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Cynthia Howle
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Dogs Make Great Exercise Partners
Helpful tips on shaping up with your dog.
Get Fit Running with a Dog

Frank Wisneski of West Covina, Calif., started smoking when he was 11 years old. When hit by a heart attack at the age of 38, he weighed 215 pounds and had been smoking a pack a day for 27 years. He had a five-year-old daughter and a wife who was eight months pregnant. But it wasn’t until about seven years ago, when his daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, that he knew he had to make changes.

“At the rate I was going, I realized I probably wasn’t going to be around to help my wife take care of her. That’s what pushed me to quit smoking. About six months after that, we got Major, and I’ve been running with him ever since.”

Major, his black Lab, is their service dog and Wisneski’s primary exercise partner, along with the family’s other black Lab and a Malinois. The four-pack runs four to five miles every weekday morning, starting out at 4 am, before Wisneski goes to work On weekends, he and Major hit the trails around a local lake, where the dirt is a bit easier on the joints, running up to 16 miles in a day.

Wisneski, who now weighs 180 pounds and has completed five marathons, gives his dogs full credit for his good health. “Dogs don’t care if it’s raining. Dogs don’t care if it’s cold. Dogs don’t have another meeting to be at or some other obligation. Dogs are the best training partners ever. They just want to spend time with you.

If you’ve got to get up and go run, you’ve always got a partner to go with you.”

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, a certified vet surgeon based in Pennsylvania and author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, completely agrees. “People make up all kinds of excuses not to exercise, but dogs are always ready to go,” he says. Multiple scientific studies have shown that humans and canines derive similar physical, psychological and emotional benefits from exercise.

Zeltzman recommends that dogs of all ages have a complete physical exam before beginning any exercise program. He has a few other pointers as well: Tailor your activity to your dog’s breed, age, personality and health status. Start slow and progressively build endurance. If you and your dog are just starting to exercise, begin with simple walks, which can later morph into more strenuous activities. Read your dog for stress signals during and after exercise, particularly if your dog is a senior. However, age by itself isn’t a disqualifier, Zeltzman says. “Age is not a disease. I see 12-year-olds that act like six-year-olds.”

At the human end of the leash, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults—including those 65 and older who “are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions”—get 150 minutes per week of moderateintensity exercise, such as brisk walking. These 150 minutes can be broken into 10-minute increments throughout the day. So, taking a break for a quick stroll with the dog is possible for even the busiest among us.

Walking is a great starting point. “You don’t have to run for hours with your dog to benefit,” Zeltzman says. According to the American Council on Exercise, even modest exercise improves circulation, bringing more oxygen to the heart and muscles and decreasing both the risk and severity of many diseases. Like dogs, people need to start slowly and build up the intensity and duration of their walks. Zeltzman suggests that adding variety to an exercise routine will help ward off boredom; switching up the routine can also help avoid a workout plateau. Following are a few of Zeltzman’s suggestions for doing just that.

Stair walking. For a terrific workout that benefits both the cardio system and leg muscles, find a stairwell, either outdoors or indoors. A variety of types of stairs (such as spiral or half-turn stairs) and/or a variety of stair surfaces (wooden, concrete, brick) can add a distraction for the dog that will ultimately build overall confidence. This comes with a caveat, however: many dogs don’t care for open stairs, and they should not be attempted until your dog is a well-seasoned stair climber.

Hiking. Find a trail at a local park and hit the dirt surface. According to Zeltzman, every organ in our bodies benefits from this type of exercise. Add a few obstacles, such as crossing logs and climbing hills, and you’ve engaged even more muscles, built intensity and spiced up the adventure.

Resistance walks. Lakes and beaches are prime territory for this activity, which involves walking in shallow water and/or on dry or wet sand. Dry sand is the more strenuous option; walking in it exhausts muscles pretty quickly.

Fetch. Retrieving can be a great boredom-buster while walking or hiking. However, this doesn’t mean that you get to relax on a stump while your dog fetches the ball or toy. Rather, you’ll be moving quickly, either toward or away from the dog, during retrieves. A Frisbee or a portable ball launcher such as a Chuckit complements exercise routines.

Power walks. Recommended for physically fit humans and canines, power walking provides a thorough workout. The brisk pace interspersed with intervals of jogging or running and/or armpumping doesn’t allow time to stop and sniff. You can also mix it up with squats, fetch or another activity you both enjoy.

Swimming. Taking your dog for a swim is easy on the joints and great for building endurance. Introduce your pup to water slowly, perhaps starting with resistance walks in warm, shallow water. Add a floatable ball and retrieves can be enjoyed by all.

“Dogs are the best for a healthy, active lifestyle. If a dog is by your side, he doesn’t care what he’s doing. And if he gets to smell a park along the way, that’s a good day,” says Wisneski, who credits his canine exercise partners with saving his life every day.

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Bone Picking
For some unplugged fun, train your dog to find shed deer antlers.

