Exercise programs should be tailored for individual pets

| Friday, May 31, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Nala and Parker alight from Jerry Katz's SUV, tails wagging, and bound into Frick Park, where other dogs and their owners are gathering for their early morning walk.

The canines sniff each other in greeting before heading down a trail, while their two-legged friends engage in talk.

“For the dogs, it's an adventure,” says Katz. “For us, it's a relaxing way to start to the day.”

The American Heart Association recently confirmed what Katz and other dog owners already know: A canine companion can be good for your health.

Using Baylor University data, the association asserts that folks who live with dogs are more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity than non-pet owners — and to enjoy reduced stress.

Daily workouts are good for dogs, too, but owners need to be mindful about how much activity and for how long, especially in warm weather, says veterinarian Ann Caulfield, a certified rehabilitation practitioner at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It's a pet peeve of mine when I see dogs of any kind being exercised at 1 o'clock on a hot summer day,” she says. “No dog should be walked when it's 90 degrees. They can't cool themselves the way we can, so they're much more prone to overheating, especially when you get into brachycephalic breeds, like pugs, bulldogs and shihtzus.”

Dogs don't sweat, she says. “Panting is the mechanism they use to cool themselves, and dogs bred to have smaller jawbones and pushed-in noses can't always pant enough to reduce their body temperature.”

With obesity rampant among domesticated pets, exercise is important, but dogs should be conditioned to a fitness program gradually, and only after they have been cleared for activity by their vet, Caulfield says.

“Have them checked for an underlying heart or lung condition or osteoarthritis, and then start slowly,” she says. “Gauge your pet's response. Better to underestimate what they can handle than to overdo it.”

Several short walks are better than one long walk each day, and dogs unaccustomed to activity never should be subjected to intense exercise, she says. “Weekend-warrior syndrome is as bad for four-footed couch potatoes as it is for us.”

Katz agrees. Although he sometimes hikes with his dogs — a springer spaniel and a golden retriever — they are in good shape from their daily constitutionals, including the one every morning in Frick Park.

Janet DiPaolo and her German shepherd, Greta — a therapy dog at Children's Hospital — are Frick walkers, too.

“I go at Greta's pace,” says DiPaolo of Greenfield. “We do about three miles early in the morning and three at night, as long as the weather isn't extreme in any way.”

“I like that she can walk on grass and on different types of terrain.”

Caulfield advises carrying water for your pet to drink and choosing the proper collar. Harnesses are recommended for toy and small breeds and for brachycephalic dogs, because they keep pressure off the trachea, she says. “Dogs that tend to pull a lot may do well with the Easy Walk harness, or the Gentle Leader, which fits loosely around the muzzle.”

Pinch and choke collars should be avoided, she says. “You're better off taking your dog to a training class to learn not to pull. It will make walking more pleasant for both of you.”

While a dog derives the same benefits from walking as humans, regular constitutionals also let them take in their world, and even dogs with mobility issues should be given modified opportunities to explore their universe, Caulfield says. “I encourage people to get their dogs out there to whatever capacity they can enjoy. It's where they read each other's ‘pee mail' and see who's been around.”

Although owners may want to keep their dogs moving, Caulfield says they should let them stop and sniff.

Walking isn't the only exercise dogs can enjoy, but it generally is the best, says Caulfield, who isn't a big of fan of folks running with dogs unless they are carefully conditioned canine athletes.

“A fit dog in a medium to large-size breed may be appropriate to run with its owner, but should never run in hot weather and should get frequent breaks and hydration,” she says.

“Most dogs in the wild don't run constantly or for long distances, so I think walking, generally, is a better fitness option.”

Katz is a runner, but it's something he does without Parker and Nala. “They'd slow me down, and they're not built for running,” he says.

DiPaolo lets Greta run for short distances on her own in the park. “If she wants to play chase, it's on her,” DiPaolo says. “When she's tired, she stops.”

But Andrew Gamble, another Frick walker, says his dogs, a German shorthaired pointer and flat-coated retriever, love to accompany him on runs.

“We go when my knees allow,” he says. “But never in the heat. Even I hate running in the heat. We'll go early in the morning and at night.”

A canine being conditioned to run should not be started when they are too young, Caulfield advises. “We have these growth plates — areas in our bones where the length of the bone grows from — that can be damaged from high-impact loading on joints at a young age. If they're damaged at an early age, you can see major joint problems later on.

“It's important to avoid high-impact loading at joints until a dog is skeletally mature.”

Exercise is just one piece of Fido's fitness puzzle, which also includes diet, Caulfield says. “I see so much obesity among dogs because they don't get walked and because they have evolved to eat a wide variety of foods. Every so often some new debate about feed comes up. Right now, it's the grain thing. In a couple of years, it will be something else.”

What's more important is that we not overfeed our pets, says Caulfield, who suggests using low-calorie treats, like pieces of hard-boiled egg white or frozen green beans, hand-fed one at a time.

Sensible diet combined with a controlled walking program is good for us, Caulfield says, “and good for our dogs.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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