The sun is out, the trees are blooming, the days are long. Suddenly, it’s a whole lot easier to get out and play. And while I’d like to believe you’ve been putting in long hours at the park, lake or on trails all winter long, based on my own example, I’m going to assume there is, well, room for improvement. So in the spirit of progress, here are a few suggestions for jump-starting a healthy, happy, active season—which we’ll hopefully continue during colder, darker months (but I don’t even want to think about that right now).
1. Be your pup’s personal trainer
We sometimes think of dogs as canine Lance Armstrongs who can leap off the couch after basically hibernating all winter to tackle the Tour de Whatever. But despite their can-do tail-wagging, out-of-shape quadrupeds get cramps, develop sore muscles and even become exhausted without proper conditioning. It’s important to build up strength and endurance with a variety of activities, i.e., cross-training. Add spice to walking with jogging, sprinting and trail hiking, retrieving games, hide-and-seek, pack-play with other dogs and organized workouts, such as Agility (in the living room on rainy days) and lure coursing (The Bark, October 2007). If you’re lucky enough to have a water dog, swimming is an excellent, low-impact workout.
Extra weight is the other big boondoggle here. Lots of dogs put on a few extra pounds watching you watch TV all winter, and that weight is tough on joints and conditioning. Talk with your veterinarian about strategies for helping your dog lose weight gradually—cutting back on treats and excess food is the obvious start.
2. Trim more than fat.
Keep your dog’s nails short. This is important year-round but in the summer, claws can become snagged, broken or painful on long walks or trail hikes. Also, some full-coated dogs cope better with the heat if their fur is clipped. However, you shouldn’t shave your dog completely, as this removes his sunburn protection.
On the subject of sunburn, remember that animals are vulnerable “on any area where fur is particularly thin or where there is no skin pigment, like dogs with pink noses,” says Dr. Mark Stickney, director of General Surgery Services at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “I would recommend a sunscreen that is specifically for pets. These are formulated to be safe if the pet licks them off and are available at any pet store.”
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3. Test your gear in advance.
Before you expect your dog to willingly drink from a squirt bottle, or trot along happily wearing a loaded pack, or cooperatively don booties in the backcountry, practice with your gear at home. Our dog unexpectedly hated our tent the first time we went backpacking. She barked if we left her outside but wouldn’t crawl into the weird cave with us. We all ended up sleeping out in the open with her. Good thing it wasn’t raining.
4. Learn about heat.
Heat is tough on dogs—who don’t perspire and cool down as efficiently we do. Learn to read the signs of overheating (hyperthermia), which can be fatal. Is your dog falling behind and dropping his head? Is he panting excessively, having difficulty breathing, weaving, or vomiting? Dogs who have overheated need to be cooled down—with a hose, in a cool stream—and immediately taken to a veterinarian. Be even more prepared for heat and other dangers by taking a pet first aid/CPR class.
As daytime temperatures climb, schedule outings for mornings and evenings. When the going gets real hot, leave your pal at home, especially for high-intensity activities, such as mountain biking and trail running. Also, it’s not just the air temperature you need to monitor. Remember, hot pavement, sand and stone can burn a pup’s pads.
5. Practice how to have fun out there.
A little training goes a long way for summer adventures. Train your trail pooch not to chase wildlife. Some hikers practice this in a yard or park with birds and squirrels. When a dog spies a bushy brown tail, a flickering feather, or the whiskers of a neighbor’s cat, tell her to sit or stay and provide rewards for proper restraint. There are plenty of moments on a trail—log bridges or narrow ledges—or even along a busy street, when a dog suddenly pulling on a leash can be treacherous.
Also, train your dog to wait, sit, or stay at water sources, especially when thirsty. This protects her from slurping tainted waiter.
Finally, stop giving your dog a pass on pulling and sniffing during walks. “You’re walking the dog, the dog isn’t walking you!” says Brendan Fahey, veteran dog walker/jogger and owner of Jogs with Dogs in Seattle. Notice how people often jerk their dogs away from fire hydrants, other dogs, cats and squirrels? Everyone seems frustrated and progress is slow. “Keep your dog next to you and the leash short (less than 12 inches from your hand to the collar), and you’ll both have a much more productive walk. The second you see or feel your dog’s body language change, give him a gentle light correction (eventually you can just give a sound). A week of walking with your dog next to you (instead of in front!) will change your walks forever, and you’ll have a much more enjoyable walking partner.”
What have I missed? How do you prepare for the dogs days of summer?