Jogging with the dog

It’s that time of year when we’re all trying to stick to healthier routines, equipped with diet books, exercise clothes and training videos.

As a personal trainer, I know that at least 80 percent of people who start an exercise program will drop it within three months.

But if you’ve got a dog, you already have the best training partner at your disposal — not to mention that it’s your responsibility to make sure that your dog gets his daily walk. (Before you embark on any exercise program with your pup, have your vet examine your dog for any physical or medical issues that could limit his ability to exercise.) Here are some tips to get started:

Get Good Restraint Gear

Forgo a traditional collar if you want to burn some serious calories with your dog. Collars can compress the trachea when pulled, causing difficulty with breathing or even injury.

A walking harness is the safest choice, or opt for a no-pull harness, which offers a higher degree of control over a traditional harness. Look for wide, padded straps, breathable materials, and a solid connector to prevent escape. The harness should fit snugly, but not too tightly, across the chest and sides — you should be able to easily fit two fingers underneath the harness at all points. If you plan to walk your dog when it’s warm outside, a mesh harness is ideal.

As for leashes, I prefer models that are no longer than six feet when walking for exercise. Since you’ll be keeping your canine companion close to maintain a steady pace, save the long leash and retractable gizmos for more casual strolls around the neighborhood.

While we're on the topic, I’ve never been a fan of retractable leashes. In my experience, they cause more accidents and problems than any other restraint device.

Here’s the problem: You don’t have adequate control over your dog. If they’re 15 feet away, it’s easy to ignore your commands. (“What’s that? I can’t hear you from way over here.”) For humans, a long line can lead to elbow and shoulder injuries if your dog decides to bolt. Finally, a dog on a retractable lead typically settles into a walking pattern of run ahead, smell something and then get dragged, which doesn’t allow your dog (or you) to maintain a steady aerobic rhythm.

Cold Weather Know-How

For winter romps, protective booties may be required. Most dogs only require booties in extremely cold conditions to help prevent slipping on ice or frozen surfaces. Booties also protect paws from irritating de-icing salts that people spread on their sidewalks.

If the temps are in the teens, keep your outings short and build up your pup's fitness routine gradually. It’s easy to overdo it when you’re eager to shed pounds. But fitness and good health is a journey, not a destination.

Other Fun — and Functional — Fitness Accessories

When I run with my dogs, I’m always clocking our speed and distance — as well as my heart rate — with a GPS-enabled watch. If you don’t have a GPS device or a smartphone (you can download apps that do the same thing as a watch), pick up an inexpensive pedometer.

If you go for long walks in warmer weather, pack a collapsible water bowl. It’s easy for your pooch to get parched, so provide water every 30 to 60 minutes during serious outings. And remember that your dog is essentially wearing a fur coat, so excessive exercise can lead to dangerous overheating. In other words, don't push your pet too far in high temperatures.

Dogs can also get sunburns, so don’t forget sunscreen during prolonged sun exposure. Pet-safe sunscreens are available from many veterinarians and pet stores.

Finally, make sure you have plenty of identification on your pup. Microchips and collar tags are a must. If you walk when it’s dim out, strap on a collar or a harness with built-in safety lights and reflectors. And if you walk near busy streets, both you and your dog need to wear reflective vests.

There’s loads of other equipment you can use when walking your dog for fitness, but don’t go crazy at first. All you really need is a comfortable harness, a short leash and the motivation to do it each and every day.

If your dog starts lagging behind, that's his way of telling you that it's time to call it a day. Try not to push your dog too far, too fast. Over time, as he builds muscle tone and endurance, he'll be able to keep up with you for longer walks or runs.

In his next post, Dr. Ernie Ward will tackle a canine fitness conundrum: What to do if your dog won’t walk or run with you.