What follows is my attempt to hash through my research about muscle development and maintenance. Please note that I am not an expert–click through my sources for more authoritative information.
Their are two topics that really dominate dog-fitness discussions outside of the dog-sports community.
First, it’s well documented that the average American dog is overweight. There’s a great overview of obesity here at Dog Aware, which is a licensed reprinting of an article originally from the Whole Dog Journal. While it’s important for an overweight dog to get some exercise as part of his or her recovery, exercise alone is not enough.
The other driving topic in these discussions is the fact that elderly dogs lose muscle as they age, especially in their rear ends. This aggravates other elderly dog problems, like arthritis, and contributes to the difficulty elder dogs have in situations like climbing stairs getting up from the floor. (Although, as this article points out, regular “old dog” symptoms can also be other medical conditions.)
Where does that leave young, not-overweight dogs? How much muscle development does a non-sporting dog need to be healthy? My research has not turned up a definitive answer there. Most resources on dog fitness programs are written for competition dogs, who have very specialized needs. It’s logical to say that a certain level of muscle development is a vital to aging well, since muscle weakness contributes to mobility problems. It’s also logical to say that your dog needs to be able to do the things he loves–an ability that, for most dogs, will naturally come from simply doing that thing.
There are some really fascinating tidbits out there, though. For instance, a dog who “is not fatigued . . . will have good control of his core muscles and his back will not sway appreciably [as he walks]. As he tires, these muscles fatigue and back movement becomes loose” (Sarah Foster, Canine Cross Training). Which means, a stronger core will help your dog go on longer walks. Dogs who have better baseline fitness and strength are also better able to twist, turn, run, and to recover from doing those things, which is obviously useful both on a sporting course and in everyday life. According to Dr. Carol Helfer, “A few simple exercises can dramatically change a dog’s quality of life. In athletic dogs, the proof is in their continued good health, enhanced performance, and absence of injuries. Elderly and sedentary dogs benefit, too, and they quickly show increased range of motion and a renewed enthusiasm for activities” (The Whole Dog Journal November 2007).
It’s somewhat easier to find advice about what kinds of exercises to do. The article I linked in the previous paragraph has a great list, but I suspect it’s behind the WDJ paywall. If you are very serious and have the room for fitness equipment, Sarah Foster’s Canine Cross Training is worth a look. SlimDoggy has some great resources–my favorites are here and here. I also love this visual representation from So Fly. While fetch can be great exercise, do make sure that you aren’t causing potential injury, especially for a dog who isn’t already well-conditioned. I think Susan Garrett’s warning in this blog post is crucial.
I’ll be posting some followups to this conversation over the next few weeks. My main interest is to keep Silas in shape, even though our ability to go for walks is at an all-time low right now. The specifics of that process will be the focus of future installments. If you find canine fitness to be generally interesting, I’m pinning my findings to this Pinterest board.