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English Setter in the backyard with a tennis ball.

From the Labrador Retriever and the Golden Retriever, to the German Shepherd Dog and the German Shorthaired Pointer, some of America’s most popular dogs are large breeds, achieving an adult weight in the range of roughly 45 to 90 lbs.

These large dogs are different from smaller dogs and extra-large breeds in more than just size and appearance. From puppyhood through adulthood, they have special care needs and considerations.

Physical Activity for Large-Breed Puppies

AKC Breeders of Merit Karen Edwards and Jim Pearce, of Fern Hill Golden Retrievers, have been breeding field-line Golden Retrievers for 16 years, and point out that “large puppies, especially those from working lines, need plenty of exercise.” However, due to the way that bones and joints develop in large breeds, certain precautions are necessary when fulfilling these exercise needs.

As Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the American Kennel Club, notes, “The growth plates of the long bones of large and giant breeds fuse later than those of smaller dogs, as late as 16 to 18 months compared to 6 to 9 months in toy dogs.”

It is often recommended that, in terms of running or jumping, puppies engage only in self-regulated play until their growth plates have closed—and the timing of this comes later for large breeds. Edwards and Pearce believe that one of the best activities for puppies is playing with other well-mannered dogs, as this involves natural motion while providing needed socialization.

As Dr. Klein conveys: “Excessive, constant, percussive trauma, such as would occur in regimented running or jogging on hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt, could affect the growth plates and are thought to cause harm to the developing joints of large dogs. Typical puppy play exercise, where no one motion is extended for a period of time, and there is twisting and turning—especially when on softer surfaces such as grass or sand—is thought preferable.”

This means that some training modifications for certain AKC sports, such as agility, should be made for large breeds until their growth plates have fused. While this is usually at 16 to 18 months for large dogs, ask your veterinarian with regard to your individual dog, particularly before engaging in sports requiring running and jumping.

Nutrition for Large-Breed Puppies

Large-breed puppies obviously have more growing to do than puppies of smaller breeds, and that has implications for feeding recommendations. According to Dr. Klein, “The major differences between regular and large-breed growth (puppy) diets are the differences in energy density (calorie) and calcium content. Large-breed growth diets are typically lower in calcium and are less energy dense to reduce the risk of overfeeding, which will lead to obesity, an all-too-common problem in today’s pets.”

Keeping dogs lean throughout puppyhood as well as through adulthood is important for health and longevity, as obesity has been linked to a number of health issues, some of which can be more pronounced in large breeds, including musculoskeletal problems like arthritis, hip dysplasia, or ligament tears. Obesity has also been linked to higher risk of heart disease, cancer, and kidney damage.

So, what should you be feeding your large-breed puppy? Dr. Klein states that, in most cases, “nutritionists recommend a food that has passed the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trials for growth and is made by a reputable pet-food company and marketed specifically for large-breed or giant-breed growth.”

Dr. Klein notes that it is also safe to begin joint supplements, such as glucosamine/chondroitin, “as early as possible in large-breed or giant-breed dogs or dogs predisposed to development of osteoarthritis. Joint supplements can be given to puppies as young as eight weeks of age that may be predisposed to development of osteoarthritis due to conformation or injury.” Of course, as Dr. Klein adds, you should always consult with your veterinarian before adding any new products or supplements to your dog’s regimen, especially in rapidly growing puppies.

Spay/Neuter Considerations in Large Breeds

The veterinary community is learning more and more about the consequences of spaying or neutering in large-breed dogs, and the implications for appropriate timing of these procedures when they are considered. As Dr. Klein notes, “There is some scientific data concerning the correct age to spay and neuter pets and the emerging research has affected the American Animal Hospital Association’s guidelines. In certain breeds, certain cancers, orthopedic disease, behavioral problems, endocrine disorders, obesity, and urinary incontinence may be linked to early sterilization status and the age at which the procedure is performed.”

One study in particular, Dr. Klein says, “made a stunning observation concerning spaying and neutering,”—and it was a study in one particular large breed, the Golden Retriever. In 2013, the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) released the results of this study involving 759 Golden Retrievers, concluding that, although early sterilization prevented several issues, it also appeared to increase the risk of other diseases, including cranial cruciate ligament rupture, hemangiosarcoma, mast cell tumors, lymphosarcoma, and hip dysplasia.

Dr. Klein adds that more research is needed, “especially with different canine breeds, to help us understand the cause and effect of sterilization and the relationship between spay/neuter status and disease prevalence. More studies on the link between sterilization age and the onset of certain diseases are also needed.”

Training a Large Dog

While all dogs should be trained to have basic manners—and training for the AKC Canine Good Citizen title is highly recommended, no matter what size or breed—there is less leeway for bad behaviors in large dogs, due to the consequences of such behaviors. A large dog, for instance, can more easily injure a person by jumping up on them. Destructive behaviors can do more damage when coming from a large dog: bigger teeth can cause greater destruction when inappropriate chewing occurs, bigger paws can dig larger holes in the yard, and longer legs make it easier to counter-surf. So be sure to pay extra attention to your large breed’s training, socialization, and mental enrichment to avoid boredom and poor manners.

Living With a Large Dog

Edwards and Pearce have noticed that “the biggest difference between having large and small dogs is most apparent in the first year or two…. Big dogs grow so fast as puppies that they are surprised at their own changing size—they crash into people and things—’whoops!’—and knock things over.”

Large dogs are slower to mature than smaller dogs, but once they do mature, they can often be even calmer and quieter than their smaller counterparts. As Edwards and Pearce put it, “It can take a number of months before puppies find that ‘off’ switch. The second year is much better, and by the time they are three they are usually calm, trustworthy pets in the home.”

Budgeting for a Large Dog

Dr. Klein’s advice to large-dog owners or prospective owners extends to your wallet: “Everything about having large dogs will cost more than having small dogs: food, beds, medicine … even the car you will need to drive them around!” So be prepared and plan accordingly in order to provide the best care for your (large) bundle of joy.

Yasmine S. Ali, MD, is a cardiologist and writer in Tennessee, where she lives with two AKC-registered large dogs.

Related article: Do I Need a Dog Walker? How to Find & Choose One
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