It's no secret that Americans love their pets. In fact, we spent $58 billion dollars on our faithful companions in 2014. But what happens when we express our love in the form of too many tasty treats? Our pets gain weight, and much like American humans, American pets are getting fatter.
A recent survey found that 54 percent of dogs and 58 percent of cats were overweight in 2016. Even more concerning was the "fat pet gap," where owners surveyed believed their overweight pets were actually at a normal weight. It's never fun for us to look at ourselves in the mirror and accept that we could serve to lose a few pounds, and it seems we extend this view to our pets as well. Unfortunately, convincing ourselves that Fido is "just fluffy" can have serious detrimental effects on our pets' health and wellness.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, the primary risks of excess weight in pets include osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory disease, cranial cruciate ligament injury, kidney disease, many forms of cancer, and decreased life expectancy (up to 2.5 years). If that sounds familiar, it should. Maintaining a healthy weight is as critical for our pets as it is for we humans, helping all of us live longer and healthier lives.
The good news is that getting active with your pet serves double duty. Not only do you both get the health benefits of exercise, but you also strengthen the bond you have with your pet. Even the most food-motivated pup would swap a treat for a romp in the grass with his best friend – you!
Here are 10 ways you can get fit with your dog, and just like with any new exercise program, be sure you check with your vet (and your doctor) before you get started.
Teaching your dog how to be a well-mannered member of canine-human society is not only critical for strengthening your bond, but it will also make all the activities you want to do with your dog that much easier to accomplish. Learning how to communicate what you want from your dog will set you up for a fun jog through the park instead of one that's frustrating for both of you. Plus, the process of learning new behaviors is active time in itself, working both your dog's body and brain. You'll be moving and thinking, too, so you might need a nap after your training sessions! Treats are a key part of positive reinforcement training methods, so be sure you choose ones that are enticing enough to encourage your dog, but small enough that they don't completely derail your dog's diet. We like Zuke's Mini Naturals in Wild Rabbit flavor. A favorite toy can be a great treat, too. Seek out a professional dog trainer in your area to get started, or consult one of many excellent books and websites. We recommend The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller!
It seems simple, but 30 minutes, five days a week can do a world of good for a chubby (but otherwise healthy) dog. Aim to start out at a brisk pace for a full 10 minutes without stopping for sniffs, saving the sniffing for a 20-minute casual walk back home. Up the brisk minutes week after week until you've worked you and your pooch up to two 20- to 30-minute walks per day, with 15-25 of those minutes at a brisk pace. (Bonus points for both of you for walking seven days per week.) Get tips on how to maintain a brisk pace, and the best walking harnesses to use in this helpful guide. Our pick: Freedom No Pull Harness by 2 Hounds.
If running is more your style, you can share that love with your dog. For many dogs, running is basically their default speed, so if your dog is already at a healthy weight, running might be just the thing to help your buddy stay that way (with the added benefit of burning off that enviable endless energy). Be sure to stay in tune with your dog, because he or she can’t tell you that it's time for a break or a drink of water, and some determined dogs won’t stop until they collapse. Vet Laruen Talarico shared this beginner plan for running with your dog with our friends at Runner’s World to get you and your dog ramping up the pace and mileage safely, and the late Dr. Sophia Yin created an excellent primer on training your dog to run by your side. You may also want to invest in a specialized running leash for your dog. We like The Buddy System!
You may have been told that playing "tug-of-war" with your dog will turn your dog into some kind of savage beast. If you structure your game with clear boundaries for your dog, tug-of-war is actually an excellent way to engage in very active play while reinforcing good behavior at the same time. Use these tug-of-war tips from renowned trainer Ian Dunbar to get started and play safely. You'll be amazed at how a great game of tug can wear you out (dogs are strong!) while helping your dog burn off plenty of happy calories. Rope-style toys that keep mouths and hands a sensible distance away are good choices for this game.
Some dogs just never tire of fetch, and you can use that enthusiasm to get a great workout. Find a spot that's secure for your dog to be off-leash, and large enough for you to really throw the ball. (An empty dog park could be a good option.)
Ask your dog to sit quietly until you're ready to throw, then throw it as far as you can. Let your dog bring the ball (or this fun flying "Zisc" from West Paw Design) back to you, then run in the opposite direction, your dog chasing after you. Rinse and repeat! It's almost guaranteed that you will tire out long before your dog does.
