Getting yourself to the gym can be a significant challenge. It’s even tougher when you can’t drive, you lack opposable thumbs, and your primary skills are “Sit” and “Stay.”
Yes: Dogs need to focus on their fitness, too. And like any good workout partner, they depend on their fellow friends to keep them in shape.
For a primer on keeping your dog healthy, we talked to Ernie Ward, D.V.M., a veterinarian and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Ward is also the creator of K9 Fit Club, where personal trainers, dog trainers, and dog owners can take classes to exercise with their dogs. (They have over 46 locations around the country. You can check out other dog fitness centers near you.)
Ward walked me through the best exercises you can do to get your dog moving, and the exercises you should probably avoid. Here are a few workout scenarios for different types of canines.
When your dog thinks kettlebells are toys
Kettlebell swings make for a great at-home workout, until your 10-month old Labrador-mix puppy (like mine) decides to jump up and get involved.
“I'm kind of anti-kettlebells-around-dogs,” Ward says. “It’s critical to evaluate [how dangerous the exercise you’re doing] could be to your dog when you're doing swift movements or you’re moving weight. Sometimes you can't overcome that movement instantly—like the arc of a kettlebell swing—and if your dog is in the same room, you could injure them,” he said.
Before you start any exercise or activity, take a step back and ask yourself: What are the potential risks here for my dog or myself?
“We do lunges in K9 classes, but we actually have the dog under restraint when we're doing big movements, because your dog may dash underneath you—then everybody gets injured.”
If you’re exercising near your dog, keep them on a leash. Knowing how your dog reacts will help you determine what exercises you can do while they’re around.
When your dog loves to tackle you (especially during planks and crunches)
Plenty of pet owners have found they can do workouts with their dogs out of their crates. But when I get on the floor to do planks or abs routines on a mat, my dog thinks this is the perfect opportunity to jump on me or barrage me with licks.
If you have a calmer dog that can lie nearby and chew a bone or relax while you’re on the floor, go ahead with one of our core routines. Otherwise, doing floor work may lead to injury—or, at the very least, a lackluster abs workout.
When your large dog gained weight and you’d like to help him shed the pounds
Veterinarians often see "spring-training injuries" in dogs that hibernated all winter, then started running again, Ward says. If your dog spent all winter on the couch, then they “aren’t ready to spring forward and play Frisbee, do agility exercises, or even swim.”
So, as with any new workout routine, ease yourself and your dog back into action.
“We see a lot of knee ligament tears in the spring from deconditioned dogs who have put on a few extra pounds or just lost muscle and strength,” Ward says. “Sometimes it's a trauma injury where the dog falls off because their agility isn't there. They're just out of practice, so be aware this "spring-training" scenario is real for dogs...as well as people.”
Even the act of standing will burn more calories than laying down.
Your first run should be short to test out how your dog is moving. Instead of a run, you might even go for a brisk walk, Ward suggests. If you're used to jogging, maybe go a little slower—say, two or three minutes per mile—from what you were running while training for a fall marathon.
Most importantly, be aware: “If your dog’s breathing is rapid, if the stamina seems to decrease, then just back off a little bit,” Ward says. “If you notice the dog is coughing, having difficulty breathing, or just doesn't have the endurance, that's a call to action. Go see your veterinarian.”
When your small dog needs an indoor workout
For small dogs, Ward suggests doing simple ‘high-lows.’
“It’s like a variation of a squat,” he says. Get your dog to go into a down position, either lying down or in a sit position. Then encourage them to jump up, ideally on their hind legs. This is where a favorite toy or treat can help—but don't give them a treat every time they do this, Ward says.
Do a set of 10, then give them a low-calorie treat. This engages those large muscle masses, Ward says. Try this exercise a few times a day. You can do this with medium-sized or large dogs, too, if they know how to get up on their hind legs.
When your large dog wants to get moving inside
When it’s too cold to take your bigger dog on long walks or jogs, the most important thing to do is keep them active as much as you can for their overall health, Ward says.
“‘Follow’ is a really good game,” Ward says. “When you're walking, having your dog do a heel [stop] inside, sit, then have them follow you from room to room.” You can do this outdoors in the park or around the neighborhood when you're on a walk, too. You could also attempt it up and down stairs, if your dog is a good listener and can handle stairs well. If they're a good command of this exercise, it can be a great way to get them moving and building strength.
“You want your dog moving more throughout the day,” Ward says. So if they're lying down in the living room and you’re walking to another room, call them over to follow. “Even the act of standing will burn more calories than lying down,” he says.
When your dog just wants to play fetch
If you have a hallway or a room you don’t mind throwing a ball in, play indoor fetch.
“In the evenings, when we're done with dinner, our dogs know it's playtime,” Ward says. “They have two toys they love, and we just roll them back and forth in a variation of fetch.”
Even if you’re gassed from work and your training session that day, keep in mind some movement is always better than none for your pet. In addition to burning extra calories to prevent weight gain, you’re also trying to strengthen muscles and joint support structures.
