The Athletic & Working Dog Newsletter, Volume 7, Issue 1; January 2008

The Canine Workout Companion
Robert L. Gillette, DVM, MSE

A new area of veterinary sports medicine revolves around the dog as a workout companion.  This is a common scenario presented to the veterinary general practitioner.  There has not been a lot of reference material printed on the subject.  This article will try to address the pertinent information for use by the clinical practitioner.

The human-dog bond is strong to both participants.  The domestication of the dog has created a dependency by the dog for human interaction. Tuber, et al. (1996) showed that dogs, when faced with a novel or new environment, had significantly lower glucocorticoid values in the presence of a familiar human than when alone or in the presence of a littermate.  Bennet and Rohlf (2007) showed that strategies designed to increase participation in dog training activities and promote canine sociability may have significant benefits for both companion dog owners and their dogs.  From the human aspect, Brown (1991) states that physical fitness is an important general component of well-being.  This also seems to be true for the dog.  This information indicates that having a canine workout companion benefits the human, the dog and the human-dog relationship.

It is important that the workout be a positive experience for the owner. Failure to maintain the workout program is very common.  In general, of the individuals who initiate an exercise program, approximately 50% will drop out within 3 to 6 months (Dishman & Gettman, 1980).  The intent of a workout companion is to enhance the probability that the individual will adhere to the exercise program.  Participants in weight loss programs showed greater success when partnering up with another individual who was also losing weight (Gorin et al. 2005).  Another study showed that when a nurse contacted the program participant, program adherence was significantly higher than when the subjects were not contacted (Dubbert et al. 2002).  Most dogs are very excited to participate with their owner in joint activities.  Many times the owner perceives that the dog requests this from them, similar to the phone call from the nurse. The dog, if used correctly, has great potential to have a positive influence on the adherence to the exercise program.  At the same time there is potential for the dog to be a negative influence or to create a negative scenario which will result in subsequent program failure.

There are many factors to consider in relation to how participating in an exercise program together will affect the dog and the owner.  The breed of the dog, the type of exercise, what level of exercise the owner intends to pursue and the environment the activity will generally take place.  A very important factor that is usually overlooked by the general veterinary practitioner is the behavioral aspects of the dog, the owner and their relationship with each other.  Each of these factors affects the success of the program and which injuries or medical problems will be seen in relation to the various types of activities.

The Leash

The veterinarian should recognize that one very important factor of the canine workout companion is the leash.  Two common clinical presentations associated with the workout companion are hit-by-car and dog fight injuries.  It is very important for the clinician to discuss this with the owner.  When presented with the client interested in initiating a workout program with their dog, most veterinarians initially focus on the physiological aspects of the program and not the behavioral aspects. The exercise program will create a shift in the owner-dog relationship. Most owners understand how their dog reacts to them in the home environment.  The owner-dog relationship changes when the dog is exposed to the open limits of the outdoors and all of the new stimuli associated with the out-of-the-house experience.  Most pet owners do not expect this or know how to address this problem.  Using the leash provides a method of control and allows the two individuals to learn how to work with each other in the new environment.

Therefore the first aspect to be addressed by the veterinary practitioner, when discussing the pet dog as a workout companion, is utilizing the leash while teaching the dog the new activity for which it will be participating.  When the workout partners go for the daily exercise they are exposed to a new environment that predisposes the dog to potential injuries that they do not see at home.  Most exercise programs (walking, jogging, hiking, biking, roller blading, skijoring, etc) are performed outdoors.  They usually involve leaving the owner’s property and then passing or going through other properties or canine territories.  Common pathways include a street or a path along a street. Although car-jogger collisions are not a common occurrence (Williams 1981, Thompson 1982), they are one of the most preventable.  Most drivers will look for the human, but are not looking down at the dog’s level.  A dog not under leash control has many reasons to run into the street during the workout. This predisposes the unleashed dog to unnecessary, preventable hit-by-car injuries.  A leash allows the human workout partner to keep the dog free from these injuries.

