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Dog workouts for weight loss and control

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Dog obesity is a serious problem -- that's why exercise needs to be part of your dog's life. Consider this:

Chopper is a nine-year-old boxer/American Staffordshire terrier mix. He has led an active lifestyle, even working out on a treadmill during the cold Chicago winters. He pretty much maintained a weight of 59 pounds.

Then there is Mojo, a five-year-old Akita/Rottweiler mix, who topped the scales at 145 pounds and didn't enjoy exercising.

More Americans' dogs are more like Mojo than Chopper. A soon-to-be-released study by the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention shows that 45 percent of dogs are overweight, including 9 percent who are obese, according to Ernie Ward, DVM, president of the association.

Reflecting the owner's lifestyle

Chopper's owner is Esther Jacobson, 45, a private personal trainer. Jacobson said Chopper does not have a regimented exercise program.

"Since I am very active physically, my dog has taken up my lifestyle. As a puppy he always joined me in my gym with my clients. One day, for kicks, I decided to put him on my treadmill,'' she said. Chopper took to the treadmill like a champ.

In the warmer months, Jacobson and Chopper walk a lot. "That is one of the ways I like to get exercise. Why would I leave my dog at home? In the winter, it's either the treadmill or playing chase in the house. I have a big enough space that we can do that.''

She said Chopper has developed arthritis in his hind legs so she goes easy on him. "When I do exercise him a little too hard, though, he limps and then I allow him the proper rest time to recover,'' she said.

Chopper has maintained his weight. "I don't give him any treats other than an occasional rawhide and some chicken or turkey in his food,'' Jacobson said. "He is pretty funny, though, in that he like vegetables and I give them to him once in a while.''

Mojo, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., isn't a big exercise fan. In fact, he's a bit of a couch potato, said his owner, Sherrie Rose Maleson.

With Maleson's help, Mojo is working on his weight problem and has largely succeeded through diet and exercise. He has dropped 30 pounds and has another five to eight to go. He also has been taking thyroid medicine to control his thyroid levels, which can play a role in overweight dogs.

Maleson worked with a dog trainer to learn how to persuade Mojo to go for walks. She said she now takes the reluctant exerciser on hour-long walks every day. "It was a problem. But he seems to enjoy it now,'' she said.

Exercise walking vs. 'social walking'

Ward said dogs and their owners need to learn how to separate walking for exercise from "social walking.''

"When people take their dogs out for social walks, we find they typically do about an 18-22 minute per mile pace,'' he said. "That is slower than you can walk because you're stopping. The dog is checking the urine from another dog. A twig gets his attention.

"Walking for weight loss is different. We really need to get them into that aerobic heart rate zone. We don't really tell people to measure heart rates on their dog, but we can tell them if it's anything more than a 15-a-minute-per-mile pace, they're probably not walking (for weight loss). A 15-minute-per-mile walk for a person feels like a good, brisk, steady walk.''

He said dogs should learn that the first half of a walk is focused on exercise and the dog can wander and do his own thing on the second half of the walk on the way home. "If people would start to train their dogs this way, they will find the dog will get very focused,'' Ward said. "They will get out there and briskly walk, and they will know when it's time to turn around. And when they turn around, they start to head back to the house, they start to check all those interesting smells and sights and sounds.''

Gearing up for a walk

Ward offers the following tips:

  • Get the right gear. Forget about the traditional leash and collar. Collars can compress the windpipe when pulled, causing difficulty breathing or even injury. He said choke collars are especially dangerous. He recommends a head halter or walking harness with wide, soft, padded straps and breathable materials. He recommends a retractable leash no longer than 12 feet to keep the dog close and maintain a steady pace. Save the long leash for those casual strolls around the neighborhood "when Daisy wants to catch up on her latest pee-mail,'' he said.
  • Head halters are a great way to train dogs to heel during a brisk walk and pay attention. If your pet sits or refuses to walk, you may have to return home, crate him or put him in a quiet space without your attention, and try again another time.
  • For winter walks in cold climates, booties make sense. In temperatures above 80 to 85 degrees, or on walks longer than 30 minutes, bring along a portable water bottle for dogs.
  • Draw your dog close on his leash, generally within two to four feet on the side away from the street, and set off at a pace you feel comfortable sustaining. It should feel brisk and you should break a light sweat. The key is to keep it up. Don't look down when your pooch inevitably wants to stop and smell something or mark a hydrant. Continue looking straight ahead, tighten the leash (don't jerk), and give a command such as "No stop,'' "Come,'' or "Here.''
  • Ward recommends half hour walks seven days a week. He suggests that dogs be weighed monthly to be sure they are at their ideal weight and have the vet check their paw pads and nails.

Jacobson thinks that the exercise helps Chopper "continue having fun and maintain a happy demeanor, and I believe this will help him live longer... a happy owner creates a happy dog.''

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