Dogs shed hair, males of the deer family shed antlers. Granted, not a perfect analogy—antlers are dropped only once a year, after all—but it’s one way to remember that antlers, like dog hair, are renewable resources. Working with dogs to find these “sheds” is an increasingly popular activity. Many dogs love to chew on them (serious shed-dog enthusiasts don’t allow their dogs to do so, however, because it reduces their finding value with the dog), and hobbyists enjoy crafting with them.

Deer typically lose their antlers from late winter to early spring, which makes summer an ideal time to train your dog to find the bony castoffs. The first bit of good news is that the training is neither difficult nor expensive. The second is that many types of dogs can become skilled at shed recovery; it’s not breed-specific. Any dog who’s interested in retrieving and has a good nose—a very large category!—can do it.

“There are advantages with certain [types] of dogs, such as those with a natural retrieve, [but the dog] doesn’t have to be a Lab,” says Jeremy Moore, Wisconsin-based professional shed-dog trainer. “Plenty of dogs love to play fetch. It’s not overly complicated. You’ve got to have a plan and the right tools.” Moore advises training one element at a time and keeping it fun.

Before beginning shed training, however, it’s a good idea to work on a few foundation skills. For safety, Mike Stewart—professional dog trainer and owner of Wildrose Kennels, who has been training dogs for shed retrieval since 2005—recommends that you work with your dog to brush up on obedience. Sit and stay, of course, as well as recall; your dog needs to know how to stay with you in the wide open environments where most sheds are found. Integrate basic obedience training into your summer routine, both indoors and out and in a variety of locations.

It’s also important to home in on the retrieve. One way to do that—besides throwing a tennis ball—is to have the dog watch as you walk about 10 feet out in a straight line, place the ball on the ground, return and send the dog to fetch it. This helps develop her trailing memory, bridging the gap between retrieving a thrown ball and retrieving a ball—and later, antlers—on the ground.

Next, acclimate your dog to the smell of antlers by adding liquid antler scent, a mixture of deer blood and bone. Dot scent on a tennis ball and play familiar retrieval games. Use a green tennis ball and you’ll also have a tool for advanced training.

Stewart advises desensitizing your dog to other animals and wildlife, or you’re likely spend your shed time with the pup in pursuit of a squirrel. One way to do this is to train in public parks where there are plenty of distractions: birds, squirrels, other dogs, people.

Once your dog’s basic obedience is up to par, it’s time to train shed-specific skills. With a little patience, you can have a lot of fun. (A shout-out here to Jeremy Moore, who developed the three steps that follow.)

One: Condition the dog to the shape of the antler. Moore uses a safe, flexible dummy antler. “If [a dog] gets poked or jabbed, you’re going to have a dog who shies away from antlers.”

Play fetch games using the dummy. Start inside in a closed-door hallway, then take it to the back yard. Keep it fun and praise lavishly (baby talk is allowed). If heat is an issue, practice water retrievals by tossing the dummy into a pool or lake. The dummy floats, and your dog will connect the retrieve with a positive experience.

Two: Work the dog’s nose. Building on previous training, add antler scent to the dummy. Enjoy more games in retrieval mode, and have a party when your dog delivers.

Those green, antler-scented tennis balls come in handy at this stage. Roll one into green grass cover and tell your pup to find it. Voila! You’ve helped her connect with a familiar shape and added nose work.

“Associate the scent with the same reward [your dog] got for shape,” says Moore. Reward. Reward. Reward. Keep it exciting—don’t make it just another job. Your dog will gain confidence through consistent training.

Three: Condition your dog to the feel of real antlers. Called the “finishing antler,” this specimen should be very close to the dummy in size and shape to provide a smooth transition to the real deal. (Natural scent is found at an antler’s base, so don’t use a cut-off piece.) Enhance the specimen by adding a generous amount of antler scent.

Do familiar retrieving games, connecting the finishing antler with a positive activity. When you’re confident that your dog is comfortable with real antlers, place a few on the ground and in grass cover (just as they would be found in nature) and instruct her to find them.

From your back yard, move the game to a neighbor’s back yard or a park. Antlers cue her that it’s a retrieval party waiting to happen. However, resist the temptation to go big right away.

“Set your dog up for success. Don’t go from your back yard to a 40-acre field. Don’t overwhelm the dog with distractions,” Moore says.

As your dog’s training progress, widen the training environment. As Moore notes, “If the only place you train is your back yard, [your dog] will be very good finding shed only in the back yard.”

Finishing a shed dog combines exercising the body and engaging the mind. Mike Stewart takes the dogs he’s training out on acreage and walks in a zigzag pattern, cueing direction with his hands. Zigzagging covers more ground and provides dogs with a better chance for finds. If he sees that a dog is going flat and losing focus, he waits until she’s not looking and tosses out antlers he’s brought with him to renew her interest.

“Sooner or later, she has to find something, or she’s going to quit. Make finding shed special,” Stewart says. Pump your pup with success.