Barks & Recreation: Dog Fitness Explained

You gotta walk the dog -- this much you know. But should you run with him? When is it too hot? We asked experts to explain the finer points of canine fitness.
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Getting daily exercise isn't just good for your pet's mood, it also keeps him healthy. "Out-of-shape dogs have a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, heart problems, and a host of other issues," says veterinarian Marty Becker, author of Your Dog: The Owner's Manual. If your pooch is overweight, he's also more prone to arthritis and joint problems. But just letting him out in the backyard isn't going to cut it, says veterinarian Janet Van Dyke, founder of the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Wellington, Florida. You have to be your dog's personal trainer. Read on for what to keep in mind while you and your dog get fit together -- then grab a leash and get moving.

Check with Your Vet

She'll rule out joint or heart problems and can tell you if your pet has any exercise limitations. While you're getting his physical, make sure your dog is up-to-date on his vaccines and get him micro-chipped -- or at least make sure he wears a tag with your name and phone number on it -- so that if he somehow gets off his leash and goes missing, he'll be returned home safely.

Be Prepared

If your dog won't behave on a leash, your jog or walk will quickly become a wretched tug-of-war. A brief training class may be in order, or you can cheat a little: A handful of bite-size dog treats held casually by your side (you can dispense them at random times) will keep your dog's nose right where it should be. (Be sure to cut his kibble serving accordingly or his workout will have him gaining weight.)

Gear Up

Traditional collars can be hard on a dog's neck. Dr. Becker suggests a harness with a martingale (a strap that extends between the dog's front legs) or a head halter (which painlessly nudges the dog's nose down if she pulls, discouraging the behavior). If your route doesn't take you past a dog fountain or a cafe that puts out a water dish, carry water and a collapsible bowl, since your dog won't be able to get enough just by lapping at your bottle. Don't let your dog drink from a stream -- parasites and pollution are just as dangerous for pets as they are for you. And if you're out at dawn or dusk, both you and your dog should wear reflective vests.

Know Your Breed

Retrievers and herding dogs will happily run or swim all day long, while others (particularly short-nosed breeds like bulldogs and pugs) are not built for sustained exertion. Regardless of stamina, a heavy-boned dog like a Saint Bernard can't handle a lot of running the way a light-boned dog like a greyhound can. Also, don't think that just because your dog is tiny you should carry her everywhere. "Small dogs need the same amount of exercise -- they just don't need to go as far to get it," says Dr. Van Dyke.

Stay Age-Appropriate

A young or old dog can't go as far or as fast as a dog in its prime. "Never jog long distances with a puppy -- the strain on his growing joints and muscles can cause permanent damage," says dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, host of It's Me or the Dog on Animal Planet. Older dogs, who get arthritis just like humans, should take it easier, too. But don't take it too easy. Walking is the best overall exercise, but running is great for many dogs, if their owners can keep up, Dr. Van Dyke says. If you've decided to start jogging with your dog, ease her gradually into her new exercise regimen: "For dogs, about two city blocks or the equivalent per 10 pounds of body weight, twice a day," Dr. Becker advises. (That's about 14 blocks for a golden retriever and two blocks for a Chihuahua.) "Then increase the intensity about 5 percent per week."

Take Your Dog's Lead

If you're an athlete and your dog's more of a spectator, walk her as far as she can handle, then bring her home to rest and rehydrate while you head back out for more. If you tend to be sedentary and your dog's a lean machine, build extra exercise for your pet around the edges of your workout. At the end of your walk or run, find a field and throw a tennis ball for a while, or let your dog swim in a dog-friendly pond. (Swimming is also a great way for dogs to build stamina while avoiding stress on joints.)

Stay Focused

Keep your eyes peeled for squirrels, cats, and other dogs. No one wants to have her arm yanked out of its socket by a dog charging after a critter on the loose, so when you're out with your pet, you can't zone out with your iPod. It's better to see another animal before your dog does; then you will be ready to check your dog and stay in control. (Speaking of squirrels, the rapid starts and stops of chasing them cause many soft-tissue injuries in dogs, says Dr. Van Dyke.)

Give It a Rest

Dogs can't tell you if they're tired or parched or their feet hurt or if they've got shin splints or a blister, so you've got to watch for signs. "You want your pet to get 'panting tired,' but you don't want to keep going if he's panting excessively," says Dr. Becker. How to tell? If your dog lags way behind, flops down at every opportunity, can't catch his breath, lies "frog legged," or keeps seeking a cool spot, he's overheated. You should give him water and let him rest immediately. If your pet limps, stop and investigate his legs and paws. In summer, hot pavement can blister the sensitive pads of his feet; get in the habit of testing the sidewalk by pressing your palm against it. If it hurts your hand, it'll hurt his feet. "A dog is closer to the ground than you are and can heat up or get cold much more quickly," says Stilwell. In winter, snow-removal salt can irritate your dog's pads. Dr. Becker suggests a footbath -- dip each paw into a large bowl of warm water, then dry -- -after you've gone for a walk on salty sidewalks.

Don't Be a Weekend Warrior

"We see a lot of joint and soft-tissue injuries in our office when owners suddenly spend an hour throwing tennis balls to a dog that spends most of its time lying around," says Dr. Van Dyke. Once you set an exercise routine, you need to stick with it. "Inconsistency can spark frustration and restlessness and can even cause stress for your pet," says Katherine Miller, PhD, assistant science adviser for the ASPCA. So just do it, she says. "Your dog will be looking forward to that time of day."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.

 

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