As the team passes through the territories of other dogs there is an increased chance of dog fighting injuries.  It is common nature for a dog to react when another dog enters it’s territory.  This can result in a dog confrontation.  The leash allows the human to keep the canine workout companion moving and decreases the amount of time that the dogs are exposed to each other.  In addition, if a fight does erupt, the dog on the leash can be dragged away from the fight.  Most individuals mistakenly try to grab the collar of the dog when in a fight, which predisposes the owner to a dog bite.  Control with the leash reduces risk of injury to the handler.  In most dog fight incidences, if one dog can be controlled (via the leash) it can minimize the injury occurrence between the two dogs.

Introducing the Exercise Program

A training period is advised to address the behavioral and physiological aspects of the exercise regimen.  The dog needs to understand that the exercise period is different than a typical play period.  For example, a negative workout scenario is created when the male dog tries to mark his territory every ten yards.  This starting and stopping is disruptive to the intent of the exercise.  It makes it tough for their human counterpart to run the distances needed to provide for a good aerobic workout.  This can lead to a negative workout experience.  A training scenario has been described (Gillette 2004) to address this issue for those that will be jogging with their dog.  The idea is to introduce the exercise in a short distance.  If the dog tries to stop or does not want to follow the intended path they can be corrected.  They will soon learn that this is a positive experience they are having with their owner and it makes it easier to start going the longer distances.  The dog will start to enjoy the experience to a greater extent because the longer the run, the more time spent with their owner.  This training scenario lays the ground work for a positive workout experience which leads to a greater chance for exercise adherence.

The example is designed for the jogger, but it is also applicable to the bicycler, roller bladder, skijorer or any of the other endurance activities that occur at a higher pace than a walk or hike.  It helps to address both the behavioral aspect of the work out and the physiological aspect in relation to the dog.  The first time the dog runs with the owner, the run should be in a four-point “T” formation (Figure 1).  For example, if the distance of the first run is one mile, the first leg of the run should be ¼ mile.  Then turn around and head back to the point of origin.  As they reach the starting point the total distance of travel is ½ mile.  At this point the dog should be evaluated to see how the exercise is affecting them.  If it isn’t showing any deleterious signs, the run can continue out for another ¼ mile.  At this point the dog and owner should turn around and return back to the starting point.  A common mistake that owners make is, in a one mile run, they start running out for ½ mile and find the dog is too fatigued to continue.  Unfortunately, they are now ½ mile away from the beginning point and have to carry the dog home.

Figure 1. To avoid having the dog over-fatigue, design an exercise path that provides convenient resting or stopping sites. 1a) suggested path design 1b) incorrect path design

The distance of the exercise is then increased at a distance of one-half mile at a time for each subsequent workout.  As the distance is increased the behavioral training of the dog should be maintained so that it knows that as the workout distance increases this is still a workout time and not a play or workout disruptive time.

The dog’s physiology is designed for endurance, so it won’t take much time for it to attain the conditioning level needed to participate at the level determined to be the optimal amount of exercise for the owner.  At some distance the current physiological limit of the dog will be reached.  The workout distance is then set at a distance one-half of the last distance increase.  For example, if the distance of the last workout was 2 miles and the dog started showing fatigue signs at 2 ½ miles, the next workout distance should be 2 ¼ miles.  It will take about 4 – 6 workouts for the dog’s physiology to adapt and be ready for the next distance increase. The distance is then increased in increments of ¼ mile.  Run each new distance 4 times and then increase it again. If the dog shows signs of fatigue, back down to the previous distance for another 2 to 3 workouts before re-attempting the new distance.  Dogs vary in their ability to adapt to physiological conditioning.  Some owners may find that their dog can handle distance increases greater than ¼ mile.  In these cases it is not a problem to make greater increases, such as ½ mile or more.  Over a period of time, the owner’s expected exercise routine level will be attained.  Once this is achieved the two can proceed as a normal workout team.

