By Dr. Tracy Dewhirst
Humans make personal resolutions to exercise, get in shape, and eat a healthier diet. But dogs have those decisions made for them, without having to worry about willpower, but also sometimes without receiving the proper preparation. So before thrusting into a new exercise program, make sure your dog is ready to work out by assessing his capabilities versus the demands of the sport.
Most dogs innately enjoy being active, especially if it means going on outings with humans. Your dog’s “get up and go” is waiting to be tapped; one whistle and most dogs are off the couch and in the car. However, for a dog that’s been benched for years or has physical ailments, a day of activity could quickly turn painful.
Obvious medical problems, such as arthritis, heart disease, intervertebral disk disease, pulmonary problems (including heartworm disease), and obesity, will limit a dog’s tolerance for activity. If your dog hasn’t been examined by a vet recently or is older than 7, get a precursory checkup with your vet before beginning a new sport.
Obesity is a common condition that limits a dog’s mobility and stamina. Diet may need to precede exercise, and you may need to increase activity gradually to avoid injury. Ask your veterinarian for an accurate daily calorie calculation and recommended dog food to help your dog lose weight, and stop feeding him high-calorie dog treats and people food.
When you do go for your first outing, start out slowly and have reasonable expectations. While you might be itching to jog a 5K, your first run together should not be 3 to 4 miles. Begin with half-mile increments. After you’ve run half a mile, make sure your dog looks like he’s comfortable to continue. If he is, keep going for another half-mile and then check on him again. Do this for a maximum of 2 miles. You can double this rule of thumb for moderate hiking.
And remember, you can always increase the length of your workout if your dog completes the initial outing with flying colors.
Also monitor your dog’s heat tolerance during exercise, especially if you’re working out in hot, humid areas or if your dog is a brachycephalic (short-nose) breed. Dogs can only expel excess body heat through panting and through the pads of their feet, making heat stroke more common for them than for people. Bring a water bottle filled with cool water just for your dog, and make sure to take frequent water breaks while you’re out. Watch for excessive panting, an enlarged and flattened tongue, and sluggish behavior, all of which are signs of overheating.
And remember, everyone has off days, so pay attention to what your dog is telling you. If he’s struggling to keep up or exhibiting the slightest sign of pain, it’s time to go home.
Dogs can get stiff, sore muscles after exercise, too. But please resist giving your pet human drugs. Aspirin, Tylenol®, and ibuprofen can cause serious problems for dogs, from intestinal bleeding to kidney or liver damage. Naproxen is highly toxic, even in small doses. Use comforting, gentle massage on sore muscles, and ask your veterinarian for one of the numerous safe and effective pain relievers for dogs.
Different dog breeds match up well with certain activities. Water dogs and retrievers love swimming and fetching, and herding and working dogs enjoy exercises that test agility. Most medium to large dogs make good running companions, and all dogs welcome a walk or hike. So get your leash and your best friend, and set out for an active spring and summer this year.
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