As summer approaches, we are all eager to get outside and be more active. Whether it’s training for a race, working toward that next fitness goal, or exploring the beautiful nature trails the Bay Area has to offer, everyone can use an exercise companion. And who better to bring along then your loyal dog? He or she is always willing and ready to go on an adventure with you. However, as eager as they may be, dogs can suffer from sore muscles, joint pain, and ligament or tendon injuries just like we do.
Before starting any serious exercise regimen or training program with your dog, it is important that he be examined by a veterinarian to ensure that he is healthy and does not have any physical limitations. Your vet will confirm whether your dog suffers from joint disease, heart disease, or other health conditions that might limit his abilities. Certain safety precautions may also need to be considered based on your dog’s age, weight, and type of hair coat. If any of these conditions exist, your vet can help you determine the appropriate activity level for your dog and how to avoid injury. For example, if you have a brachycephalic dog (short- faced breeds such as English or French bulldogs and pugs), it is critical to skip high levels of outdoor activity during the heat of the day to avoid respiratory issues.
Don’t be a weekend warrior: Many dogs spend the majority of the week resting, with little to no exercise. This could leave them unprepared for the level of exercise they may experience on a weekend if you take them for a long hike, run, or romp at the beach. This will make your dog more susceptible to overuse injuries, which often go unnoticed for long periods of time. If you plan to take your dog on rigorous weekend excursions, begin introducing regular (at minimum two to three times per week) and progressively longer walks. Work up to incorporating hills, varied terrain, and some trotting on these walks so your pup is ready for challenges on the weekend.
Warming up is important: Prior to starting any exercise, aside from the casual leash walk, it is important to warm up. Even though you may be anxious to start that run, be sure to start with a 10-minute walk. The benefits to this type of warm up include raising the heart rate in preparation for exercise, helping muscles utilize oxygen and nutrients more effec-tively, and generally decreasing the risk of injury and stiffness. It will be good for both your dog and you.
Dogs need to stretch, too: After a 10-minute warm up, take a minute to stop and stretch. An important and often overlooked area that our canine friends need to stretch prior to exercise is the spine. One simple way to stretch the spine is with a “cookie stretch.” To perform a cookie stretch, use your hands or a small treat to lead his head from a normal forward facing position to one shoulder, then lead him to move his head to the other shoulder. Next lead him to look up to the sky; and, finally, down to the ground. If your dog is flexible, you can also guide his nose to one hip and then the other.
Cool down … ahh, time to relax: It’s easy to finish your exercise and quickly move on to the next task of the day, but it is important to make time for a cool down. Cooling down allows the heart rate to safely return to a resting level, it helps the body eliminate lactic acid (which can reduce the risk of stiffness after exercise), and may allow you to quickly identify signs of injury after exercise. A cool down should include a 10-minute walk on a loose leash and then stretching of the major muscle groups. You can do this with your dog standing or lying down; however, most dogs will likely prefer to stay standing. Starting one limb at a time, the goal is to flex and extend all the joints from the toes to the shoulder and hips. This can be done by moving the limb in a scissor-like motion parallel to the body. Extend the front leg forward and hold the stretch for three to five seconds. Then fold the limb so that each joint is in a flexed position and hold for three to five seconds. Repeat three times, then move on to the next limb. For the hind limbs, it will be the opposite: Extend the leg out behind your dog and then flex forward. You can also stretch the spine as outlined above.
Be on the lookout for subtle signs of injury: Signs your dog has sustained an injury may include the obvious, such as limping or holding up a limb. However, sometimes the signs are more subtle, such as decreased appetite, increased panting, cringing when touched, or an unwillingness to go on walks or play. If you see any of those signs, your pet should be examined by a veterinarian to determine the nature and severity of the injury.
Jen DiMascio, D.V.M., C.C.R.T., C.V.A., is certified in veterinary physical rehabilitation and acupuncture. She recently relocated from New York City after working at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in the Rehabilitation and Integrative Medicine Department. She is excited to have joined the team at Holistic Veterinary Care and Rehabilitation Center in Oakland to provide these nonconventional options for Bay Area pets. In her spare time DiMascio, her husband, daughter, and dog, Ottley, enjoy outdoor activities in the Bay Area.
Main article photo by: Photo by Nick Harris-CC