Dogs are born to run, jump, chase and catch. And, along with a healthy diet, all that exercise keeps them healthy and happy. But many loving dog owners are dishing up too much food and not enough exercise. And it's a big deal. According to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, 25 to 50 per cent of our pets are overweight. Obesity is one of the most common nutritional and medical disorders affecting companion animals. The related health problems can affect just about every organ, but most at risk are dogs' bones, ligaments and cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Unfortunately, love is blind, and many pet owners don't seem to notice that their dog has ballooned in size. But his behaviour may tell the tale: he may be slowing down, reluctant to climb stairs or having difficulty getting up. Some owners dismiss these changes as signs of advancing age or blame spaying or neutering. Age, breed and hormones do make a difference, but obesity in dogs, as in humans, results from too many calories and too little exercise.
How to start
So how should you and Fido start making healthy changes? First, check with your vet to rule out any medically related concerns. "For example, many breeds have an inherent risk of hypothyroidism, which needs to be treated with diet and medication," says Dr. Janet Lalonde, a veterinarian in Alexandria, Ont. Your vet will advise you on diet and may suggest a prescription pet food.
Then you can plan exercises that suit your dog's breed characteristics. Talk to your vet about that, too. Short-legged dogs, such as dachshunds, are not long-distance runners. Heavyset breeds, such as bassett hounds, aren't likely to leap for Frisbees. And dogs with pushed-in faces, such as pugs and bulldogs, can have trouble breathing when exercising.
Dr. Jeff Grognet, a veterinarian in Qualicum Beach, B.C., cautions that overweight dogs are more prone to joint damage, and dogs with arthritis can't tolerate strenuous activity. "Age is also a concern," he says, "but we can't make a general statement. A seven-year-old Great Dane is considered old, but an eight-year-old toy poodle is ready to run laps." Young dogs need special care, too. Vigorous play can injure puppies' rapidly growing limbs. (Read about TLC for an aging pet.)
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Choose an activity you both enjoy so you'll be more likely to keep it up. Simply playing with your dog is excellent exercise. Play fetch, try a game of hide-and-seek, teach him tricks or practise your obedience training to music. Use your imagination and be creative. As you exercise, you'll also strengthen the bond between you. During anything you do together, take breaks, offer your dog drinks of water and avoid exercising during the hottest part of the day.
Another good way to get started is to walk your dog on a leash for about
15 minutes twice a day. It will toughen up the pads of his feet and prepare him for more-vigorous games and activities. As you both get into better condition, increase the walking time.
When to be careful
Many dog owners like to jog with their dogs in tow. Check with your vet first; some breeds may enjoy this type of exercise, but for others it can be painful and dangerous. Dogs forced to run can overexert themselves until they damage the pads of their feet or drop. And be aware that running can trigger a need for your dog to defecate; make sure you stop when he needs to go. For the dog's safety, you should only run with him, not cycle or in-line skate.
Swimming is fun for some dogs, but use caution, especially when near moving water. Never leave your dog unattended near a swimming pool and never let your dog swim in water that is partially covered in ice.
Exercise not only keeps your dog fit but also is an antidote to boredom and provides him with mental stimulation. If you're too busy to exercise your dog, hire a dog walker. You may be rewarded with extra years of love and companionship.
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Doggy diet tricks
• Never allow your dog 24-hour access to food. This is called free feeding and almost always results in overeating.
• Feed adult dogs twice daily (or follow your vet's instructions) and, to avoid doubled-up meals, make one person responsible.
• Always measure the food and reduce that portion if you've given the dog anything extra.
• Feed your dog at regular times and allow him 15 minutes to eat. If there's food left over, reduce the portion accordingly at the next meal.
• Always make fresh water available.
• Reduce begging by feeding your dog from his bowl, not by hand or from the table.
• Remove your dog from the kitchen or dining room when you're eating.
• Don't use food as a reward, except when you're training your dog. For training, measure out his daily ration of dry food. Treat him with bits of this ration (or chunks of raw carrot) and feed him what's left at mealtime.
• Offer low-calorie treats, such as carrots, celery sticks, apples or ice cubes (you can add carrot peels or beef broth for flavour).
• Don't let others give your dog treats.
• Remember that excessive feeding is cruel; you may even be killing your dog with kindness.
Fun & games
Shape up, socialize your dog and meet people. For most of these sports, your pet should be at least one year old.
Obedience: It's a sport and a necessity. Start obedience training when your dog is about eight months old.
Agility: Dogs race through a course of jumps, ramps and tunnels adjusted to suit their ages and builds. All dogs are welcome, but prior obedience training is recommended.
Carting/Sledding: Large-breed dogs in harnesses pull carts or sleds. It's super family fun.
Earthdog Trials: Dachshunds and small terriers "go to ground," responding to their instinct to hunt and dig.
Field Events: Field and hunting events suit sporting breeds, such as pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers.
Flyball: It's perfect for ball-crazy canines! Teams of four dogs take turns racing over a set of four small jumps to grab a ball and run back to their handlers.
Lure Coursing: "Sight hound" breeds, which hunt with their eyes (not their noses), such as borzoi, greyhounds and whippets, chase a fake rabbit lure.
Musical Freestyle: Dog and handler dance through a choreographed obedience routine set to music.
Schutzhund: This three-tiered sport includes tracking, obedience and protection.
Scent Hurdling: Each dog must identify and retrieve a dumbbell that has his owner's scent.
Water Rescue: Designed for Newfoundland dogs, the rescue and retrieval exercises are fun for other breeds, too.
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