Last year certainly took us on a wild ride. We aren’t through with COVID-19 yet—or at least it isn’t done with us—and we hope the light at the end of the tunnel is not another oncoming locomotive, but rather a glimpse of spring daylight. So many of us and our pets have put on extra weight since last March, and I hear jokes about “the COVID-15” all of the time. With changes to our schedules, less access to gyms and pools, and no organized sports or group classes, most of us have lapsed in our exercise regimens. How excited can you stay with the umpteenth Zoom class in your living room? In many instances, our pets have gained weight and gotten out of condition, too: We’re home with them, and they have honed their begging skills to the hilt. Here are a few suggestions to help us all ameliorate this.
Almost all dogs need to go outdoors to eliminate, so let’s take the opportunity to go out with them and take them on a walk, even if they have a fenced yard or potty space. A brisk walk in the cold air invigorates them and us, we simply need to be prepared for the weather. For us, a warm coat, hat, mittens or gloves, and non-skid shoes or boots are needed, as well as a coat and shoes with some water resistance if it is raining, as will be typical. I’ve found a headlamp is useful, too, as before and after work for me it is pitch black outside. I need to see the dog poop to be able to pick it up for disposal, and with a flashlight in one hand and a leash in the other, I don’t have a good scooping hand free. If it is icy, add some traction to the bottom of your footwear (YakTrax or similar over-the-shoe devices work really well). And take your time on ice, don’t get into a hurry: Once we start to slip, we can hit the pavement fast and be injured. If your dog tends to jerk or pull, ice may not be the surface to navigate with them on leash.
Be certain your dog is equipped for the cold and rain, too. The majority of dogs won’t need a coat for short walks, but for anything beyond the basic elimination foray, they might. If it has snowed or iced, booties are a good idea to keep all of the salt or other nasty de-icing chemicals off their tender paws, as well as to keep ice balls from forming between their toes. Wiping down your dog’s feet once you return indoors will also remove most of the salt and other foreign material from those feet. If your dog doesn’t tolerate boots or foot wiping, this will be a good training objective: to get acceptance of foot handling. Think of how nice it will be when they allow you to inspect and wipe their feet, trim their toenails, etc. This may take more patience than you expect, but as with all training, patience and repetition are key. Start with just touching a foot with a towel, then rewarding your dog with a treat.
Games we play with our dogs in better weather can still be great exercise: Ball, stick or frisbee retrieval, tug-of-war (for those who don’t take it over the top), or “interval training”—i.e., where we walk for one minute, then jog for 20 seconds, walk for one minute, jog backwards for 20 seconds, walk for one minute, “glide” sideways for 20 seconds, etc.—raise our heart rates and keep our dogs guessing and paying attention to us. Where it is snowy, snowshoeing or skijoring are super workouts. Another tip: Be sure retrieval items are brightly colored for snowy conditions, so they can stand out.
Indoor training also keeps minds sharp. Reviewing or rehearsing tricks and skills is always a good place to start, then go on to teach new ones. Working on a good “stay” is never amiss. Tug-of-war (for those dogs for whom it is appropriate), fetch down a long hallway, going up and down stairs with us if there are no orthopedic concerns, or investigating dog sports like canine freestyle dancing (check it out online) are all great ways to interact with our canine buddies and give both of us some mental and physical exercise.
Our months of social distancing and mask wearing will begin to pay off as vaccinations start to permeate more of society, and by next year at this time, we’ll be looking back and saying we made it through.
Dr. Frost received her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Reed College, her Master’s degree in Zoology (Neuroscience) from the University of Iowa, and her DVM from Oregon State University. She started practice in a rural setting in southwest Washington, where she saw bald eagles and great blue herons daily. Although southwest Portland doesn’t offer quite the same scenic views, Dr. Frost loves being part of a family practice, being able to walk to work and when it isn’t cloudy, and seeing Mt. Hood on her daily walks.