It’s finally getting warmer, days are longer, snow may be melting soon…and you’re thinking about getting outside with your dog to get some much needed exercise. Great! But where do you start? Here’s your checklist for safely getting started walking or running with your dog this spring!
1. Vet Check: Spring is the time when many of us get our “reminder” postcards from the vet, and we dutifully make an appointment to get the necessary annual checkup before flea, tick, and mosquito season sets in. In addition, find out:
- If your vet recommends your dog lose weight, find out what a safe rate of weight loss is for your dog and how much they should lose to reach their ideal weight. You can compare your dog to an online Body Condition Scoring Chart.
- Let your vet know you’ll be increasing your dog’s activity level this spring and summer, and find out if there are any special considerations for your dog’s breed, age, or fitness level. For example, owners of Boxers, Pugs, and other brachycephalic breeds need to be on the lookout for over-heating.
2. Make Sure You’re Ready for Exercise: If you’ve been couch-bound all winter and aren’t sure about your own fitness level, schedule an exam with your doctor and make sure you’re healthy enough for exercise.
3. Nutritional Overhaul: It may also be time to re-think what’s going into your dog’s dinner bowl and how much, especially if your vet indicates Fido is packing on a few too many pounds. If your dog is going to be more active this spring, he will need adequate nutrition to help him make the physical adjustment. “Junky” pet food that contains low quality ingredients and fillers will cause your dog to need to eat more in order to get enough usable vitamins, minerals, protein, and fat. It may also make your dog feel bloated and lethargic.
When considering a pet food switch, especially for weight loss, steer clear of diet pet food and instead look for a higher quality product that has more usable nutrition so you can feed less of it. Our friends at Canine Crossing in Ham Lake, MN can help you find a food your dog will LOVE and will promote optimal health.
4. Enlist the Help of a Professional Dog Trainer: Whether your dog is out of practice, or was never taught in the first place, in order to maintain any sort of fitness program he’ll need to be able to walk or run with you on leash comfortably. If getting out with your dog is a frustrating or embarrassing experience, it’s unlikely you’ll feel motivated to continue. Good leash behavior means he’s never pulling, does not bark or over-react to other dogs or people, doesn’t get in others’ space uninvited (even if he’s the most friendly dog in the world), and doesn’t stop to sniff or mark at every hydrant and corner.
He listens closely and responds to your instructions promptly, and blocks out distractions that may vie for his attention. If this sounds like some dream dog and not your dog, get thee to a dog trainer post-haste! Teaching your dog the “rules of the road” is important for both of your safety, as well as for the other people and dogs you’re sharing the space with. Taking a few weeks at the outset to teach your dog the rules and expectations will pay off big down the line, so make the relatively small investment in time and money up front. In the words of many of my past clients that are now enjoying walking and running with their dogs, you’ll be asking yourself, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?!”
5. Get Equipped (Buy Stuff!): You and your dog need the appropriate workout and walking gear. That means a pair of supportive athletic or running shoes and comfortable clothing for you. If you’ll be running at night, you need to equip your dog and yourself with reflective gear and/or lights in order to be visible. And if you’ll be going for longer outings in the heat, you may need to carry a fuel belt or strap a backpack on your dog to carry water.
Your dog needs appropriate leash walking or training gear as well—a good dog trainer can help you select appropriate equipment to either train your dog (highly recommended!) or at least manage unwanted behavior (better than nothing!). A few pointers to get you started:
- Avoid extendable flexi-leads. Instead, use a 5 to 6 foot leather or nylon leash. When walking or jogging your dog, he should be right next to you or slightly ahead at all times, not ranging far out behind, in front of, or to your side where he may interfere with others or get distracted from the task at-hand.
- Body harnesses tend to promote pulling so unless he’s running in front of a sled, they should be avoided. Head halters should also be avoided as they can cause neck and eye injuries especially if the gear isn’t fitted properly or your dog is a strong puller. If your dog hits the end of his leash and his head is jerked to the side at full-speed, he’s at a greater risk for a neck or back injury.
