Having a workout buddy increases your likelihood of exercising, but what should you do when your partner-in-calorie-burning cancels more often than she shows up? Well, maybe you should turn your attention to that lump of fur at your knees clamoring for your attention. Given some simple training (and the help of some safety tips), your pooch could turn out to be your most reliable workout buddy. "It's sort of becoming a trend that your best workout buddy is your dog," says Arden Moore, pet expert and author of Healthy Dog: The Ultimate Fitness Guide for You and Your Dog (Dog Fancy Books) (BowTie Press, 2004).
THE DETAILS: Many researchers have made the connection between dogs and the health of their owners. One in particular, from the University of Missouri, found that overweight people who walked their dog each day dropped an average of 14 pounds through the course of a year. That's more success than people often experience with some weight-loss plans! Plus, it's fun. "Our pets are our secret workout allies, and dogs put the 'p' in play," Moore says. "If you're working out with your dog, you have a tendency to have more of a fun workout." And we humans are much more likely to stick with a workout that's fun.
WHAT IT MEANS: You'll be hard-pressed to find a dog of any kind that doesn't enjoy a good walk. That's good news for the human on the other end of the leash: Research shows that just a brisk one- to two-mile walk four or five times a week can greatly improve your cardiovascular health and even ward off depression. Not every breed is built to run a marathon (dogs with longer legs and leaner body physiques, like Labradors and golden retrievers and greyhounds, and dogs that don't sport a heavy-boned body structure, generally can handle longer runs). But there are many ways you can get into a workout routine that's good for both you and your pet.
Consider these points as you plan a workout for you and your dog:
• Pooches need to stretch, too. Moore suggests these easy, fun stretches to strengthen your dog's hind legs and get him or her ready for exercise:
1. Play bow—This is a natural position for dogs. It's when they stretch out their front legs, lower their legs, and put their butts in the air. They often strike this pose when they're ready to pounce and play. When you see your dog doing this, make a big deal of it and praise him, saying, "Good play bow!" Sometimes, aid the praise with a healthy treat (but don't give a treat every single time—sometimes praise is treat enough!). Eventually, he will learn to do this pose, which yoga practitioners call "downward dog," on command before a workout.
2. Sit up and beg—Train your dog to watch you by holding a treat by your eyes. Get the animal to sit, hold the treat slightly over your head, and say, "Good sit." Then move the treat slowly up over the dog's nose, and the canine should start rising up, eventually standing on hind legs only to reach the treat. Even if the animal holds the pose for only a second, give a reward of praise and (sometimes) a treat, and soon the dog will stay in position longer. "This stretches the abdominal and back area muscles and hind legs," Moore says. "It also helps large breeds or those with long backs, like Corgis and dachshunds, with back and hip issues."
3. Cool down—After you both exercise, give your pooch a head-to-tail rubdown to relax his or her muscles.
• Know when it's time to fly. Incorporating Frisbee time into a workout can be a great calorie burner, but younger pups need some months under their collar before launching into high jumps to grab the toy, warns Moore. To start off, throw a natural-rubber Frisbee just inches above the ground until the dog is at least 18 months old—it will get them in the routine but won't jar their developing body.
• Be the center of attention. "Walks are a really big deal for most dogs. It's their chance to use all of their senses to take in the environment," says Moore. "It's like us going on a shopping spree to a mall running a sale." Which means some dogs will have trouble focusing on the exercise session. To keep things moving and avoid being yanked to the side while your dog sniffs everything along the path, it's your job to make the path itself not so ho-hum. Vary the route, the side of the street you walk along, and the time of the walk, and change the intensity with speed variations and surfaces that add resistance, such as hills, bark-filled paths, or sand-packed beaches. To keep the dog focused on you, especially when you're first exercising together, walk sideways or backwards. "You have to be more interesting than the squirrel they see," says Moore.
• Loosen up a shy dog. If you have a nervous or shy dog that isn't ready for big walks in a public setting, build her confidence inside the house first. Turn on some music, act goofy, and dance, inviting the dog to weave between your legs, turn, and even stand on hind legs to dance with you. After she becomes more confident, invite over a friend your dog seems to like, and take a short walk around the yard or block together.
• Learn dog water safety 101. Rule numero uno—never force your dog to swim. "Not all dogs are natural swimmers. Some want to be near water but not swim," says Moore. If your dog does like the water and swims with you, or rides along in a boat or kayak, it's a good idea to use a doggie life vest. Moore recommends Ruff Wear flotation products. And be careful where you choose to swim. If a body of water is stagnant, smelly, or contains lots of algae, it could also harbor Giardia, a parasite that will require a visit to the vet if your dog swallows infected water. If you live in a development, it's important to keep your dog out of retention ponds, too. They're often contaminated with gardening and lawn chemicals that are hazardous to everyone's health.
Once you find a clean swimming hole, if you want to swim with your dog or play fetch, make sure the toys you use are brightly colored, floatable, and easy to grab, to avoid the dog's having to go under water. If you take your dog to the ocean, go when the tide is low. Most dogs don't want to crash into the waves, but enjoy frolicking along the shore's edge. And remember to bring towels, and even an all-natural oatmeal shampoo, so you can scrub the irritating salt out of their coat.
• Don't sizzle their paws. Doggies don't wear shoes, so if you're going to jog or run on pavement or a sidewalk, place your palm to the surface first. If it's irritating to you, it will be for them, too. Pick a grass surface, or wait until it's cooler to work out.
• Don't bike. Cycling with your pooch by your side is a prescription for trouble, Moore says. If you're looking for something a little more interesting, check out an agility class in your area. It's fun and burns calories for you and your dog, and it can develop and deepen the trust between you.
• Don't let your pooch overheat. Dogs with pushed-in noses, such as pugs, bulldogs, and Boston Terrier types, can have a lot of problems in the heat, so try walking them in the early morning or evening, when it's a bit cooler. Remember to offer small amounts of water throughout the workout, no matter what type of dog you own. Dogs won't always tell you when they're exhausted, and will often run or play fetch until they collapse. Monitoring them is your job, and it's best to stop even before they start showing signs of exhaustion. If you notice any of these signs in your dog, it's time to stop working out immediately:
1. Drooping tongue that may actually have widened, or is curled up
2. Overtaxed-appearing eyes; the dog could look worried, or have a slightly glazed look
3. Rapid panting
4. Change in gait—hesitation before chasing ball, or staggering, wobbling, or shifting weight.
If your dog is overheated, offer the dog more water to drink, and dip the dog's paws in cool, but not cold, water.