Physical Fitness For You and Your Dog

Physical Fitness For You and Your Dog in

This article by Dr. Dunn appeared in the July, 2002 issue of Dog World Magazine

Physical fitness for dogs and humans has rewards that far outweigh the struggle that’s required to become fit.

Nugget .. she was a part of many happy times and challenged us to keep up with her

“Nugget” was a Golden Retriever… and a member of our family for sixteen, memorable years. And one of the fondest memories I will carry with me the rest of my life is of the innumerable early morning runs we took together along the old forested logging roads just outside our door in northern Wisconsin. Her enthusiasm for the forty-minute exercise sessions sparked my commitment to good health, especially on those mornings when I’d rather have skipped our run and she just wouldn’t allow it. Until kidney disease claimed her at age sixteen, her state of health was excellent and despite an arthritic spine, her mobility was always very good.

Far outweighing the inconvenience of committing time and effort to achieve physical fitness, the rewards of being physically fit, for man and dog, will last a lifetime. And those rewards can actually be felt physically and emotionally. Deep inside every canine brain there exists what I call a Joy Center. (It’s actually a structure called the Hypothalamus!) That’s where nerve impulses of happiness and pleasure set the dog’s tail into motion, crank up the heart and breathing rate, and propel the dog into all sorts of body language that signals excitement and enthusiasm for whatever wonderful thing is about to happen. And since all dogs are born to run, anticipation of an exercise session really sets off that Joy Center. Running is a naturally rewarding emotional and physical experience for any dog and is a natural fitness enhancer.

The primary outgrowth of keeping your dog physically fit will be a substantially improved quality of life throughout the aging process. And when old age does come knocking, your dog will be much better equipped to continue to be mobile, alert and enthusiastic throughout the day. You have to decide if the goal of a higher quality of life, throughout life, is worth the effort for you and your dog. Even in the presence of such age related debilitation as arthritis, circulatory inefficiency, or cognitive dysfunction, any physically active dog will be far better off than one that has led a sedentary life. When thinking of how physical fitness impacts your dog, “quality of life” are the key words. Robert Gillette, DVM, MS, has published numerous articles on canine sports medicine and exercise physiology and is the Director of the Sports Medicine Program, College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama. Dr. Gillette states “Fitness and exercise have the same beneficial affects in the dog as they do in the human. It helps to keep unwanted weight off the dog and improves the overall physical health. One of the most important benefits that exercise has on the dog is the positive effect on its psychological well-being. And sedentary canines have a much higher risk of health and medical problems than active dogs. This parallels the same health issues seen in humans.”

Not all dogs are able to run free with their human companion along deserted logging roads every morning. And most dogs are tightly constrained by their environment and the responsibilities and limitations of their human keeper. But there are ways all of us can contribute to our dogs’ quality of life through physical fitness no matter where or how we live. And the foundation upon which any fitness goal rests is high quality nutrition. More than anything else, what you feed your dog and how much of it you feed will impact the dog’s level of fitness. Simply stated, do not allow your dog to become overweight. And you must fight the urge to chose your dog’s food based upon price, and instead base the purchase decision on quality. If you do nothing else to improve your dog’s fitness, choose a high quality, meat-based food and avoid feeding too much of it. You have total control over what your dog eats; that’s a big responsibility and it impacts the dog’s physical fitness every single day.

A high powered retriever .. just having fun

Physical activity is a very close second when it comes to keeping fit because every tissue in the body needs to be worked for optimal function to be achieved. An overweight, sedentary dog will have little enthusiasm for getting off the couch for a walk around the block because exercise is not comfortable and is not immediately rewarding when the level of fitness is low. Fitness must be earned.

What is a good way to get started on a fitness program for your dog? Dr. Gillette suggests “Initially it is best to assume the dog is not conditioned or fit. Have the dog checked out by your veterinarian to be sure the dog is healthy enough to participate in an exercise program. You should choose an appropriate exercise that allows the dog to participate. A few examples of these types of exercise are jogging, biking, hiking, roller blading, cross-country skiing, playing fetch plus many more. The dog can run with the owner during some of these types of activities, but for safety reasons keep in mind the need for leash restraint.“

Obviously, you need to tailor the activity to the breed because that little overweight Dachshund will have a much different ability level than the neighbor’s Akita. Dr. Gillette believes running is an excellent way to keep a dog fit and says, “Begin by taking the dog for a one mile run, no longer. Assess the endurance and how the dog reacts to this distance. Signs that are indicative of fatigue are panting, dry mouth, attempts to find shade, stopping to drink water, abnormal gait, and reluctance to continue. The workout should stop when these signs appear. We do not want to create a medical emergency! Determine at what distance these signs first occur and that will be the beginning distance. If the dog does not show any of these signs during the run, observe it for a few hours after the run and again the next morning. If the dog shows any discomfort then cut back the distance by one half. If the dog shows no problems then increase the distance using a weekly stair step program. Increase the distance by one-half to one-mile increments. Use the same signs as described to determine the dog’s ability to handle increases in exercise. Always check the dog’s paws and pads at the end of every workout session and if any lesions or lacerations are present consult your veterinarian.”

In addition to Dr. Gillette’s suggestions about running consider joining a local dog club. There all sorts of fitness activities such as showing, obedience training, and agility exercises and competitions that are fun and provide mental and physical stimulation. Even something as simple as a walk around the block every day will have a beneficial health impact on you and your dog. Other things you can do to improve your dog’s fitness relate to keeping health maintenance updated through an annual veterinary physical exam. Thyroid Gland function should be checked in any dog that seems sedentary and overweight. Always bring in a urine sample to be checked, too, because an underlying bladder or kidney infection will create a continuous drag on your dog’s health. A Blood Chemistry Panel, which analyzes a multitude of biochemical parameters in your dog, is an excellent way to monitor invisible organ function status and should be done annually. Be sure to check the gums and teeth regularly, especially the difficult-to-see molars where abscessed roots are common. Poor oral health is a major cause of debilitation in older dogs and next month’s column will explore that topic in depth. If your dog develops arthritis there are a number of products including non-prescription dietary supplements such as Omega Fatty Acids that often greatly improve function, mobility and comfort.

In summary, there are two main factors you need to address if you are to keep your dog physically fit. One is nutritional… high quality, meat-based food in amounts that keep your dog slightly thin rather than slightly (or grossly) overweight. The other is physical activity… in amounts that stimulate the mind and heart of your wonderful canine companion. The rewards for fitness are there for you and your dog to achieve. Is it time for you and your dog to “Go For It”?


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