Walking the Dog: Tips for getting the most out of exercising your pooch

by Dr. Ernie Ward

Veterinarians typically recommend walking as a key element of most canine weight loss regimens. Sounds simple enough, but is it really? I have found that few dogs will naturally walk at a pace that generates the elevated heart rates needed for sustained aerobic activity. Of course, make sure your portly friend can begin a weight loss exercise program by having her examined by your veterinarian before beginning any physical activity program.  Follow these helpful tips to pace your pooch for optimal weight loss.

1.     Get the right equipment
Forget the leash and collar if you want to burn some serious calories with your dog. Collars can compress the trachea (windpipe) when pulled causing difficulty breathing or even injury and should be avoided. Especially dangerous are choke-collars or constricting-collars of any design. A head halter (Gentle Leader, etc.) or walking harness (Ultra Paws Walking Harness, Gentle Leader Easy Walk, etc.) is your safest choice. Look for wide, soft and padded straps and breathable materials. Avoid leather and studs – you don’t want your puppy looking like a hoodlum or being uncomfortable as you whisk around the block!

I prefer leashes no longer than six feet; ideally 4-feet. You’ll be keeping your canine companion close to keep up a steady pace. Save the long leash for those casual strolls around the neighborhood when Fido wants to catch up on the latest pee-mail.

For winter romps, protective booties may be required in cold climates. Also, if it’s warm (above 80-85°F for most dogs) or if you’ll be walking greater than thirty minutes, don’t forget to carry water. Handi Drink and Hydrogo Pet Water Bottle are just two examples of many styles of portable water bottles and bowls available for dogs on the move.

2.     Set the right pace
Based on observations of people walking with their dogs, the average pace is 25 minutes per mile. That is a slow troll with frequent pauses (on average every 30-50 seconds!) to allow their dog to smell an interesting object or mark territory. We’re here to shed pounds, people, not smelling the bushes!

Walking for weight loss is very different than walking for pleasure. Make your objective to walk briskly and focused on the “out” leg of your walk and then you can check the “pee-mail” on the return. I recommend starting the activity with the brisk or “hard” effort first. Too often if we try to start slowly with the dog, allowing them to sniff and smell everything, we may have a challenging time getting them up to speed when we’re ready. People often ask me, “Shouldn’t we do a warm up before you walk them?” I simply reply, “Have you ever seen a fox take a few warm-up laps before an all-out sprint to capture its prey? They’re built to go from 0-100 miles per hour with very little risk of injury. And besides, you’ll be going nowhere near an all-out sprint. If our dog’s forefathers could see them now, what would they think?” Of course, if you have an older pet or if your dog has an injury or medical condition, a short five-minute warm-up is a good idea.

Draw your leash close – generally within two to three feet of your body – pull your dog close to your left or away-from-the street side and set off at a pace you feel comfortable sustaining. This should be about a fifteen minute per mile pace for most small dogs.  It should feel like a brisk walk and you should break into a light sweat. The key is to keep it up! Don’t stop. Don’t look down at your dog when they inevitably want to stop and smell something or mark a hydrant. Continue staring straight ahead, tighten the leash (don’t jerk) and give a command such as “Come” or “Here.” It is important that your dog understands you have places to go and that this is different than your usual care-free affair.  Head halters are a great tool for training dogs to heel during a fast walk and retain their attention. If they sit or refuse to walk, you may have to return home and try again another time.  I have yet to encounter a dog that didn’t take readily to aerobic walking.

3.     Set time goals
For most overweight or obese dogs that have normal heart and lung function and normal blood pressure and no other pre-existing medical conditions, I recommend starting with thirty-minute walks a minimum of five times per week. A sample schedule follows:

Week 1

30 minutes total

10 minutes brisk followed by 20 minutes casual pace

Week 2

30 minutes total

15 minutes brisk followed by 15 minutes casual pace

Week 3

30 minutes total

20 minutes brisk followed by 10 minutes casual pace

Week 4

35-40 minutes total

30 minutes brisk followed by 5-10 minutes casual pace

Week 5+

35-60 minutes total

Try to do two 20-30 minute walks per day: 15-25 minutes brisk followed by 5 minutes casual pace

Clients are encouraged to walk 30 minutes every day if possible and after they become comfortable with “real walking.” The health benefits for clients and pets are simply incredible!

4.     Monthly weight checks
Until you reach your ideal weight, I recommend that you have your dog weighed by your veterinarian monthly. In addition, have a technician inspect the pads for any injuries or problems and to ensure that the nails are short and healthy.  Once your pet reaches its desired weight, they should be re-weighed every three months to ensure that everyone continues to do their part.

5.     Treadmills
Doggy treadmills are great “no excuse” tools for exercising your dog. Treadmills are fantastic for rehab after injury, weight loss, dogs with arthritis and those that live in high-rise apartments or with owners who have physical limitations or whose schedules don’t permit daily exercise.

Walking on a treadmill is different than walking your dog outdoors. This isn’t an activity that you can simply hook your pet onto the treadmill and walk away. A pet that is tethered to a treadmill and falls could seriously injure itself. You’ll need to closely supervise your pet for any signs of fatigue, discomfort or shortness of breath. Start with the treadmill off and at a 0% incline. Use a walking harness with a front hook attached to a short leash to guide your dog onto the treadmill. Coax your dog onto the platform with generous praise. Be sure to exercise in a well-ventilated area. I recommend placing a non-slip rug behind the treadmill to cushion any inadvertent falls and to prevent slipping when exiting the treadmill. Start the treadmill at its slowest setting. As your dog gets used to walking on the moving surface, you can increase the speed and incline until your dog appears to be at a brisk, yet comfortable, sustainable pace. I recommend beginning the walks for five minutes with a two to three minute break and repeat. As your dog develops aerobic fitness, you may increase the time without stopping to twenty to thirty minutes. Adjust the incline and speed to challenge your dog and gain improved strength and endurance.

Remember, a treadmill is ideally used in special situations when an outdoor walk or jog isn’t an option. View exercise as an opportunity to spend quality one-on-one time with your pet while improving its vitality and health.

Remember, physical activity such as this should be thought of as “fun with a purpose.” When you combine exercise with proper diet and lifestyle, you extend the years you’ll have your four-legged friend around to hug and love and snuggle with at night. Walk with your dog every day and you’ll enhance an already deep spiritual bond with the knowledge that you’re doing both of you a world of good.

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