Exercise and the couch-potato pooch

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2011 - 11:43 PM

Nearly two-thirds of our dogs are overweight, but an exercise regimen can restore Fido to fitness.

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Some dogs got fat over the winter because owners didn't want to take them out in the cold and snow.

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Joe Cocker has two things he's really good at: "eating and sleeping," said Debbie Kettler.

We're not talking about Joe Cocker, the British singer best known for his version of "With a Little Help From My Friends." This Joe Cocker is the Maple Grove cocker spaniel owned by Kettler, and he needs a little help from his friends to get up on the couch.

That's because he weighs 44 pounds, which is 19 pounds over his ideal weight and at least 10 pounds more than his veterinarian would like.

That hardly sets Joe apart. By some estimates, 65 percent of our dogs are overweight, which is very close to the 63 percent researchers cite when talking about chubby humans. That's not a coincidence, say veterinarians and trainers.

"We treat them the same way we treat us," said Sarah Smith, a trainer at Minneapolis-based Paws N Motion. "It's the trickle-down effect."

The solution for chunky dogs is the same as it is for hefty humans, experts say: Eat less and exercise more. And just like a person who is coming off a period of inactivity, dogs on fitness programs need to start easy and work their way up.

"Always go gradually," said Kate An Hunter, owner of Carver Lake Veterinary Center in Woodbury and former president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. "Dogs will keep going as long as we keep going. We've bred common sense out of them."

She urges owners who take their inactive dogs out for a walk to stop at least once a block. If the dog is panting and having trouble catching its breath, or if it lies down on the ground exhausted, it's time to stop.

The look of love

One of the biggest hurdles vets face is persuading owners that their dogs are overweight in the first place. When it comes to our pets, obesity is in the eye of the beholder.

"It's gotten to the point that people are so used to looking at their overweight dogs that they don't see them as being overweight," Hunter said.

And even if they do notice that the pooch has put on a few pounds, it's often equated with affection. "Dogs love to eat," Hunter said. "So the most common way we bond with them, the way that we tell them that we love them, is by feeding them."

Kettler understands the importance of exercise. She works out five days a week on her way to her office. But getting Joe to be active has proven a challenge. The family tried installing an electronic fence, hoping that he'd play more in the yard, but he was so freaked out by it that now he refuses to go more than a few feet from the house.

"To take him for a walk, we have to put him in the car and back out of the driveway," Kettler said.

Joe's biggest problem: too many family members handing out too many doggie treats. It's a common problem. Families need to work together on limiting treats, Hunter said. Sometimes that means posting notes to keep track of how many treats are being handed out or even creating a designated snack-giver.

There are other things you can give your dog besides food, she said. The easiest -- and least fattening -- is simply a scratch behind the ears or a stroke of the head. "They want attention," she said. "They want interaction."

Fitness and behavior

An exercise program should start with a trip to your vet, Smith said.

"There are diseases in which weight gain is one of the symptoms, and you want to make sure that's not the case," she said. You also want to ensure that the animal doesn't have other problems, like arthritis or hip dysplasia, that can make exercise more painful than helpful.

Training is the next step. "The walk has to be pleasant and safe for both you and your dog," Smith said. "You don't want the dog barking at every other dog or running after bicycles. You want the dog to learn to walk the right way," which means next to you on a limp leash.

Obesity is not the only reason to put your dog on an exercise regimen, said trainer Mary Lynn McPherson, owner of See Spot Run in Minneapolis. Many behavioral problems that trainers are called to deal with can be traced to a dog's inactivity.

"They're caused by pent-up energy," she said. "Dogs need exercise. They've been cooped up in the house all day, and by the time you get home, they're bouncing off the walls. But you're exhausted, so you don't exercise them."

She recommends walking your dog twice a day for at least half an hour. "If you don't want to do it yourself, hire someone," she said. "Just make sure it gets done."

As with humans, there are physical benefits to dogs shedding excess weight.

"Arthritis can be very painful for a dog," Hunter said. "Purina did a study of arthritis medications in which they discovered that having a dog lose weight worked better than any drug that's available. That this was promoted by a company that makes its money selling dog food makes the findings that much more impressive to me."

And let's not forget that the percentage of overweight people is nearly identical to that for dogs. Your pet might not be the only one in the house who could use a little more activity.

"Walking is good exercise for people, too," McPherson said. "Taking your dog out for a walk is a win-win."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

  • related content

  • Debbie Kettler's spaniel, Joe Cocker, weighs more than 40 pounds.

  • GUIDELINES FOR FIDO'S FITNESS

    Before starting an exercise program, have your dog checked for medical issues.

    Start modestly, stopping regularly to see if the dog is struggling to keep up.

    Make exercising with your dog enjoyable. Don't tolerate bad walking behavior.

    Don't try to buy your dog's love with food. Limit its snacks.

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