American dogs have the same problems as American humans — an obesity epidemic brought on at least in part by a lifestyle that is too sedentary. Too many dogs are taking in more calories than they burn in their daily activities. Let’s face it, exercising the dog is one more item on a list of chores that can seem endless, especially after a long day at work. And Scruffy doesn’t complain about her short romp in the yard or quick walk down to the corner; she seems very content to curl up on the couch for an evening of television, just like you.
But like us, dogs need to get out and move more. Not only is it good for their weight and overall health, but it also staves off some of the problems that come on as they age. Dogs that are regularly exercised have more mental stimulation than dogs that just sit around all day, and this can help your dog avoid emotional and behavioral problems that under-stimulated pets can develop. And of course, exercising your dog daily is good for your personal activity level as well!
But neither you nor your dog may think an amble over the same route each day is particularly fun (although with Scruffy’s sense of smell, she is probably finding it more interesting than you!). So here are some suggestions to get more fun from your exercise time together.
1. Shake up your walk.
You should certainly try walking different routes with your dog. But even if you walk the same path, you can change up how you walk it. Try doing intervals with your dog, breaking out into a jog or a sprint periodically. The unpredictability will make the walk more fun for the dog and get in more of a workout for you both.
2. Let your dog take YOU for a walk.
Rather than steering your dog on your usual route, try letting him take the lead and follow his nose. Roam the area as he would naturally do if he was exploring on his own. You might be surprised where he takes you, and what you find!
3. Teach him to follow his nose.
Some dogs are bred to be scent-hounds, like Basset hounds and beagles. But most dogs like the challenge of tracking something through scent. Try taking your dog to an open grassy area like a ball field or park, early in the day if you can, before many people have walked through the grass. Using commercially available scent training spray or a strong-smelling treat such as a hot dog, lay a scent trail through the grass, leaving a bite or two of kibble or a bit of the hot dog as a reward. Then release the dog to find it. Give her lots of encouragement and praise when she succeeds. As she gets better at following the trail, you can take longer, more involved trails with twists and turns, and make the scent trail more “broken” by only intermittently dragging the scent item on the ground. If you have a buddy or child who walks with you, eventually you can play “hide and seek” with the other person, having your dog track him or her.
4. Take time out for a romp.
If your walking route goes through an enclosed area where you can let your pup off-leash for a bit, break up your routine by taking him into the area and letting him loose. Enjoy a good dash with him around the enclosure and play a brief game of “tag”. Be careful to encourage him to chase you rather than vice versa — you don’t want to teach him to play “keep away” with you when you need to get him back on the leash! This is also a good time for a quick game of fetch with a ball or favorite toy, and if you bring some treats along, take a few moments to practice his recall and other obedience commands. If you don’t pass an enclosure during your walk, try doing this in your own yard once you get back home.
5. Improvise agility and/or obstacles.
If you have time to take your dog to official agility training classes, your dog will learn how to navigate multiple obstacles, such as jumping through a ring, weaving in and out of poles, and walking on a raised board. If you don’t have the time or money for formal training, look around your yard and walking route to see if there are some places to improvise some obstacles. Is there a building with a flight of steps to run up and down, or some parking meters to weave around? Some people even create small ramps and bridges in their yards for dogs to practice. All of this is mentally and physically stimulating for the dog, and for you as you teach her to navigate and put her through her paces.
Even on cold or rainy days, you can find some ways to get your dog some exercise indoors by adapting some of these suggestions. Run up and down the stairs a few times, or play hide and seek with a scent trail and a favorite toy. Once you start getting creative with your dog’s exercise routine, workout time will become more like playtime for both of you!