Signs of Fatigue

The first sign that the dog is tiring, is a sigh. As the dog exercises, at some point the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) being produced is greater than the ability of the body to eliminate it.  The body will expel the extra COinitially by sighing.  Later, an increase in respiration is needed to address the increasing CO2 production related to work.  During exercise muscle activity is the main internal heat producer.  Of the energy expended by the muscles, 20% – 30% is utilized for work and 70% – 80% is released as heat.  This heat acts to increase the body temperature during exercise.  An increase in body temperature as a result of work is a normal event that is not detrimental to the conditioned dog.  The dog will start panting to address this temperature increase. The next thing that a dog does in response to the increase in body heat is to seek shade.  If the dog veers from the owner towards areas of shade that is a sign the dog is getting too hot.  Reluctance to continue is the next sign to appear.  When these signs begin to appear it time to discontinue the exercise.  The point to being thinking about quitting is when the dog begins panting. The owner should start heading towards the finish area when the dog has been panting for a couple of minutes. Once the dog begins shade-seeking or a reluctance to run has started, the workout should be stopped immediately and the dog carried back to the car or home to be cooled off.  Water and shade should be available for the dog at the workout end-point.  Ending at these times should minimize the chances of overheating, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  It is advised that the owner be educated on the causes, signs and management of these medical problems (Gillette 2002, 2006, 2007).

The pads and skeletal structure of the dog paw will also be affected by the increased activity.  If the workout introduction is done properly the structures of the paw should adapt to handle the friction and forces of repeated surface impact.

Harder surfaces, like asphalt, will have more affect on the pads. Softer surfaces, like a sandy beach, will have a greater affect on the muscles and tendons.  If introduced slowly, the pads will toughen and the bones, tendons, and ligaments will restructure themselves to handle the new workload.  Other problems will arise depending upon the various trash, glass, cans or other debris that is on the workout path.  Cuts and abrasions can be handled with the dog returning to its workout usually within two to three weeks.  This rest time will decondition the body of the dog.  The dog should restart at about half the distance of the previous distance and then be reassessed to determine subsequent workout distances.

Pre-Workout Examination

The dog should be evaluated to determine its competency to be included in a workout program.  The first step is to determine the breed or conformation of the dog.  The various breeds have their idiosyncrasies that would allow them to participate in specific activities.  Brachycephalic dogs are not necessarily suited to participate in long distance running. That isn’t to say that they could go for walks with their owner.  Then the dog’s age should be assessed.  An older dog may not have the ability to participate in some of the high energy or high impact activities as well as a younger dog.  There is some concern throughout the veterinary community that dogs less than a year of age should not participate in certain activities because it may disrupt their skeletal growth.  It is thought that continued numbers of high impact forces may negatively affect the growth plates.  Growing pains, or hypertrophic osteodystrophy, is a problem where overwork or high levels of extreme activity create epiphyseal inflammation.

The important concept for the veterinarian to remember in relation to introducing the dog to exercise is that too much too soon can create problems.  If exercise increases are introduced properly the musculoskeletal system will adapt appropriately and strengthen itself to handle the new forces.  Discuss the expectations of the owner and make sure the dog will be able to handle the rigors of the activity.  Select a workout program that fits the workout team.

The dog can make an excellent workout companion.  The exercise is good for the dog. It has both physical and psychological benefits.  The interaction with the owner will also improve their relationship and the exercise will have positive affect on the health of the owner.


Gillette RL, The Athletic & Working Dog Newsletter, (2004, 3:4 pp1-4), (2002, 1:3), (2006, 5:5 pp1-4), (2007 6:2, pp 1-4).

Tuber, et al. (1996), Behavioral and glucocorticoid responses of adult domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to companionship and social separation., Journal of Comparative Psychology,  Vol. 110, Issue 1

Bennet & Rohlf (2007). Owner-companion dog interactions: Relationships between demographic variables, potentially problematic behaviours, training engagement and shared activities.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 102, Issues 1-2, January, Pages 65-84.

Brown (1991), Staying fit and staying well: Physical fitness as a moderator of life stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 60, Issue 4

Dishman & Gettman (1980), Psychobiologic Influences on Exercise Adherence. Journal of Sport Psychology 1980, Vol. 2 Issue 4, p295-306

Gorin et al. (2005), Involving support partners in obesity treatment. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology. 73(2):341-3.

Dubbert et al. (2002), Effects of nurse counseling on walking for exercise in elderly primary care patients. Journals of Gerontology Series A-Biological Sciences & Medical Sciences. 57(11):M733-40.

Williams (1981) When Motor Vehicles Hit Joggers: an Analysis of 60 Cases, Public Health Reports, September-October, Vol. 96, No. 5, 448-451

Thompson (1982), Incidence of death during jogging in Rhode Island from 1975 through 1980. Journal of the American Medical Association. May 14; 247(18):2535-8.