Dog’s Best Friend

If you exercise your pet, that could be you. If not, here’s how …

Inspiration to get up off the couch and exercise may be staring at you with big forlorn eyes from the floor below. While you’d cherish nothing more than to continue reclining in the living room, your canine companion is itching to go—for a walk around the block, an exploration of the nearest park or maybe just a few games in the backyard.

And you both may need it. While you’ve no doubt heard about all the human weight problems in the United States, an estimated 45 percent of our dogs (about 40 million) are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. That’s a 2 percent increase from 2007 to 2009. “For example, a 90-pound female Labrador retriever is equivalent to a 186-pound, 5-foot-4-inch female while a 12-pound Yorkshire terrier is similar to 223 pounds on the same woman,” says Dr. Ernie Ward, the APOP’s lead researcher.

A pet is overweight if its ribs are difficult to feel under the fat, the stomach is sagging down and the back is broad and flat with an absent-to-barely-visible waist, says Dr. Sue Wiggers of the Blue Cross Animal Hospital in Las Vegas. The same physical benefits of human exercise—weight control, toned muscles, a more robust cardiovascular system and stronger bones—help your dog. It can elevate mood, increase mental alertness and improve sleep, too.

“Exercise helps pets maintain a healthy weight, helps with muscle mass and flexibility, decreases health problems associated with obesity and strengthens the human-pet bond,” Wiggers says. “It also may help decrease destructive behaviors at home from a bored, wound-up pet. A tired dog is a good dog!”

Your dog’s age, breed and overall health determine the optimal amount of exercise. In general, Wiggers says two to three 15-20-minute walks daily is optimum for smaller dogs, puppies and seniors, and 30-60 minute walks will keep larger dogs happy. Perhaps this is a more manageable rule of thumb: Walk about a quarter of a mile per 10 pounds of body weight daily.

Breeds with short snouts—such as pugs, bulldogs, Boston terriers and boxers—have more trouble breathing than other breeds and can overheat quicker. Owners should stop immediately if the pet is stressed, weak, panting excessively or keeps wanting to lie down. Running with younger dogs whose bones are still growing or big breeds of any age may harm their joints.

MaryKay Grahn of Smarty Paws Canine Coaching in Las Vegas notes that dogs can be trained to use a treadmill for inside exercise. “We have a canine-specific treadmill that we use for all of our BootCamp dogs,” she says. “We can incline or decline the treadmill as well as change the speed. Dog owners can come to us for time, or we can teach the dog and they can adapt their own treadmill.”

If time’s short, or if it’s too hot or too cold, you can at least devise a few modest games: Create an obstacle course in your living room with chairs, furniture or boxes and encourage the dog to follow you through the maze. A little tug-of-war with an old towel, rope or toy strengthens the dog’s leg muscles and promotes balance. And remember, your dog doesn’t have to be a retriever to chase a thrown ball or Frisbee.

It may be a case of the tail waggin’ the dog, but pets can help humans create an invigorating routine that’s healthy and fun. “Pet ownership has been shown to decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, decrease stress levels and is associated with better survival rates following a heart attack,” Wiggers says. “People are more likely to meet others when out walking a dog. It is an easy conversation starter and the common interest is obviously shared.”

Exercise Ideas

Dr. Sue Wiggers of the Blue Cross Animal Hospital and MaryKay Grahn of Smarty Paws Canine Coaching provide some activities for you and your pup to explore:

Walks: Some owners prefer a no-pull body harness to a basic collar to more easily control a larger dog.

Running: 2-5 miles for a healthy Labrador retriever, German short hair, vizsla or other sporting dogs.

Biking: A pace that keeps the dog at a trot is the best to maintain an even gait, working both sides of the body equally.

Frisbee: 10-20 minutes. Border collies and Australian shepherds are among the breeds who love this form of exercise.

Herding a big ball: 10-20 minutes. Border collies, sheepdogs and corgis make it their mission, but might get bored for any longer length of time.

Fetch: 5-15 minutes. A lot of Labs are so ball-oriented that you have to decide for them when they should stop, Wiggers says.

Swimming in your pool: 5-10 minutes to start. Dry their ears to help prevent infections and towel off long-haired dogs to minimize hot spots afterward.

Hide and seek: Hiding toys around the house and yard keeps their minds engaged and their bodies working.