Dr. Ernie Ward and his dog Sandy walking

Walking for fitness and weight loss is different from simply strolling for pleasure with your dog. To get in a real workout with your four-legged workout buddy, you need to move fast enough to reach the aerobic or “fat-burning” zone but not so fast that you risk injury or enter into the anaerobic or “sugar-burning” zone. 

In other words, it all comes down to pacing. To help get you into the right aerobic groove, consider these tips when you're power walking with your pet. Just be sure to have your dog checked out by his vet before embarking on any fitness regimen.

Skip Smelling the Roses (and Fire Hydrants)

I typically recommend that owners begin with a brisk walk, and then check the “pee-mail” on the way back. The reason I prefer starting with the “hard” part of the walk is simple: If you allow your dog to sniff everything from the get-go, it will be challenging to get him up to speed.

Why Dogs Don't Need Warm-ups

People often ask me, “Shouldn’t I do a warm-up before I walk my dog?” My reply: “Have you ever seen a fox take a few warm-up laps before sprinting to capture prey?”

Dogs are built to go from 0 to 100 miles per hour with little risk of injury. Plus, you’ll be going nowhere near an all-out sprint. We’re talking about a walk or a jog here, not a 100-yard dash. Of course, if you have an older pet or if your dog has an injury or a medical condition, a five-minute warm-up walk is a good idea. Otherwise, get going!

Set the Right Pace

Based on a 2006 study that the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention conducted with people who walk with their pups, an average dog-walking pace was about 22 to 24 minutes per mile. That’s a slow crawl, with frequent pauses (on average, every minute!) to allow a dog to sniff an interesting object or mark territory. We’re here to shed pounds, people, not smell the bushes!

The right pace should look like your dog is trotting alongside you. He should have a short stride and a rapid leg turnover rate, which is essential for using less energy and maintaining proper speed. As you increase your own leg turnover rate, your dog will adjust to maintain your speed.

To achieve this pace, keep the leash close — within two to three feet from your body — and allow your dog to walk on a loose leash. Set a pace that you feel comfortable sustaining — about a 15- to 19-minute-per-mile pace for most dogs. It should feel like a brisk walk, and you should break into a light sweat.

It's important that your dog understands that you have places to go, that this is different from the usual stop-and-smell-the-mailbox affair. If your dog sits, refuses to walk or otherwise misbehaves, check out my tips for acing controlled leash walking

If your dog pants during a walk or trot, this is normal canine physiology in action — canines breathe through their mouths to dissipate heat. But if his breathing appears labored, noisy or if a cough develops, stop and check out your companion.

Shake Up Your Weekly Walking Routine

For dogs who have normal heart and lung function, normal blood pressure and no other pre-existing medical conditions, I recommend starting with 30-minute walks five times per week.

In the beginning, don’t worry as much about speed or distance as your time. Here's a good weekly game plan to consider:


Don't Stress Over Missed Walks

You may find that, because of unexpected occurrences during the week (life!), you might miss one or two long walks. Don’t fret. You can gain back some of the benefits by adding a longer, slower walk over the weekend.

Even if you’re able to walk every day for 30 or more minutes, it's still a good idea to go for a longer jaunt at least once a week. For many owners, this means a 60-minute hike or a more casual, hour-long walk on the weekends. For either of these options, a less intense pace of 17 to 20 minutes per mile is fine. In addition to improving aerobic fitness, these longer walks will help burn additional calories.

Go Easy on the Post-Workout Rewards

I’ve had many weight-loss clients complain that their dogs don’t lose weight — despite a strict adherence to my diet and exercise plans for them. The usual culprit: feeding their dogs more, especially after a long walk.

Post-workout overfeeding is generally due to the “justification factor” or “reward rule,” as I like to call it. People think that their dogs “earned” an extra treat because they exercised for a long time. Don’t make this rookie mistake!

Ultimately, the best pace and distance for you and your dog comes down to what you can actually achieve. So use common sense — if it feels too fast or your dog appears uncomfortable, slow down. And before you begin any serious exercise or weight-loss program, take your pet to the vet. And while you're at it, have yourself checked out by a doctor, too.