by: Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB
It's hard to come to terms with the realities of owning an old dog. My lovely English Setter turned 12 years old in March. For 11 of these 12 years, we started nearly every morning with a jog through the wooded trails near my home. Each week I ran 15 to 20 miles, and my dog probably ran twice that distance racing ahead and then behind me, chasing squirrels and interesting smells.
All his life the one thing my dog has really loved to do is to go for walks. He's never been interested in chasing balls or playing with toys—but about a year ago our daily walks had quite suddenly become meandering and ambling saunters.
When I first noticed that he had slowed down and lost muscle tone, I thought maybe he was just out of shape so I pushed him a little bit harder. But it became clear that his stamina wasn't what it used to be and he was losing coordination in his hindquarters, as some large dogs do. That's when I decided that we would just have pleasant leisurely long walks exploring the scenic parks of the Northwest coastal areas. Our walks Included a lot of sniffing and rest breaks, and I had to make sure they were shorter than 3 miles and didn't have steep uphill climbs, which he struggled with.
The slower pace of our walks was very pleasant. It gave me an opportunity to enjoy the scenery and really see the beautiful plants and wildlife of the region, including bald eagles, hawks, spring peepers, coyotes, rabbits, bumble bees, and hummingbirds. I took time to study the mountain profiles and watch the clouds move lazily across the sky.
As the months went by I began to notice that my clothes were feeling a bit snug. There are a number of reasons I gained 20 pounds last year, but the change in exercise routine with my aging dog was definitely one of them.
At some critical point I began asking for advice. My friends had so many great ideas that would surely work. I should join the local rowing club. I should lift weights at the gym. I should take up biking. The problem with all these wonderful ideas is that they would mean spending time exercising that I would normally spend with my dog. And honestly, I would rather be overweight than miss out on any time with him.
I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person with common sense, but I was stumped. After months of increasing distress and a growing waistline, a few weeks ago I came up with what I believe is a satisfactory solution, and I wanted to share it with a community of dog owners who might at some point find themselves in a similar situation.
Each morning for the past two weeks my dog and I have set out on our 90-minute walk. He ambles along casually, stops to sniff or pee on every bush, and sometimes he just lays down in the shade to cool off and rest. At the same time, with leash in hand, I have done a challenging cardio workout by running in place for about 30 minutes, moving forward just enough to keep up with my dog. Sometimes I run in place backwards, do jumping jacks, or alternating knee lifts. If the park has a set of stairs, I tie my dog at the bottom where he lays down comfortably and watches while I run up and down the stairs, sometimes two at a time. If our walk takes us along a street, I step up and down on the curb in sets of 50. The Northwest is known for its very large cedars, so when I pass a tree that's at least 18 inches in diameter, I pause to do wall push ups against the trunk. Yoga is another activity that I really enjoy, so about halfway through our dog walk, I stop at a park bench or picnic table for about 20 minutes to do some standing yoga—the warrior pose, extended triangle, upward salute, and forward bend being some of my favorites. My dog lays under the table either watching me or other dogs who pass by.
I've only recently started to put the ‘old dog walk exercise routine’ into place, so I don't yet have any evidence that it will improve my fitness or melt off the pounds, but I'm feeling optimistic (and I’ll give some credit for my positive attitude to the increase in my daily exercise.) The most rewarding part of the new routine is that my dog gets to spend quality outdoor time in the park, is comfortable with the pace, and seems to simply enjoy spending time with me.