How often do we take a look out of the window and, seeing the interminable grey of a British winter or another cloud of drizzle, inform the dog that this is going to have to be a short walk? Our Labradors have rebelled and have pointed out that they were designed for inclement weather and it’s about time that I put some effort into varying the theme of a morning meander across the fields. I’m conscious that not everyone has the luxury of fields or a beach nearby, so I’ve put on my thinking cap to come up with some other options. Hopefully, there’ll be one or two suggestions below that might inspire us all to get out there and actually have fun with our dogs.
Just like us, our dogs come in all shapes and sizes and, just like us, they will benefit from a mixture of exercise that gets the heart pumping and loosens up those tight muscles. Many of us find it hard to get ourselves down to the gym, despite our best intentions, so here are some ways in which we can combine healthy exercise for both ourselves and our dogs. The beauty of this is that you can simply select one or more activity that suits your needs best, so here goes…
The simplest of all is to encourage your dog to fetch. Surprisingly, not all dogs will fetch a ball instinctively, but most dogs will enjoy learning this simple but rewarding skill. Select an object – a ball or a Frisbee is far better than a stick which has the potential to cause your dog real harm – and the benefit of having to bend down to collect the object and the repeated throwing action will be beneficial to any one of us in building endurance and loosening off muscles you may have forgotten you had. Most dogs will not mind if the ball doesn’t go a huge distance but, over time, you may find that your throwing skills improve.
Many dogs like to take a few minutes out to give the ball or Frisbee a good chewing so try to select a toy that is resilient to chewing and is easy to throw. My dogs invariably chew the edges of a Frisbee so keep inspecting the leading edges for sharp areas which can be removed fairly simply and smoothed down once you get home.
Very few dogs have had any formal soccer coaching, but most are complete naturals with any kind of a ball and I’ve never met a dog who could resist the yellow, fluffy appeal of a tennis ball, which is easy and rewarding to kick as well as throw. Even small dogs will love a football, but it will need to be pumped up very firmly if you are to avoid the inevitable bite puncture followed by the proudest dog on the planet bringing you back a half-deflated ball as a sacrificial offering. Football professionals run for around nine miles every game and, while you’re unlikely to want to imitate that, your dog will cover a great deal of ground with a mixture of sprinting and trotting during even a short session with the ball.
If space is at a premium, we can learn a trick or two from our children who often play a game of dashing from one mark to another. It’s a bit like the equivalent of swimming widths from side to side, rather than lengths from end to end, but dogs will love to race you in this very basic form of circuit training. As with all exercise, it’s helpful to warm up first and your dog’s muscles and joints will thank you for a gentle warm up before and a gentle warm down after any strenuous exercise. Another child’s game is hide and seek and most dogs will delight in finding a biscuit that you’ve hidden. Play the game with your dog’s own toys and the excitement level will continue to build, especially if combined with rewards for fetching a toy once it’s found. My Labradors absolutely love the ‘throwing a dog biscuit into the hedge’ game and will play this for hours if given the opportunity.
If you get the chance, just going for a different, previously undiscovered, walk with your dog provides them with an exciting opportunity to discover a range of new smells and paths and, if you talk to the dog as you go along, this is a great way to bond with your pet.
These are all fairly contained opportunities that can happen just as easily in an urban setting as somewhere more rural, but if you can have access to the great outdoors, even if not every day, why not consider camping with your pet? It doesn’t have to be a lavish set up, even a lightweight two-man tent will be enough for you and your best friend to manage an overnight stay somewhere and better still if you can go with human friends too, even if they don’t have dogs of their own. A little bit of planning will ensure that you can pitch a tent at a campsite with all the necessary facilities to ensure that your stay is safe, legal and hygienic.
Of course, if you can get access to open land or a beach the opportunities to have fun and take exercise with your dog are boundless. Just remember that not all beaches welcome dogs and farmers or land-owners may have very good reasons for discouraging you from walking on their land, especially at certain times of year when there may be livestock and young animals around. Walking a dog through cattle, especially if there are calves in the field, can be really dangerous so, again, give your chosen activities some preparatory thought to minimize danger and to check that whatever you plan to do and wherever you plan to do it is acceptable to those whose land you’ll be walking on. The UK has an amazing network of public footpaths and there is a huge range of books and guides available highlighting suitable walks together with a description of the terrain and the duration of the walk.
Just like us, dogs can get arthritis, diabetes and cardiac problems but taking exercise together, ensuring that it is appropriate exercise for both of you, can be a real win-win activity that encourages health and builds on the existing bond between you and your best friend. Oh yes, and finally the most important advice; don’t forget that activity will dehydrate dogs, so ensure that they have access to plenty of water at all times and the opportunity to rest after strenuous activity.