Exercise Your Creativity

Let me start off by saying that neither my husband nor myself are athletes, or even what you would consider “spring chickens.” In fact, the AARP seems to have recently taken a real interest in us. (Retired? What’s that?) And yet we have two young, energetic northern breed mixes who came complete with serious exercise needs. So how do we handle it?

My husband works full-time outside the home, while my schedule is more flexible. Each morning before he leaves for work, my husband takes one of our dogs out for exercise. During non-rattlesnake season (the winter months), he’ll take either Bodhi or Sierra hiking up in the mountains behind our house. This has resulted in his four-footed personal trainers getting him in better shape than he’s been in years. As he’s navigating the trails, I have the other dog out at a local park, exploring, sniffing, and walking for a few miles. As often as possible, on the weekends we engage in “urban mushing,” which entails hitching the dogs to a one-person scooter they pull on a level dirt trail. It’s incredibly fun for the dogs and for us. Still, we’re always looking for new and creative ways to exercise our fur-kids. Since so many dogs are under-exercised (which, of course, leads to less than desirable behavior), I’d like to share a few thoughts.

We’re all multi-tasking twenty-four/seven, yada yada yada…you know the situation. But if I could wave a magic wand (we trainers all have them, you know) and give you a few days worth of what life would be like with your dogs if they had truly adequate exercise, you’d be super motivated to keep providing it. But with limited time, how can you realistically provide enough exercise? Well, most people already find the time to squeeze in a daily walk or two. For many these are “potty walks,” meaning fifteen minutes or so in the morning before and after work. The dog eliminates and the walk is over. (Tip: many dogs learn that pottying ends the walk, and it then takes them longer and longer to go. To avoid this, allow at least a few minutes of walking after your dog eliminates before turning back toward home.) Get up fifteen minutes earlier so your morning walk is now half an hour long. (If you can swing forty-five minutes or an hour, even better.) If your dog is fit and has no physical issues, add a doggy backpack. Do your research and buy one that is comfortable and fits well. Start off very light. As your dog gets accustomed to the feel and the weight, you can add a bit more weight. (Manufacturers and your vet should be able to provide guidelines.) Small water bottles make it easy to manipulate the load. Most dogs become accustomed to backpacks very quickly, and the nice thing is that you are not spending any more time than you usually would on your walk, yet there is more exertion required by your dog.

If you bicycle, you’ve got a great, fun way to provide exercise. There are a number of attachments that will allow you to fast-walk or run your dog next to your bike, including the Springer and the Walky Dog. The bicycle should be introduced carefully by allowing your dog to walk next to it first. Offer treats if necessary. Once your dog is comfortable, start with short distances, and choose dirt tracks as opposed to pavement whenever possible, as it will be easier on your dog’s joints and paw pads. The nice thing about the attachments is that they absorb shock so that if your dog pulls, you won’t get pulled off the bike. There is also “bikejoring,” where your dog is out in front of the bike pulling. Google it for details.

Another pulling sport is mushing, on snow if you get adequate coverage in your area,  and urban mushing if you’re pretty much snowless, like we are here in southern California. Your dog needn’t be a typical northern breed to participate—Labs and other breeds can pull as well. An online search will turn up instructions, discussions, and groups in your area. Strong, heavily muscled dogs can even participate in tire pulls and other weight-pulling sports.

Now, if you have a Chihuahua, pulling heavy objects is probably not going to be in your future. But there are plenty of ways to exercise smaller or less athletic dogs. Even on a normal walk, smaller dogs and those with shorter legs are working twice as hard to cover as much ground as larger dogs, so you’re already halfway there. Typical play such as chasing a ball or running off-leash in an enclosed area may be perfectly adequate to wear your dog out, but if you are unable to provide that sort of exercise (and unable to hire someone else to do it), and/or are house-bound, try the Chase N’ Pull tug toy. It resembles a fishing pole with a furred squeaky toy on the end. You get to sit in a nice, comfy chair as you cast the toy from side to side while your little fur-ball happily chases after it. Speaking of furred squeaky toys, playing tug is another nice way to burn off some of that canine energy, whether by using a plush toy made for the game, or a rope tug.

Whether your dog is large or small, young or old, training sessions are an excellent way to provide exertion. You may not think of training as exercise, but put it this way: what would make you more tired, taking a thirty-minute walk or a half hour of balancing a seriously unbalanced checkbook? (I know from experience which one would make my head explode.) Mental stimulation is tiring, so make the most of it: Training sessions, interactive toys such as Kongs that have to be unstuffed, puzzle toys such as the Nina Ottoson toys…the choices are virtually limitless nowadays, and it just takes some trial and error to find what works best with your dog.

There are so many more options for exercise than I’ve listed here, but I hope it’s given you food for thought, and motivated you to try some new things with your dog. It’s worth the effort. Being well exercised translates to better behavior, which will make you happier as well. And who knows, your personal trainer might just end up getting you both into great shape!

* The amount of exercise your dog needs depends on age, breed, health, and activity level. Consult with your vet before starting any canine exercise program.

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Positively Expert: Nicole Wilde

Nicole Wilde is the author of ten books and lectures worldwide on canine behavior. She is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine, and blogs for Positively, the Huffington Post, and her own blog, Wilde About Dogs. Nicole runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern California.


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