Getting Your Dog in Shape for Summer Outdoor Adventures

Dr. Mike Hinckley

Spring has Sprung!

After a long winter it is easy for us here in Bellingham to get excited for the summer months and all the great outdoor activities that are so easily accessible in our area. And what a better way to enjoy the outdoors than with our furry friends as companions! Whether running, biking, or hiking there are just a few things I would recommend when taking your dogs on the trails. Please note all dogs come in different shapes and sizes so these are solely general recommendations that you can use to guide your dog’s activity level.

Exercise in general:

We must remember that like most of us our K9 companions have not been exercising as frequently over the winter and they are exercising “off the couch” as well. Dogs feel the excitement of getting to go hiking or running but they don’t always know that they need to ease themselves into being active again. We certainly want to avoid injuries that can occur in this time period. To ease this transition back to being more active in the warmer months I would recommend starting with lower intensity shorter duration activities. Initially, avoid “forced” activity such as activates where your dog must keep up (running, or biking), or must repeatedly chase sticks or balls. Dogs can’t say no or know when to stop because they get so excited and just want to keep going. Good options to start would be short walks/hikes including some off-leash time to explore if your dog does okay under these circumstances, and swimming. Low impact activity to help increase muscle strength and general fitness is a great option. Building this general fitness base can help decrease the incidence of injury and sudden wear and tear such as foot pad injuries that can be compared to us running for the first time resulting in blisters. Ideally, we can build this base over the course of one month. Shoot for at least 1 hour of combined daily exercise 5 days a week. Once we feel that our dog has a good base of general fitness then don’t be afraid of increasing the intensity gradually. Running and biking become fair game. Gradually increasing intensity is best. Initially aim for 30 minutes of higher intensity activity 2-3 times a week. Pay close attention to how your dog responds to the increase in intensity including how they respond during activity, how their feet look before and after, and how their mobility seems the next few days. If they seem sore, then adjust accordingly. If they seem to be handling things well then increase duration and eventually you will have a dog that can run for long periods injury free.

Special considerations:

  • Surface: Pay close attention to the surface you will be on as pavement can be more pounding, hot, or abrasive then some other surfaces.
  • Heat: temperature when exercising can make a huge impact on how dogs respond to exercise as well as how their feet respond to wear. During the warmest summer days try to exercise in the cool hours of the morning or evening
  • Access to food and water: as a general rule, if you are going on an adventure long enough that you take food and water for yourself make sure you have a small snack and a water plan for your dogs as well
  • Weight: maintaining a healthy weight is a very important aspect of your pets long term health. If your dog is overweight, consider more regular lower intensity exercise to aid in weight loss and avoid injury. Weight loss plans and goals should be carefully discussed with your veterinarian
  • Young Dogs: dogs less than one year of age, in particular large breed dogs, still have open growth plates so their activity should be much more limited. Again avoid “forced” activity including running long distances, long duration ball chasing, or long duration of play with more adult dogs. Swimming is a great activity as it is low impact.
  • Old Dogs: middle age to older dogs (greater than 8 years of age) tend to be more prone to soreness and other injuries after exercise. Consider avoiding higher intensity activity until a good base of fitness is apparent. Avoid long weekend warrior activities without proper training. If you notice any worsening in your older dog’s mobility discuss this with your veterinarian as joint supplements or other therapies may be indicated. Maintain appropriate exercise is important as dogs age and light regular activity is great even for dogs with arthritis as it helps maintain muscle mass and joint health.
  • Collars/Harnesses: watch for any rub marks or abrasions at contact points and resize / refit as needed
  • Vaccines and deworming: active dogs naturally encounter more in their environment than other pets. Two things to keep in mind would be to keep them current on their leptospirosis vaccine (for protection from a bacterium that can be found in standing water) and to deworm them regularly  for intestinal parasites with Interceptor Plus.
  • Other benefits: Not only is exercise good for your dog but they love it! It can help with some behavioral changes, training, and can even help make sure that you get out and be active as well

I hope these few ideas will help you and your dogs getting out and being active this summer! See you on the trails! – Dr. Mike Hinckley