Fitness for your Dog

You want to create an exercise program for your dog that is safe. So start off slowly, be consistent and patient and you can gradually increase the level of activity when she shows that she’s ready for more. Take it real easy if your dog is still a youngster. Puppies aren’t as coordinated as adults. Their muscles aren’t fully developed and their bones are softer, says Dr. Zink. They are also more susceptible to the heat and cold.

“Puppies do need some moderate exercise, but serious fitness training shouldn’t start until after they are 14 months old,” advises Dr. Zink. That’s when the last of the growth plates on their bones close. Increase your young dog’s fitness program gradually, over a period of several months, she suggests. And give an adolescent dog time to develop her coordination and get used to her maturing dog.

Warming Up:
Aerobics, jogging, and gym – if you’ve ever exercised, you’ll know that you should always start with some gentle stretches. Doing a warm-up is the best way to protect you from muscle strains and other pains. And this may come as a surprise, but it’s no different for your dog. Begin all her exercise sessions with a gentle warm up, between five and ten minutes long, advises Dr. Zink. This helps prevent injury by stretching the tendons and ligaments, and getting the blood to the muscles and nerves. Start with several minutes of unhurried walking, then do some stretching exercises, says Dr. Bond.

To keep his award-winning agility dogs limber, Dr. Bond gently warms them up by bending and straightening each of their legs a few times. Next he has them walk slowly around and between his legs in increase their flexibility.

You’ve probably seen your pet play bowing or arching her back, and it’s doing her good. Dr. Bond praises his dogs whenever they do these motions, from the time they are puppies. They relate the words “Stretch, good,” with the actions, and eagerly stretch their spines on cue.

Cardiovascular Training:
With the warm up over, the real action can begin. The best exercise to get the heart, blood and lungs working is walking,” says Dr. Bond. But start off slowly and increase your speed and distance over time. When both of you are walking faster and farther without puffing and panting, you can try trotting and jogging. Mix it up with a short sprint now and again. The change of pace will get her using different parts of the same muscles, says Dr. Bond. And it will also help keep things interesting. Why not make a game of it by calling out “Come on, chase me!” as you take off. Your dog will think its great sport.

Strength Training:
Hills are good for your dog; stairs too. Choose the route with the big hill when you go for a walk. Dash up the stairs at home. It will build up her strength, says Dr. Bond. Have someone hide a treat at the top. Walk her up to the treat the first few times and she’ll soon be eager to race to it on her own. Play tag on the slope rather than on the flat. If your dog likes retrieving, throw a toy or a ball up the hill for her to fetch.

Start doing a variety of these games just a few times and gradually builds up to doing them several times over – but never enough to bore her.

Speed Conditioning:
It’s easy to condition your dog to run at speed, and she’ll have a great time doing it, says Dr. Bond. Send eager fetches after toys, ball or Frisbee thrown on level ground. She will be able to stretch right out and really extend her body and her muscles, with the wind in her fur.

If she doesn’t know about the joys of chasing a ball and you think she’d like it, why not teach her. Make sure she smells the ball first and sees it leave your hand, advises Gee Weaver, foster care coordinator for the Animal Relief Center in Whitefish, Montana. Roll it only a few feet from her at first. If she’s interested, praise her and roll it again. Only do it a few times, never enough to tire or bore her. When she learns to love it, let her attitude be your guide. Always quit while she’s still raring to go, so that it remains a great game, a treat that she always look forward to.

If rolling or bouncing ball isn’t idea of a good time, then get her to run at speed to you by calling her from some distance away. Have someone hold her at one end of the yard while you go to the other end. Face her and call her with open arms. Just be ready to dodge out of the way as she hurtles toward you, and pile on the praise for her when she arrives.

Chasing games, complete with lots of sprints and changes of direction, are another way to get fit with speed. Make sure you’re in good enough shape to play them safely yourself, and don’t let her overdo it.

Cooling down:
A leisurely saunter, followed by a few stretches, is the perfect way to bring another session of fun to an end and give your dog’s body time to slow down again. “Vigorous exercise should never stop suddenly,” says Dr. Zink. “Cooling down is just as important as warming up.”

Non-Weight-Bearing Aerobic Exercise:
Some dogs think water is strictly for drinking, but for those that like to get everything wet, swimming is a great way to get a non-weight-bearing aerobic workout. “This benefits the muscles, heart and lungs without putting stress on the bones and joints,” says Dr. Zink. That means it’s especially good for dogs with hip dysplasia and other joint problems.

Swimming is also the best way to condition your dog during the hot summer months, says Ken Marden, a field trial and hunting test judge, and a breeder of German Shorthaired Pointers in Titusville, New Jersey. A swim will get her using all her muscles. It will increase her heart rate and build up her stamina. And no matter how hot it is, your dog will always keep her cool – there’s no risk of heatstroke when she’s splashing about.

“If you want your dog to love the water, start her when she’s young,” advises Marden. “Carry her out about ten feet from shore, turn and face land, gently place her in the water and praise her all the way as she swims to shore. If you toss her into deep water, you’ll frighten her and she’ll grow up with an aversion to swimming.”

Some dog breeds are natural swimmers and other breeds are not (there are some retrieving breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, that even have webbed feet.) “It may take a while before your dog learns to use her hind legs as well as her front ones,” says Marden. But you can help her out here. Support your puppy’s rear by placing one hand, palm up, under her tail and between her back legs until she realizes that she makes better progress using four legs rather than two. Above all, make it so much fun that she can’t wait to do it again.

“Once your dog is a super swimmer, be careful that she doesn’t tire herself out,” says Marden. If she’s retrieving from water and she’s getting slower and slower, or if her front feet start splashing when she’s swimming it’s time to quit for the day.

Working Together:
Exercising by herself is no way for your dog to get the workout she wants. “Trying a dog up outside inhibits her from stretching out and achieving a full range of motion and it gives her a nasty jolt each time she reaches the end of the chain at a trot or a gallop,” explains Weaver. If you must tie or chain your dog, Weaver recommends using an overhead trolley cable. It will get rid of some of the problems and give her more room to run.

Unless you live far from the dangers of modern life, it’s simply not safe for dogs to wander on their own. No matter where you live, this is asking for trouble,” says Weaver.

There are all kinds of risks waiting for the unwary dog that roams free, including being hit by a car. It’s important that you always keep her company as she explores, and keep her safely on a leash whenever she’s out.