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 pet 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 or walking harness is your safest choice. Look for wide, soft and padded straps and breathable materials.

No retractable leashes! 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.

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. There are 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 stroll 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?” Not unless you start with an all-out sprint or maximum effort interval (unlikely). If you’re walking at a brisk pace, simply start walking at a brisk pace. Your dog can handle it. 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 – 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” if their attention begins to stray. It is important that your dog understands that walking for exercising is different than a casual, relaxed outing. 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 after a little training.

3.     Set time goals
For most overweight dogs or dogs with obesity and have normal heart and lung function, normal blood pressure, and no other pre-existing medical conditions or injuries, 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 your pet reaches its ideal or target weight, I recommend having your dog weighed by your veterinarian monthly. In addition, have a registered veterinary technician inspect the pads and legs for any issues and to ensure the nails are short and healthy.  Once your pet reaches its desired weight, they should be re-weighed every three months to ensure they remain healthy.

5.     Treadmills
Doggy treadmills, both terrestrial (“regular’) and underwater, 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 a dog on a treadmill is different than walking 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. On a terrestrial treadmill, 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 and walking 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 pet 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.