fitness, General Adaptation Syndrome. This covers the stages that a body responds to the stress of activity. Stress is anything that takes the body out of homeostasis, the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. It can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the duration, intensity and outward behaviors that proceed that stress response. 

Physical stress activates the following stages:

Stage 1: Alarm/Reaction- this occurs when the stress is first identified. The first stage of response to stress often results in fatigue and decreased performance as the body is not efficient in handling the stress of exercise, but initiates changes like increased blood flow. If stress continues, the body moves to stage 2.

Stage 2: Resistance (or Adaptation) Stage- if the stress continues or recurs without being overwhelming, the body will make physiologic adaptations to resist or adapt to the increased demands placed on it. During this phase, the body has increased capacity to handle the stress by making changes in structure and enzyme levels including increased motor unit recruitment. This is the desired response in Fitness.

Stage 3: Exhaustion- If the stress is excessive or prolonged, the body will exhaust its reserves and no longer be able to adapt. There will be breakdown in the system and injury will occur. This can be seen in overtraining. 

Stage 3 is what we’re trying to avoid. This increases the chance for injury not only to the soft tissues, joints and skeletal framework of the body, but can create chronic breakdown of the systems we’ve just talked about. Where the rest needed to replenish is harder to achieve. 

So, what’s the takeaway? 

Dogs are physically impressive, but don’t get fooled by the illusion that it’s only senior and visibly out of condition dogs can get overworked with simple, long duration or short bursts of exercise. An average adult dog, if they don’t normally do 5 mile hikes or go to places where the environment is complex, like a park, can still become overworked, mentally and physically. 

Keep your eye out for signs of exertion and fatigue in your individual dog and take in that it’s not just the exercise itself, but that compounded with the environment (weather, other dogs, people, etc) that can create those signs. 

Bring not only water but food on longer outings. This extra food can help to replenish the building block of the ATP-CP that they need to maintain their ability to be active. 

Get regular physicals with your Veterinarian to make sure that your dog is okayed for the physical activity that you’re wanting to engage in. 

Make sure that even short low impact walks like sniffaris on a long line are part of your dog’s exercise where the dog gets to choose the pace and the speed of the walk. This will help keep some of the activity at a lower impact to help the dog recover from more strenuous exercise.

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