Your dog doesn't have to be a fleet-footed border collie to get active with agility. Any dog—big or small, purebred or All-American mutt—can learn how to take on agility course obstacles with some training and reinforcement. And you'll get a workout, because running around the agility course to give your dog cues will get your heart pumping, too! The best way to learn the various agility obstacles—which include weave poles, tunnels, chutes, boxes, rings and seesaws, among others—is to find a local instructor. You can often find "for fun" classes with other dogs and people at your beginning skill level. Books and online videos can also help you dive in to the sport. If you really get the bug, you can build your own agility equipment, or even compete! Here's a great overview of getting started with agility.
The key to successful bicycling with your dog is to start slow. Just hitching your dog up to your bike out of the blue and expecting to ride off into the sunset is a great way to ruin your pal's riding prospects for good. Some dogs find bicycles to be scary, so introducing your dog to the bicycle itself is key to seeing if this will be a sport that you can enjoy together. Next, you'll want to introduce your dog to other people riding bicycles (at a park, for example), and see how your dog reacts (or doesn't). Only then can you start thinking about taking a ride with your dog. Our friends at Bicycling have an excellent guide to introducing your dog to bicycling, and enjoying successful, safe rides.
This is another activity where you'll need to gauge your dog's interest before you take the plunge, so to speak. If you've got a water-loving Lab, you will probably have a hard time keeping your pup OUT of the pond, but for some dogs, swimming is just not in the cards. For dogs who love it, it's an excellent way for them to exercise right along with you, and for older dogs, it's an activity they can enjoy that won't stress arthritic joints. Spending time in the water with your buddy is a blast, but remember that they can't tell you when they are tired, so stay in tune with your dog to know when it's time to head in for a break. (Just watch for the post-swim shake—you know it's coming!) For the utmost in safety, outfit your pup with a specialized canine life jacket. Our pick is the Outward Hound Life Jacket.
A trek on a mountain trail is a perfect way to get a workout while you take in the beauty of nature, and your dog will love exploring all of the smells and sounds that the wilderness has to offer. It's critical to check ahead before you venture on a trail with your dog to know any rules that apply to bringing them along. If your dog explores off-leash, be mindful that you are sharing the trail with others, and re-leash your dog whenever you encounter fellow hikers or other dogs. Poop bags are a non-negotiable accessory for a hike, as well as a supply of water and dog-appropriate snacks. You could probably share some bites of your energy bar, but we prefer one made for dogs: Zuke's Power Bones. Your dog can also share the load with a dog backpack, like the Ruffwear Approach, which ramps up the exercise level and gives your dog a job to do. Just remember, dogs can't tell you when they are exhausted or thirsty, so it's up to you to take occasional breaks to just relax and enjoy the scenery together.
Your dog already knows how to track scents. It's you who has to learn the ins and outs of this incredibly fun canine activity! You can start with basic scent games, like tasking your pup with finding a bit of food hidden in one of several boxes placed on the floor. As your dog gets better and better at basic games, you can ramp up the difficulty. Eventually, you can work with your dog outdoors, tracking paths with articles of your clothing, or finding you hiding behind a tree. You'll get a workout laying tracks and gathering up your materials, and your dog will be working body and brain to locate what he's seeking. Here's an excellent primer on how to engage in scent games with your dog, and once you want to dive into tracking, we recommend finding a local trainer or club to help you, or you can get the basics with Try Tracking! by Carolyn A. Krause.
You love to ski. Your dog loves to run. Put the two together and you've got skijoring. This sport has long been known in places like Alaska, but it's experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, and it's not just for huskies and malamutes. You'll need cross-country skiing gear, a skijoring harness for your dog, a belt for you, plus a towline to connect you. The rest is just learning how to work together as a team to let your dog pull you down the trails successfully. You'll want to get your dog ready for your skijoring adventures before winter comes by working on distance runs, and be sure you stay in tune with your dog to know when it's time for a rest. Here's an excellent overview of skijoring, or you can pick up a copy of Skijor With Your Dog by Mari Høe-Raitto to dig in to the details. Snow not your thing? You can adapt the concept to running (canicross), bicycling (bikejor) or skating (rollerjor).