How Can We Turn Dog Walking Into Exercise?

Dog waiting to go for a walk
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Q. We've been trying to cut costs at home, and we've given up our gym membership to save money. My husband and I are planning to walk together for fitness and take our Beagle with us. We’re all a bit middle-aged and overweight. What should we look out for with our dog?

A. Since today is officially Walking the Dog Day, this is a perfect time to get out the leash and take Fido for a stroll — and to start building some good health habits for both of you. Walking the dog is a terrific first step toward improved health, and it has some real upsides: Unlike gym memberships or fitness classes, your four-legged personal trainer charges nothing to keep you motivated and pays you in canine exuberance, doggy kisses and nonstop tail wags.

I'm a big believer in working out with your pet. In fact, I teamed up with Robert Kushner, M.D., to write a book about exactly what you’re doing: Fitness Unleashed!: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together. I’m happy to offer some tips to help you get started.

Check in with a checkup: Before you start any exercise routine, you need to see your doctor, and your dog needs to see your veterinarian. You'll want to get some guidance from your vet on how much weight your dog needs to lose as well as proper diet and feeding strategies that aid in weight loss. Also, have your dog checked over to make sure he doesn't have any medical or physical limitations that could impact your exercise plan. You should also ask your doctor to cover that same ground with you as well. While you’re at your respective doctors’ offices, get an accurate weight so you have a starting point.

Make a plan: Tracking your walks can be as simple or as complicated as you want. Simple: Get a wall calendar and mark the days and the distance, with a monthly check-in for weight loss. More intensive: Look into software applications and websites that monitor workouts, calories and more. RunKeeper is a simple-to-use smartphone app that tracks all of these things.

Get your gear on: You don’t need much in the way of equipment: good walking shoes and weather-appropriate attire. Your dog needs a collar with ID and a license, and a six-foot leash. Two recent inventions in dog gear make walking much easier: the head halter and the front-clip harness. For a strong dog who sometimes forgets not to pull, these tools can be like power-steering for your pup. And while many dogs cope just fine in their own fur coats, smaller, older dogs and thin breeds such as greyhounds and whippets will likely enjoy outings more with booties and a sweater or raincoat.

Walk this way: Many dogs pull on the leash because they haven’t been taught to walk politely. If you can afford it, get a trainer to work with you one-on-one to teach your dog to walk without pulling. A couple of private lessons is a good investment in a well-mannered dog, and so is a training class if your dog needs more than a brush-up. If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs or people, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist who can assess your dog and develop a training plan for you to follow.

Be safe, and be responsible: Walk with reflective gear on you and your pet, and choose established neighborhoods with sidewalks for safety. Country roads may be pretty, but free-roaming, overprotective farm dogs and fast-moving vehicles on two-lane roads make for higher risk. Carry ID, a cell phone and — of course — poop bags, because it’s just rude not to pick up anything your dog drops off.

Start slowly: At the beginning of your walking program, keep distances short and manageable. Don't push yourself too hard; do what you can and build on your successes by adding a little distance each week. Keep track of your walks not only to stay on top of them, but also to have a reference point to see how far both you and your dog have come along the road to fitness and health.

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