- Training tools such as training and prong collars, and e-collars may be helpful in training your dog not to pull and teaching proper walking behavior, but should be used only under a trainer’s guidance.
- Some helpful on-leash commands for your dog to learn include heel with an automatic sit and built-in stay (when you stop at the corner or to scoop poop), slow down/”whoa” (i.e., when running over ice or an uneven surface), and “switch sides” (meaning your dog passes behind you to your other side, i.e. to allow you to more easily pass another person or dog).
6. Learn the Rules of the Road: If you’re new to working out or being out in public with your dog, there are a few things the rest of us want you to know:
- Walk or run on the right-hand side of the sidewalk and if it’s a heavily-populated walkway, enforce a heel or keep your dog close to you. Don’t allow him to roam or lag in the event he wanders into someone else’s path.
- If there are no sidewalks and you must use the street, walk or jog on the side of the road towards on-coming traffic so you can see what’s approaching and drivers can see you better. It’s generally advised that you walk your dog on your left side in these situations, putting yourself between him and the vehicles.
- When approaching others from behind on walkways, give plenty of space and call out your presence, saying, “Dog on your left” or “passing on your left” as you approach. Alerting people to your presence, especially if one or both of you has a dog, is both polite and a good safety practice.
- Anytime, but especially if you’re exercising in a busy area like on a popular walking trail, or during a busy time of day, don’t wear headphones or allow yourself to be distracted by your phone. If you have to make a call or send a text, pull 10 to 15 feet off the pathway so you and your dog don’t become a roadblock for others. Head phones will make it difficult for you to hear if a jogger or biker is approaching you from behind and it’s particularly important to be aware of your surroundings when you’re out with your dog so you can react appropriately to keep both of you (and everyone else) safe.
- You will clean up your dog’s mess. This is the responsibility of every dog owner. In order to keep the space we share nice for everyone, you must clean up after your own dog when they poop. If toting poop for the rest of your walk doesn’t appeal, either use a doggy backpack and have your pooch tote his own poop, or plan your route through a park where you can dispose of the bag in a trash can.
7. Update Your Pet’s ID or Mircrochip: Getting out with your dog more often means it’s a good time to ensure your dog is sporting accurate identification. Make sure your pet’s ID tag and/or microchip contains the correct contact information in the event he becomes lost.
8. Take a Pet First Aid Class: Learn to recognize the symptoms of dehydration, shock, and heat-related illnesses, and how to provide emergency care in the event your dog suffers one of these conditions during or after a workout. The Red Cross offers these classes, as do private businesses.
9. Start Slowly and Build Gradually: Depending on yours and your dog’s fitness levels, you may need to start out very slowly and gradually build up your workout duration and intensity. Like us, our dogs can become sore or injured if pushed into an overly rigorous workout routine too quickly. Unlike most of us, a dog’s loyalty and “need to please” may keep him going long after he SHOULD have stopped. Many dogs don’t self-moderate well. If your dog is older, or quite over-weight or has been inactive for a long time, start with a 15-minute moderately paced walk around the block. Later on, as your dog adjusts to the increased activity, you can increase the amount of time and add in some periods of light jogging.
If you have a younger, more active or energetic dog, it’s still advised that you start out on a shorter or slower outing than your dog may appear to be able to handle. Err on the side of caution when introducing your dog to exercise.
10. Set Goals and Milestones: Fitness and training goals and milestones will help you stay motivated. There are a growing number of dog-friendly running and walking events taking place each summer, as well as year-round dog fitness events such as agility, weight pulling, dock diving, and fly ball, that test a dog’s (and owner’s) physical fitness, strength, or endurance. Set small goals along the way and track your progress in a training log so you can see how far you’ve both come. There are fancy online training logs that provide stats and motivation, and devices like Jawbone Up and Fitbit to automatically monitor progress, or you can go the old Mead notebook route. Whatever you choose, it’s important to see how far you’ve come so you can celebrate your success and stay on track.
Finally, if you wish to train your dog to walk safely and politely on-leash, contact us and find out how we can help!