The Fit Fido

How to Safely Start Your Dog on a Fitness Program

(Originally appeared in Dog World)

Stress! It’s everywhere these days — at our jobs, in our relationships, even with our dogs. That’s right, many dogs suffer from the stressful lifestyle that they’ve adopted from us. After all, they live a very unfamiliar style when compared to what they inherited from their ancestors.

According to Sarah Wilson, dog owner, trainer and coauthor with Brian Kilcommons of Good Owners, Great Dog, our canine companions live in an unnatural environment. Think of it. The schedules most of us keep, with the resulting long hours of loneliness for our dogs who are by nature social animals, the limited opportunities they have to romp and roam. It all adds up to a high degree of stress.

Many owners may not realize this. They look at their couch potato dog lying around the house most of the day and they think, “I should have it so good,” but it’s not what dogs are used to in the wild. What’s the answer? How can we give our pooches who are normally passionate for life an outlet? One of the best ways is

by playing and exercising with them. Interestingly enough, when we do, both the owner and the pet reaps the rewards.

Of course, if you don’t give your pet an outlet to de-stress, they often will find their own ways of doing so. Often we term these doggie improvised outlets, behavioral problems. It might be chewing excessively at they tail or other parts of their anatomy, or perhaps they will take their frustrations out on your favorite family heirloom. Many dogs are very inventive about the games they can make up to keep themselves entertained. Unfortunately, we humans don’t always agree with their selection.

“A really good exercise program can prevent up to 80 percent of the behavioral problems I see,” says Wilson. “Pets have to do something, and what they can do is limited. They cannot watch TV (some owners might disagree), they cannot read a book, they can’t call their friends and complain about how you’ve left them alone again.” They can self-mutilate themselves, dig holes in the yard, foul your carpets with urine and stools, and come up with a wide assortment of unacceptable and often destructive habits.

Exercise and play programs can take many different forms and can be formulated around the lifestyle of the owner. The rewards are many. Your dog will be healthier, happier, and better adjusted. Your enjoyment of each other will escalate, and a nice side benefit is that you might lose a few unnecessary pounds as well.

But just like it’s not a good idea to suddenly decide to start an exercise program yourself and then go out the first weekend and try to run a 10K race, starting an exercise program for your dog has some do’s and don’ts. Here’s how to get started, easily and

with a minimum of effort. It’s really doesn’t have to be, “No pain, no gain.”


Consider your veterinarian to be your partner in this new exercise program; your dog’s trainer or team doctor. This is especially important if your dog is middle-age or older, overweight, or has other health problems that could be worsened from starting an exercise program improperly. Almost every dog, not matter their condition can benefit from exercise, but only if it’s adjusted to their particular situation.

A good pre-exercise training program physical can reveal several things. If your dog is overweight, you will find out by how many pounds and your veterinarian may recommend a special reducing diet that will facilitate the weight loss. An overweight dog certainly will benefit from exercise, but depending on the degree of obesity, you may have to start the program more slowly and with shorter workout periods.

If your pet is over 8-years of age, or if he has a history of serious health problems such as heart or kidney disease, your vet may recommend a more thorough work-up that including blood analysis, chest x-ray, and/or an electrocardiogram. Again, if a problem is found, it may not preclude starting the exercise program but it will be necessary to adjust the program to compensate for the problems.


According to veterinarian Michael J. Huerkamp, assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, while it’s fine to run with your dog, there are several matters to keep in mind. Here are some of his tips:

1- Don’t run with very small or very large dogs. Certain breeds of dogs are simply not built for distance running. Very small breeds, such as Chihuahuas, toy poodles and others of the toy breeds are at risk for joint injuries. The brachiocephalic breeds such as bulldogs or pugs have too much difficulty breathing to be good distant runners. Instead, choose another less stressful exercise like short to medium length walks, and avoid exercising during the heat of the day. Giant breeds such as St. Bernards and Great Danes are prone to cardiac problems, ankle injuries and fractures or strains of the lower extremities and shouldn’t be run over long distances.

2- The ideal running partner is the mid-size dogs from 30-75 pounds that are over 1-year of age. Greyhounds, retrievers, pointers, huskies, and other dogs of similar size make the best runners.

3- Don’t feed your dog a heavy meal before a run. This can increase the risk of your dog developing a gastric dilatation-volvulus, a life-threatening condition where the stomach rotates on itself.

4- Don’t run with aged, infirmed, obese or real young dogs. These dogs simply can’t take the stress of distance running.

However, check with your veterinarian to see if a lighter program of walking wouldn’t be beneficial for these dogs.

5- Don’t push a dog to run beyond its capacity. Bill Irwin, the only blind man to walk the entire Appalachian Trail with his guide dog, Orient, points out that the domestic dog is not naturally distant runners (or walkers for that matter). For Orient to make their incredible walk (some 2800-plus miles), Irwin and Orient both had to train for walking those distances. It wasn’t unusual in the beginning of the trip for them to have to stop after a few hours to allow Orient to rest. Interestingly enough, by the end of the trek it was Bill they had to stop for since Orient continued to get stronger and stronger while Bill eventually became worn out.

When running with your dog, keep an eye on him. If he is unable to keep pace with you, or has difficulty breathing, ease up on the pace, or stop and rest for a while.

5- Prevent foot pad injuries by either avoiding paved surfaces or gradually conditioning your dog to run on pavement. An unconditioned dog’s foot pads are quite vulnerable until they build up protective callouses. Also, watch out for hot pavement and for other obstacles such as broken glass or sharp rocks.

6- Provide ready access to water before and after a run, and controlled access during the run. Remember, overheating can be a real problem with dogs since they sweat only through their feet and must cool down through panting.

Many of these tips can be adapted for any exercise program, not just running. Probably the most important rule to follow is to be awake and alert. Don’t assume because your dog appears to be able to run circles around you that he can. It’s not unusual for dogs, in an attempt to please their owners, to take themselves beyond

their natural exercise limits. It’s up to you, the owner, to see that this doesn’t happen.


The best approach to starting an exercise program with your dog is to start nice and easy and with a steady routine. Build slowly to avoid what is commonly called the “weekend warrior” syndrome, where you and your dog sit around all week long then suddenly decide on the weekend to go out and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s not a safe approach for either of you.

Many dog owners find that a regular regime of walking or jogging makes a solid foundation of an exercise program, starting with short 15-minute sessions, three to four times per week and slowly building up to 30-minute sessions or longer. Be sure to include in these times, a brief warm-up and cool-down period to reduce the chance of injuries or sore muscles.

To add a little spice to such a routine, consider occasionally adding a session of swimming or frizzbie or ball tossing. Another way to spice up an exercise program is to take your dog to new locations for the exercise. A change of scenery is good for both of you. Or add other people and their dogs to your walking or jogging program, being sure that the dogs are kept on leash, especially if you are where they might run into traffic or other dangers. We have a friend that lives close by with a young German shepherd. Every so often we’ll let our Australian shepherd and her German shepherd together. Thirty minutes of their running together in the field is enough to tire both of them out for the rest of the day. Just watching them is tiring, and a lot of fun.

Most important of all, a properly designed exercise program should be fun, for both of you. If it isn’t, you’re probably doing something wrong. Either it’s time to add a little spice to it with a change in routine, or either you or the pet is taking it all too serious, and given human nature, it’s probably you. Lighten up and have fun while getting you and your pet in shape.