“That's a critical aspect of [movement],” Ward says. “Exercise also has effects on the behavior because aerobic activity regulates the three major neurotransmitters in your dog’s brain. So if you want your dog to sleep better, have better behavior, and be smarter, you want them to engage in regular aerobic activity just like humans. And finally, there's a lot of evidence to show regular aerobic activity boosts the immune system. If we want to stay as healthy as possible and keep our pets as healthy as possible, we have to find a few minutes here and there because some activity is better than none,” he said.
When you want to prevent weight gain in larger dogs
Exercising indoors can be a challenge for large dogs. And if you have a huge breed like a Great Dane—or even multiple Great Danes—exercising indoors just may not be practical. But as with humans, your dog can’t always out-work a bad diet.
“Between inclement weather and irregular schedules, fitness begins at the food bowl,” Ward says. “That's a very important concept with larger dogs because it can be tough to closely regulate their activity versus calories in, calories out.”
Whenever your dog is inactive, be mindful of how much your dog is eating, because the best way to limit their weight gain is to reduce their caloric intake, Ward says. “If you can’t go out and play with your bigger dog…you're going to have to watch what you're feeding them. This is where we start to look at formulations carefully.”
Be mindful of the chow you’re feeding your dog. Your veterinarian can be a great resource for calculating these calories.
When you want to teach agility movements to your dog
Once your dog has mastered the "follow" technique, you can teach them to weave in and out while walking using two or three pillows, going around each pillow. (This is not necessarily easy with a puppy that wants to chew pillows.)
Basic agility doesn’t have to be super active, but you can do this activity in 10 feet of space. Have them walk, go left, right, left, turn around, go right, left, right—that's an excellent mental and physical exercise, Ward says.
“All dogs can do this, but with bigger dogs, I'm always trying to tap into that emotional and psychological side. They get bored, and when they get bored, they become inactive and depressed—then they eat more,” he says.
When your outdoor routine starts to become boring.
You wouldn’t go to the gym and do the same circuit every day. In the same way, your dog’s workout needs variety, too.
For example: “Don't think of walks just as strapping on the leash and heading around the block,” Ward says. “Make it a game. Do surges and fartleks”—basically intervals of fast running and slow running. “For example: From here to the fire hydrant, I'm going to double my pace, whether that's walking or running.” Now you’re getting your dog used to accelerating and decelerating.
“Reversing your route is incredibly important for dogs because they get bored,” Ward says. “If you always go to the left of your house, start going to your right,” he said. “Make sure you do what I call ‘training stops.’ So let's say that halfway around the block, because now your dog's kind of settled into the pace, you train. Say, ‘Sit down, or, ‘Stay,’ to make it a training opportunity. What we know from the neurochemistry of humans is that when you’re doing aerobic activity, you’re perhaps primed for learning. That might transfer for dogs, too.”
When you’re thinking of going for a bike ride or skateboarding with your dog
Think again—it’s dangerous for both of you.
“When I see someone riding a bike with their dog running on a leash next to them, it really drives me crazy,” Ward says. “They might say, ‘I'm exercising, my dog is exercising. They love it." Of course everybody loves it until someone loses an eye or breaks a leg,” he said. “Take a step back. Use common sense when you’re exercising with your dog. I'm still befuddled and frightened to death by some of the injuries we encounter at my veterinary clinic from people doing stupid things with their dogs.”
When you’re considering a high-tech dog toy
“I think many dogs benefit from these kinds of toys,” Ward says. “I've got a basket full of these for our dogs. They’re sound-activated, motion-activated. They have lights. They roll around on their own. They squeak. They squawk. And I think that for many dogs those are great.”
The issue, Ward says: “You have to make sure your dog can’t somehow destroy and eat the innards, because these electronic devices could obviously contain toxic materials.”
Also: Be cautious about purchasing a product that dispenses treats to your dog while you’re away from home.
“While it's appealing to us, we're actually creating weight and obesity problems,” Ward says. “I would much rather dogs have an interactive toy or something to engage them physically or mentally as opposed to just getting an ATM for treats,” he said.
When you’re wondering just how lazy your dog is
You’re logging your movement and steps—so why not do the same for your dog?
“I'm a big fan of activity trackers and fitness monitors for dogs, especially in sedentary environments, because they give you a more accurate picture of how active or inactive your dog may be,” Ward says. “For some pet owners that [information] can be a real call to action and motivation to get them moving.”
When you’re researching fitness trackers for your dog, Ward suggests you consider three factors:
- Durability and safety
- Battery life (“Some devices need to be charged every few days; some last a month.”)
- App experience. (“Some of them are difficult to navigate and others are super easy.”)
A fourth point worth mentioning: Price point.
“There's this price point between $50 and $75, then there's this price point of about $150 and above,” Ward says. “And like a human fitness tracker, you kind of get what you pay for. If you've never gotten one, try an inexpensive one. If you find you're using it more and more, you may want to move up to a more expensive or better model.”