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Exercising with your dog: Common mistakes

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When exercising with your dog, it's important to take it slow and not push yourself -- or your dog. Consider this scenario: You’re in the park tossing a Frisbee to your previously sedentary and sadly out-of-shape dog when it leaps into the air and drops down on the grass with a shriek. Uh oh. Now the dog’s got a torn ACL in the knee that needs surgery, and you’re wondering how you could’ve avoided it.

Not uncommon, said Dr. Tony Kremer, a veterinarian in Chicago. “We see tears, sprains, and regret all the time, all the result of a 'weekend warrior' mentality.”

The good news is you can prevent these and other injuries by exercising your dog properly – and staying away from the following mistakes other pet owners make in keeping their dogs active.

Mistake #1: Too much too soon

Just as we shouldn’t go from lying on the sofa to running a marathon, neither should our animals. Instead, consider the dog’s age, health and exercise history before exercise – and then, think progression, said Andrea Metcalf, a fitness expert in Chicago.

“If your dog isn’t used to moving, walk for 10 minutes a few times a day and build gradually,” she said.

It’s an approach that’s not only best for your dog, but also the most organic, said Dr. Marcella Ridgway, a vet at the University of Illinois in Urbana. “Large amounts of repetitive, physically demanding exercise are not natural for dogs,” she said, adding that they’re more suited to walking in short intervals, stopping frequently to sniff.

Mistake #2: Assuming you're both fit

Even if you work out with your dog, you may not be equals in terms of fitness. If you’re more active than your dog, you may not want to run several miles with it. If your dog is more active, toss it a ball and then go for a short walk. That way, it’ll already be tired before you set off and a few short blocks will be just enough.

Mistake #3: Ignoring the effects of climate

Exercising your dog in extreme cold or heat requires vigilance in preventing things like frostbite and heat illness. You can do that by:

  • Watching your dog's paw pads for tears and other injuries caused by hot concrete and asphalt, or by snow, ice, and salt.
  • Knowing your dog’s tolerance for the outdoors. For example, some breeds, like pugs and Pekingnese, are especially prone to breathing problems.
  • Making water available to keep your dog hydrated.
  • Recognizing the signs of heat stroke – heavy panting and salivating, fatigue, muscle tremors, staggered walking – so you can take action if necessary.

Most importantly, pay attention to what your dogs are telling you while exercising, said James H. Sokolowski, DVM, in Vernon, Calif., in an issue of American Fitness. “If they reject the idea of exercise on a hot day that means their bodies aren’t up to it.”

Mistake #4: Multitasking

How many times have you seen somebody with their dog’s leash in one hand and a cell phone in the other? Too many, said Metcalf, who cautions against it.

Instead, leave the earplugs and cell phone at home. “Take that time to unwind and connect with your pet,” she said. “They’ll be happier and you will too.”

Mistake #5: Not exercising at all

Finally, know that the benefits of exercise usually far outweigh the risks, said Kremer, especially when it comes to keeping your dog – and your relationship – healthy.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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