Miles Bensky, BA, CTC
Summer is a beautiful time in Seattle, and as the warmer weather approaches, many of us find ourselves spending more time outside. Recently, I have taken up running, completing my first half-marathon in March over on Whidbey Island. As I have continued to train outside, I notice more and more people walking, jogging, skating, and biking around town. Being a dog lover, I can’t help but notice an increase in the number of dogs enjoying outdoor activities with their owners. Therefore, I thought it would be a great time to discuss some important points that dog owners should consider when thinking about exercising with Fido.
Exercise is an important component to having a well-balanced dog. An article published in The Journal of Nutrition estimates that obesity rates range between 18-44% of the dog population and exercise is critical to their health as well. All dogs need some level of daily physical activity in order to stay happy and healthy. Lack of exercise can contribute to behavioral issues such as Destructive Chewing and Leash Reactivity. Having an overweight dog can lead to various health complications such as Heart Disease, Hip Dysplasia, and Diabetes.
However, the type, intensity, and duration of that activity depend on the individual dog. Here are some things to consider when deciding what activities are appropriate for your dog. These are also things to think about if you are considering getting a dog, and are an active person who’s goal is to have an active dog.
While this may seem obvious, it shouldn’t go without mentioning that the breed of your dog is a huge determining factor in terms of the type of exercise activities they can participate in. I love my dog Karma, but she’s an Olde English Bulldogge. While it is true she is more athletic than your standard AKC English Bulldog, I have no delusional expectations that she will be running any half marathons with me in the future. For her, a nice brisk walk around Green Lake is sufficient, and if I want to go for a run, I know I’m on my own. Even most high-energy breeds tend to be sprinters and not marathoners, so unless you are jogging with a Husky, be cognizant of the distances you are asking your dog to jog.
If you are unsure of what your dog’s breed can typically handle, do a little research. Look at a breed book, ask a breeder, or talk to your vet. If you are looking to get a dog from a shelter or rescue organization, these sources are typically very good at making sure potential adopters understand the exercise requirements of each dog. When in doubt, just think about what the dog was originally bred to do. A hunting dog like a Weimaraner is going to require and going to be able to handle a much more intense type of exercise than a lap dog like a Shih Tsu.
Like human toddlers and the elderly, special consideration must be made for puppies and geriatric dogs. It is important to choose activities based on their physical ability and limitation. Be careful about having your puppy participate in any type of strenuous activities before their bodies have developed enough to tolerate it. Puppies are in a process of growing and developing their bones and joints. They cannot handle intense, strenuous activities for long periods of time. Most veterinarians hold the general stance that owners should wait until a dog is at least a year old before having them participate in consistent high-energy activities such as long-distance running. This is even a bit longer if you have a giant breed. Also avoid activities that require a lot of high jumping like Frisbee. If your dog loves this game, then limit it to low throws or rolling the Frisbee on the ground. You want to avoid damaging their bones and joints before they have had a chance to fully develop. This will help decrease the chances of related medical issues in the future. Plus, such vigorous exercise before a puppy can tolerate it can cause pain, which means your pup isn’t having any fun. And the whole point of exercising with your dog is to have fun, right?
It is very important to keep on top of both acute and chronic health problems. You wouldn’t believe how many owners I have seen biking or running while their dog is dragging behind with on obvious limp. Please keep an eye on Fido, and make sure they are able to keep up. Dogs do not make a habit of showing they are in pain, so look for resistance to activities they typically enjoy as a sign. This will be really important as your dog starts getting up there in age. Ignoring such signs will only lead to further injury down the line, so make sure you follow up with a visit to the vet. It can also affect your dog’s overall behavior. Sudden change in your dog’s behavior, such as an increase in aggression, can also be an indicator that something is wrong physically.
Your Individual Dog
Just like humans, your dog may enjoy certain activities over others. Try some different things and see which ones your dog enjoys best. Some great exercise options are swimming, jogging, and cycling. For those of you who enjoy the more rugged outdoors, try to take your dog on a hike. Swimming is especially good for dogs that need a low-impact option, such as dogs that are overweight. Dogs all have their preferences and comforts, so make sure your dog is having fun and enjoying themselves.
If they seem a little resistant, you may have to warm them up to the idea. Don’t just try and force them to participate, and expect that they will get over it. How often did you begin to love doing something after someone continually forced you to try it? You probably started disliking it even more, right? Dogs typically need some training before participating in these different types of activities. For example, you need to train your dog to properly run next to your bike. This will ensure both you and your dogs’ safety. Take baby steps and make the experience as positive as possible. Sticking with the biking example, start off slow and reward your dog when they are in the proper position. Bring treats or a favorite toy along for the ride and reward your dog handsomely for just attempting the new activity. As I said before, exercising with your dog should all be about having fun with your dog. Your exercise should be secondary. You can get exercise on your own. Find something your dog will like, and you will have a much more enjoyable time yourself, and a happier dog overall.
Some other things to remember…
As the temperature increases, so does the risk of heat stroke, or dehydration. Some common symptoms to look for are excessive panting, and increased salvation. Reduction in skin elasticity is another major symptom of dehydration. Your dog may become lethargic. Dogs will often start to be more persistent about trying to smell different locations, or try to lie down in order to take a break when they are getting winded. Take these signs seriously. Ignoring them can lead to serious health problems or even death.
Make sure you always carry water with you in case none is available where you are exercising. There are many different dog-friendly water bottles to choose from. Each allowing easy water access for Fido no matter where you are. And if you think your dog can handle it, have them wear a backpack so they can carry their own water. Just make sure you properly desensitize them to wearing the thing.
Just like humans, dogs need to be given adequate time to get into proper physical condition. Start off slow. Then gradually build up the distance and/or intensity of your workouts. This is particularly true if you have a dog that is a little overweight.
Finally, regular physical exercise will help keep your dog calmer and happier, but it is important to remember that mental exercise is just as crucial. One cannot replace the other. Boredom is a huge contributor to many of the behavioral problems we see on a daily basis. Regular positive training and the use of food puzzle toys can go a long way towards helping Fido stay calm and happy.