Dogs need a good stretch, too

Jason Hidalgo

In the canine kingdom, weiner dogs are the stretch limousines.

That doesn't mean, though, that they're the only dogs that could use a good strreeetch.

Just ask Beth Williams, a physical therapist, who's putting her burly dog, Nitro, through the paces of her dog stretching program in a vacant room next to Dog Training by P.J. in Reno.

"He's gonna show off for you now," said Williams as Nitro's eyes light up in anticipation of strutting his stuff.

On William's request, Nitro, a 6-year-old Rottweiler, offers up one paw, which Williams dutifully stretches. With one leg done, a content-looking Nitro offers up the other paw. Soon, Nitro is stretching up, down and from side to side as his eyes follow a treat hidden in Williams' hands.

Getting a big, honking dog to do "cookie stretches" just looks so gosh-darned cute. But the rationale behind Williams' exercises goes beyond reducing onlookers to canine-induced laughs and praise via baby talk.

For Williams, the stretches are the first step to a full-fledged fitness program that also includes strength training and endurance exercises. Remember the mantra of stretching before you exercise? Turns out the same thing applies to our four-legged friends, too.

Don't think you'll just be slacking off while your dog gets into shape, either. The program — which goes by the names "2-4 Fitness" (i.e. two legs and four legs) and "Fido N' Me Fitness" — is designed to incorporate fitness for both man and best friend, said Williams' dog-training partner, P.J. Wangsness Howle.

"It's a great way for people and their pets to be able to stay fit and not have to do a more traditional-style workout like running," Howle said. "There are just so many things you can do with your dog than go out and jog."

Through thick and thin
Whether you're flipping newspaper pages or television channels, one piece of health news seems to pop up over and over: Americans are getting fat.

Unfortunately, dogs also are mirroring their calorie-chomping masters.

"There's an epidemic of diabetes and obesity in the human population," Williams said. "And yes, we're seeing it in animals, too."

The similarities don't end there, Williams said. As a physical therapist who works on both humans and dogs, Williams said she's seen her fair share of people and canines limping into her practice with conditions ranging from muscle strain to tendinitis. Even treatment modalities — heat, cold and ultrasound — can be the same for both, she said.

The best scenario, though, is to prevent problems before they even start, Williams said. And when it comes to prevention of many injuries, Williams believes that a good exercise regimen would do the trick for both her two- and four-legged clients. For that, the formula is quite similar as well: address flexibility, strength and endurance.

Dogs who do demanding agility exercises, for example, are especially susceptible to getting injuries. So are their handlers, who run along their dogs as they zip through agility courses. One way to reduce injuries is to stretch, especially before doing any activity.

In their six-class program, Williams and Howle start by teaching their students how to properly stretch their dogs through proper motivation. Students also get a pedometer and information materials, and they're taught how to take their own and their dog's heart rate as well.

Depending on the size and breed of your dog, this helps you monitor your pet's activity.

"It's important that we stay in our target heart range and that the dog does as well," Howle said. "Dogs will go forever. If you throw the ball 48 times, the dog will chase it 48 times. You don't want to overexert them."

Let the dog out
Once the basics are out of the way, the class eventually moves on to the stations at Mira Loma park. There, you can get your dog to do strength building exercises like doggie push-ups or have them crawl under stations. You can even teach your dog to do his own version of the jumping jack while you do your jumping jacks, as well.

Students also will be taught to come up with an exercise routine that matches their dogs' abilities.

"This dog is not a ballerina," said Williams as she motions toward Nitro. "He's a linebacker. So his program will differ from a greyhound or even a puppy because they have more flexibility."

Dogs aren't the only ones who are taught personalized exercise routines. Depending on age and fitness levels, their human counterparts also are taught to do variations on the same exercise, from straight push-ups from the ground to easier chair push-ups — even wall push-offs for those who can't do the latter.

Then there are the little details like paying attention to how hot pavement gets during the summer or special care for non-furry dogs during outdoor romps in the winter.

By taking the class, Williams and Howle said they hope owners will learn more about themselves and their dogs so exercising will be more enjoyable and, as such, more effective. Just taking off a few pounds from a person and big dog can make a big difference in reducing joint injuries.

Walking usually puts four times the body weight on joints for both people and dogs. If you take off four pounds, that's similar to taking away 20 pounds of extra stress on those joints, Williams said.

Tamera Buzick of Reno, who took the course this summer, said the things she learned such as stretching have made a big difference with her English cocker spaniel, Dozer, who was starting to get injuries from doing agility. It also has made their walks more fun.

"We'll be walking the course and we do something at every stop — I'll do push ups, he'll do something," Buzick said. "And dogs truly make good workout partners. When he knows it's time to go for a walk, he'll whine and cry and drive me crazy 'til we go out. They're not like people who may go, ‘I just don't feel like exercising today.'"

Besides fitness, there's also one more extra incentive for learning more things you can do with your dog, Williams added.

"They need a job to do," Williams said. "If you don't give them a job, they will make their own job, which may be redoing the landscape in your lawn or terrorizing the UPS man. It's so much better if the human teaches what job to do."

Dog Training by P.J. offers its six-class "2-4 Fitness" course in either a six-week one class per week format or three-week and two classes per week format. Cost is $110. Two introductory classes also will be held this month -- Oct. 18, 4:15 to 5 p.m. and Oct. 29, 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. -- at 5303 Louie Lane, No. 19. Details: 828-0748.

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