Exercising with your dog is great way to bond with your pet and to improve your mental and physical health. A recent statement from the American Heart Association states that owning a dog may decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure. A dog forces pet owners to be more physically active by getting outside and going for a walk. In addition, there is an emotional benefit to owning a pet that is difficult to measure accurately, however, recent studies have shown that dog owners report a higher level of connection and feeling of belonging than those without dogs. As a veterinarian with a Master’s Degree in Public Health, I am particularly interested in how having a pet improves the health of people. I have seen it anecdotally on a daily basis in my Plymouth practice for years and now research confirms it.
Before you start a new exercise routine with your dog, it is important to keep some safety tips in mind.
- Don’t push your dog too hard. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise just like you would for yourself. Dogs that aren’t accustomed to regular exercise or dogs that are overweight should follow a controlled exercise plan. If your dog has health issues like arthritis, schedule an exam with your veterinarian before beginning an exercise program. In my practice, I recommend starting with a program like the Couch to 5K to gradually work up to a 3 mile run for healthy dogs. I also recommend limiting runs to 6 miles for healthy dogs. Dogs that are older, or those with arthritis may not be able to run that far. If your dog seems stiff or sore or loses interest in running, they may be painful and should be examined by a veterinarian. Every dog has a different threshold for exercising and so no single training plan can be recommended for all pets. Pay attention to your dogs signals and don’t push too hard.
- Another common concern in dogs that exercise frequently, especially in warm weather, is worn or even burned paw pads. If possible, try to avoid letting your dog run on cement or asphalt surfaces and encourage your dog to run on the softer grass. Paw pads can wear with repeated rubbing on abrasive surfaces and it is extremely painful for dogs. Burned paw pads happen more frequently on asphalt and black surfaces on hot days. If the surface is too warm for you to stand on barefoot for several minutes without picking your feet up, it is too warm for your dog too.
- Certain breeds of dogs don’t make good running or exercise partners. Brachycephalic breeds, those with short noses like boxers and bulldogs, may have trouble breathing because of the facial anatomy. These dogs should avoid running in warm or humid weather and may be better suited to easy walking instead of more strenuous physical activities.
- Be careful with all dog breeds on hot and humid days. Dogs can’t sweat to cool themselves like people do. They release heat by panting and on really hot or humid days, they can overheat quickly. If your dog becomes dazed, stumbles or begins panting or salivating excessively, stop exercising immediately and start cooling your dog down. A body temperature, taken rectally, above 104° is considered a heat stroke. Applying generous amounts of rubbing alcohol to the armpits, belly and paw pads will help cool your pet. Also wetting them down with cool (not cold) water and placing them near a fan will help to cool the body. Long-term effects of a heat stroke may not be evident for 1-2 days after the heat stroke, so it is a good idea to seek emergency veterinary care immediately for any possible heat stroke.
- Use a harness instead of a collar and train your dog to always walk or run on the same side. Collars around the neck could put strain on the airway structures and result in long-term problems. Small breed dogs can develop symptoms of a collapsing trachea and larger breed dogs can have paralysis of the vocal cords. A harness that fits around the chest and shoulders is safer for your dog and gives you better control over the dog. Using the harness and teaching your dog to run or walk on the same side all of the time, may help you avoid injury by tripping over your dog.
- Start your day with a downward facing dog, literally. Your dog instinctually knows what his body needs and will always start his day with a good full body stretch. Learn from him and join in a downward facing dog yoga pose. It’s good for your body and soul. Take a few deep breaths to connect with your pooch and inhale gratitude and happiness for the day ahead. Learn to live in the moment and never take anything for granted, just like your dog.
A great resource for exercising tips and activities for your pet is www.petfit.com. There are many exercise activities and suggestions for exercising and playing with both dogs and cats.