By James Fell, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:56 PM EDT, October 10, 2012
I had two standard poodles growing up, and I remember channeling Barbara Woodhouse and calling in a high-pitched British accent, "Walkies!" and then watching my pets come unglued in anticipation.
I love dogs but can no longer own one because my lovely wife is allergic to anything with hair that has more than two legs. Our kids have pet reptiles. Taking the snake out for a slither just isn't the same, and bearded dragons hate leashes more than cats do. Sigh.
If you need motivation to move, it's hard to beat Canis familiaris to get you out the door. But note that a dog isn't an impulse buy like a Bowflex. You can't ignore them or let them become a coat rack. This is one workout partner you mustn't bail on. You've got to be a good human.
Dogs equal duty, and duty can be a powerful motivator for fitness. Puppy dog eyes that say "Wanna go outside?" can get you moving.
If you want a new four-legged friend to accompany you on your fitness endeavors, it's important to consider breed and build to make sure you're evenly matched. The dog for the workout warrior isn't the same one as for the casual walker. And some dogs swim well, while others should stay land-based.
"For any breed, you want to start out with an exam to give them a clean bill of health," says Idaho-based Marty Becker, the veterinarian for VetStreet.com and author of more than 20 books on pet ownership, including one called "Fitness Unleashed" about working out with your dog. You don't want to push your new pal too hard; they need to adapt to training just like humans do.
"You want to get them panting tired," Becker told me when I asked about how hard to let their pets work. "This will vary based on breed and age. You don't want them panting excessively. If they start falling behind or seeking shade, it's too much."
And it's not just older dogs you need to be concerned about taking it easy on, but younger as well.
"Wait until the dog is fully matured until you really start pushing the mileage," said Katrina Mealey, a professor of veterinary medicine at Washington State University. Mealey, who is a Boston-qualifying marathon runner, told me that certain breeds of dogs, once adapted to the distance, can make excellent training partners even for serious runners.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be a big dog," Mealey told me. "I have a Jack Russell terrier that, when he was younger, I could take running for 8 to 10 miles at a fast pace."
Mealey and Becker agree that there are simple but significant differences to identify which dogs are better workout warriors than others.
"Dogs with pushed in faces — pugs, Pekingese and Shih Tzus, for example — they have a hard time breathing normally," Becker said. "If you take them too far or too fast, they are at a risk of dying."
Mealey added that these short-muzzled dogs can't tolerate heat as well either.
What's more, such dogs, especially if they are bulkier or more muscular like a bulldog, aren't great swimmers. Actually, they sink.
But they can still be a good fitness companion for the walker. It's important to match the dog to the owner, and if you're not up for lengthy and intense exercise, an older dog and/or one that is bulkier with a shorter muzzle that isn't built for speed or endurance may be more your style. Little dogs like Yorkshire terriers and miniature poodles are good too. If you do happen to have a dog with more energy than you, there is always the game of fetch.
For the more ambitious athlete, you, of course, want the dog that simply looks fast: sleeker and with a longer muzzle. Although as shown with Mealey's Jack Russell, they don't have to be big.
Some specific recommendations from Becker and Mealey for dog breeds that are good distance runners are: border collies, German short-haired pointers, Dalmatians, Labrador and golden retrievers, whippets, greyhounds and standard poodles. Even if you want to run sprint intervals, they can keep up. These dogs also make good swimmers.
I asked Becker what he thought of using a dog as a swimming companion, and he thought it was a great idea. If you've got access to some open water and want someone alongside, a dog trained to swim is fine, but stay close to shore, just in case.
For the hiking aficionado, Becker said the Bernese mountain dog, Alaskan malamute and Siberian husky are all good choices. He also endorses doggy backpacks. "They can bring water and snacks," he said.
Some final words of caution from both experts are that if you don't fulfill your duties by exercising your pet, you're asking for behavioral problems. Dogs are not a home gym you can ignore.
Becker, who also wrote the book "The Healing Power of Pets," says that pet ownership is more than just having a dedicated workout partner.
"Pets don't just make us feel good, they are actually good for us," he told me. "There is a real affection connection. … It's a bedrock you can stand on. They help people learn empathy and responsibility, and there is a lot of evidence that they promote longevity."
So if you're ready to be a good human, there is a four-legged friend out there waiting to become your new workout partner.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
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