Winter is here!
And with that comes the accumulation of snow and ice along with frigid temperatures outside making it increasingly difficult or even dangerous to exercise (and run) our dogs outdoors. Many people take the leap and invest in a treadmill to help exercise their dogs during these winter months. I personally am a huge fan of using dog treadmills for exercise, not only in the winter but year round! It is important to understand to some basic treadmill information to make sure you are getting the most out of your treadmill with your dog!
This is probably one of the most important things to remember when working your dogs in the winter (in any capacity not just the treadmill!). It is extremely important that you appropriately warm up your dog before any type of exercise or even sports specific training you might be doing. You should be doing this year round, but it is especially important in the winter when it gets colder. Your warm up doesn't have to be fancy. It could be as simple as taking your dog out of their crate (or getting them off the couch!) and getting them to move around a bit before you put them on the treadmill. You can even have them do some fun tricks to help warm up, like having them do some spins or weave between your legs, etc. When you first get your dog on the treadmill I almost always start out with at least 5 minutes of walking (preferably not on an incline) to warm them up for their treadmill workout. And don't forget about cooling your dog down when they are ending their workout as well!
So what is stride length? Stride length is defined as the measure of one footfall to the next footfall of the same limb. So why is this important when it comes to treadmills? This is extremely important when looking at what treadmill is appropriate for your dog! If we pick a treadmill with a belt that is at or shorter than our dog's stride length, then we are going to be shortening their stride due to the lack of running surface. This can lead to many problems and should be avoided. Many human treadmills have running decks that are much too short for the average dog's stride length (with the exception of smaller dogs of course). If you already have a treadmill you can watch your dog walking or trotting on it and watch their footfalls (or better yet video it and watch it in slow-mo!) and see if they appear to be fully extending in their stride.
You can attempt measure your dog's stride length by laying them on their side and putting their front and rear limb in extension and measuring the distance, however this may take multiple people and many dogs may not tolerate this. If you do achieve this then you want to make sure that you add 5-10" to your measurement to allow for a little extra room. Most dog specific treadmill companies have charts they have compiled of different dog breeds and sizes of dogs and what their stride length is and what size treadmill from their company that translates to.
Speed is crucial in achieving the optimal treadmill workout with your dog. Each dog's speed setting on the treadmill is completely unique to them and most dogs will not have the same settings. In order to figure out the appropriate speed for your dog on the treadmill, let's first look at what gait we are aiming for our dog to be performing while on the treadmill; the walk and the trot.
Walk: Every dog that goes on a treadmill should be able to perform a solid balanced walk gait. This is the slowest gait of the dog in which 2 or 3 feet are on the ground at any given time and it is the only canine gait in which there are ever 3 feet on the ground. The footfall pattern for the walk is right rear (RR), right front (RF), left rear (LR), left front (LF).
Trot: The trot is the most efficient gait in the dog and is commonly used as an endurance gait in working dogs that are patrolling large areas of property (and wolves!). This gait is the preferred gait for gait analysis and evaluating lameness because the front and rear leg must support the body without help from opposite leg. It is a very balanced movement and is considered the best gait to use when exercising a dog because it’s the only gait that requires each side of the dog’s body to work equally hard. This is due to the footfall pattern of the trot which is; two diagonal front and rear feet, then a moment when body is suspended in the air, and then the other diagonal front and rear feet (RF–LR, then no ground contact, LF–RR). This is going to be the gait of choice when working our dogs on a treadmill for endurance.
We could sit here and talk about dog gaits all day. I am only going to touch on one other gait in the dog that I think is important for treadmills as I see many dogs in this gait when they are being exercised on the treadmill and it's not a beneficial gait for them to be in! And that gait is called the pace.
The pace is considered an abnormal gait. It is very inefficient because the center of gravity keeps shifting from side to side and so energy expended to keep re-centering weight. This is due to the footfall pattern of the pace which is; ipsilateral legs move forward together while other two legs bear weight, then a moment when body is suspended in the air, and then the other two legs move forward together (RF–RR, then no ground contact, LF–LR). In the pace there are only two feet on the ground at any given time. Many dogs will pace due to their structure, but some may do it out of necessity due to their handler gaiting them at an inappropriate speed either on the ground or on a treadmill. This is something to keep an eye out for and avoid when you are working your dog on the treadmill. If your dog is consistently pacing vs. trotting you may want to have them examined by a veterinarian.
Inclines can play an important role in our treadmill exercise programs with our dogs. It is important to understand when to use an incline when working your dog on the treadmill and when not to.
Having your dog walk or trot on an incline allows for you to put more focus on the rear limbs and hind end of the dog. This can help build more hind end strength in your dog as they are essentially walking or trotting up a hill! The incline feature can be a great addition to your workout plan with your dog, but it is very important to not always exercise your dog on an incline. Many dog treadmills not only allow you to use them on an incline, but also allow you to use them as a flat running deck. This is extremely important! Alternate between incline and no incline workouts with your dog. Constantly walking or trotting your dog on an incline can overload the hind end, so it is important to balance it out and allow your dog to gait on a flat surface as well as an incline. Inclines may not be appropriate for every dog (for example if your dog has lower back pain) so be sure to consult with a fitness or rehab professional before working your dog on an incline.
Duration is an important part of your dog's treadmill workout that is going to change over time. When you first start out you might be focusing on walking your dog on the treadmill for gradually increasing amounts of time. Over time you may chose to start incorporating trotting into your dog's workout. You can do this slowly by adding in intervals. You can add in small intervals of trotting in between longer sessions of walking and over time increase and vary the intervals of walking and trotting. For building endurance (once your dog is ready) you may have them trotting continuously for 15-30 minutes. If you are working on strength building with an incline you may have your dog walk for 10 minutes. Duration of intervals and total treadmill time with change and vary over time so it is important to monitor your dog and make sure you aren't pushing them too hard (too fast), but you also want to make sure you aren't making it a cake walk for them and they aren't getting enough of a challenge.
Lastly I think it is important to touch on the fact that simply exercising your dog on a treadmill is not a balanced fitness plan! Make sure that you are also incorporating strength, balance, flexibility, and mental exercises for your dog throughout the week. For ideas about how to balance a fitness plan with your dog visit our Facebook or Instagram accounts or contact us to learn about our customized fitness plans and online class offerings!