Now that winter is over and spring is here, people and their pets are getting out and enjoying the beautiful weather. But after a winter season of non-activity, if your pet hasn’t been very active, you need to take a few things into consideration as you work into an exercise routine.
“Dogs have to be introduced to exercise just like you would. It has to be very slow and consistent,” said Dr. Charles Haire, a veterinarian who takes many referrals on orthopedics and sports medicine. Haire runs the Haire Veterinary Clinic in Jonesboro, Ill.
Haire himself has bird dogs and competes in shoot-to-retrieve field trials. “We always start to try to get ours in shape about three months before we expect them to perform in the field,” he said.
My own dog, Trooper, and I train all year long, but we still have to worry about exercise issues because of the strenuous nature of search-and-rescue training.
“I’d just start extremely slow, especially if you have an inside dog that’s not accustomed to exercise or play,” Haire said. “I would walk, start out with maybe walking a mile.”
While walking is a great way to start, Haire said that some of the best exercise that dogs can get is off leash.
“If they have an area where they can have off-leash activity, that’s really better exercise where they can actually run. A dog at a walk has to walk a long way to actually get in shape or start burning fat,” he explained. “When you get that dog’s pace up above a walk, of course, it will get them in shape much faster. Most people don’t have a place where they can just let a dog go, though.”
He suggested utilizing dog parks if you have one in your area.
Haire also said that jogging with your pet is an option, or even tethering your dog to a bicycle, although he explained that that is not always feasible.
In Southern Illinois we don’t have to worry too much about hot weather in the spring, but Haire said that “within about two months, depending on what region you’re in, we have to worry about dogs getting overheated here, especially if they are out of shape” or have a dark coat.
“Something else that most people don’t even consider – and I see a lot of every year – is when the temperature starts increasing. The sustained temperature heats the blacktop up and heats these oil and chip roads up. [People] take their dogs walking down them and burn the pads of their feet off. It happens all the time. It happens around here. People take them jogging down a blacktop road or in these parks a lot of times [where] they’ll have these blacktop walkways. You have to be careful. They’re not wearing shoes. They’re walking barefoot out there.”
Trooper’s black coat is something we deal with in our training. It soaks up the sun’s rays. Like blacktop roadways, the surface temperature of a dog’s dark coat can be much higher than the ambient air. Another factor that I have to consider with Trooper is that the air closer to the ground can be much hotter. My dog’s nose is right near the ground when he’s working scent.
The sun can also be a factor for light-colored dogs, “especially real short-coated white dogs,” said Haire. “If you can see their skin, the sun can get to it, and they’ll sunburn. Watch up around their face and ears.”
In addition to the coat color, certain types of dogs have more trouble dealing with the effects of exercise.
“A lot of it has to do not only with overheating issues, not only with the color of their coat, but the breed of dog they are. You take a bulldog or a pug out in the heat you have to be a lot more careful than you do if you are taking a German Shepherd Dog or a Labrador Retriever,” said Haire, explaining that because a dog can’t sweat, it has to cool itself by panting.
So how much is too much exercise?
“I always tell people that if their dogs are out of shape and the next day they are extremely sore and slow to rise, then [they] probably need to give them a few days’ rest. Maybe give them some anti-inflamatories, a few days’ rest, then start again after [the dog] becomes completely normal,” Haire said.
Soreness is one thing, but lameness is a different matter.
“If at any time [their dogs] develop a non-weight-bearing lameness or severe limp, which is not uncommon, they need to get that checked out. A dog that has been overexercised is going to be kind of lethargic, slow to rise, things like you or I would be,” Haire said. “They’re not going to have a non-weight-bearing lameness on their left rear leg.”
Haire said that often dog owners will think that their pet just got too much exercise and wait for the lameness to go away, but that won’t be the case.
He said that knee injuries are common this time of year. Haire sees a lot of dogs with tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the springtime. He said the dog will have been inactive all winter then it gets out and plays and runs when the weather gets better and it will “blow” an ACL.
There are a few other things to consider when getting out and exercising with your dog.
Keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date.
Always check your dog for ticks after outings even if you keep your dog up to date with flea and tick products. “Nothing repels one hundred percent,” said Haire, who has already seen dogs this spring that have contracted tick-borne illnesses.
A good routine to get into is to brush or comb out your dog after being outdoors. In addition to looking for ticks that could have been picked up, you’ll help your dog shed its winter coat and you can check for any possible injuries from the day’s activities.
Last but not least, be sure to take along plenty of water for you and your pet. For Trooper, I carry a water bottle that is specifically designed for dogs. It has a bowl that folds up against the bottle.
The “dog days of summer” aren’t too far away, so get out now and enjoy the spring weather with your best pal.