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Team up with Fido for fitness

When it comes to sticking with an exercise routine, dogs can be a major source of motivation and accountability for their owners.
When it comes to sticking with an exercise routine, dogs can be a major source of motivation and accountability for their owners.Photodisc
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If trimming down and getting in shape are high on your list of New Year’s resolutions for 2005, do yourself and your dog a favor — team up and make it a joint effort.

Just like us, most dogs aren’t out chasing rabbits and hunting mastodons for their survival anymore. Instead, they’re asleep in the backyard or lounging with the kids in front of the TV. And, just like people, the extra pounds and lack of exercise are taking a toll on their health.

A 2004 survey by Purina of pets in five major U.S. cities found that 60 percent were moderately to severely overweight. Of these dogs and cats, 12 percent were so portly that they were suffering from weight-related health conditions, many of which can lead to an early death.

While the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for people are well-known, fitter pets also reap rewards. Dogs that get regular exercise are more relaxed, generally better behaved and have fewer problems with chewing and barking.

“A dog is probably going to have a better personality if it’s exercising, and maybe we will, too,” says Dr. Howard Erickson, professor of physiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University.

And just like people, dogs that stay in shape and eat right have healthier hearts, more efficient respiratory systems, stronger muscles and bones, and often live longer than their couch-potato kin, says Erickson.

Mutual benefit
A healthier lifestyle for your pet may benefit you in more ways than just a trim, well-mannered pooch. A study published in November found that when people and their dogs were put on a diet and exercise plan together, both were able to lose weight and keep it off.

In the study, dogs became a major source of motivation and accountability for their owners, and helped keep them on track with their fitness goals, says Dr. Robert Kushner, professor of medicine at Northwestern University Medical School, who led the research. As many of the human participants found, it’s hard to say no to a four-legged friend eagerly waiting at the front door for a walk or run each night.

“It got a lot of people off the couch and out the door because the dog was there helping them,” says Kushner.

In addition, having a canine buddy added variety and helped reduce the hum drum of a standard fitness routine. “Across the board, people who exercised with their dogs found it rewarding, fun and an opportunity to bond with their dog more than they ever did before,” says Kushner.

Getting started
So how can you plan a fitness program with your dog — and not have your efforts go the way of so many well-intentioned resolutions?

For starters, establishing a regular exercise routine is crucial. Schedule your workout with your dog just like you would any other appointment. Otherwise, you’re likely to blow it off at the end of a long day or the beginning of a morning that comes way too early. Even if the weather is bad, a quick walk around the block will maintain the routine from the dog’s perspective.

Before you begin your workouts, get your pet checked by your veterinarian and make sure all vaccinations are up to date. In particular, be sure your pet is free of heartworms since they can make exercise dangerous. Ask about improving your dog's diet and begin cutting back on kibble if your dog is overweight.

Once you get the official go-ahead, start out gradually since pets need conditioning, too. A dog that stays in the yard and occasionally plays fetch is not going to be in top shape for a 5-mile run on a hot day. Overexertion could lead to exhaustion, torn ligaments, and sore muscles and joints, not to mention pricey vet bills.

Personal trainer Kathy Kaehler, fitness expert for NBC’s “Today” show, helped design Purina’s Healthy Steps Plan for pets and their owners. She recommends starting out with a walk around the block and adding an additional block each day to work up to your optimal distance. Or, if you have a pedometer, plan to walk a thousand steps with your dog the first day and gradually add more steps as you progress.

Chihuahuas aren't for joggers
Keep your dog’s breed and physique in mind when choosing your activity. A lumbering, overweight basset hound is not going to make it very far on a fast run, but would benefit from a stroll around the neighborhood. A small toy breed with tiny legs is also going to have a hard time keeping up. In addition, dogs with pushed-in noses, such as Pekingese, bulldogs and mastiffs, often have breathing problems and may require a more mild exercise routine.

If you’re an avid jogger and want a workout partner to join you, consider getting a high-energy breed capable of distance running, such as a member of the sporting group — Labs, setters and larger spaniels. But think carefully before running out and adopting one of these breeds to be your jogging buddy. Even if you wimp out and revert to your slothful ways, your new dog will still be champing at the bit to go for a run every day, rain or shine.

Also keep in mind that puppies should never be started on an ambitious fitness program since excessive running or jumping can damage developing bones. Most puppies need to wait until they’re at least 8 months or older, says Erickson. “For giant breeds, extend that time a little more.”

From Frisbee to softball
To keep your exercise plan interesting and keep you both working a variety of muscles, try a range of activities. In addition to walks or jogs, take your dog to the park or beach to play fetch, Frisbee or other games. Try swimming with your dog if that sounds appealing. You can also modify human-only games, such as softball and tennis, to incorporate your pet. The balls might get a little slobbery, but you’ll both have fun.

Workouts offer a prime opportunity for bonding and a chance to hone your dog’s obedience skills. Kaehler suggests bringing a jump rope on walks or runs and, at some point, giving your dog the command to sit and stay. While your dog sits, you perform 100 jump-rope revolutions. When you’re done, reward your dog and continue on your way.

No matter what activities you and your dog undertake, keep in mind that the exercise will have positive benefits all around. Fitness isn’t just for humans — “pets need it just like we do,” says Kaehler.