Marina Casanelles doesn't have to worry about staying in shape. No trudging to the gym for endless elliptical sessions for her. No spandex-clad bike rides through the summer swelter. No bowing to the Bowflex. • Casanelles has dogs. Dogs that need walking — and running and swimming and playing. That's how Casanelles stays in shape. • In addition to her four family dogs, Casanelles, 37, walks and runs dogs for people who are physically unable to take their dogs out or are too busy to see to the task themselves. • "The other day I was talking to a friend and I realized that in winter, when I work dogs the most, I walk or run a half marathon a day," said Casanelles, who studied to be a veterinary technician at St. Petersburg College and worked for a time at the zoo in her hometown of Barcelona, Spain. "They run, walk, swim, chase tennis balls. It's like circuit training for dogs."
Benefits for both
And the routine is incredibly healthy for their owners.
Regular dog walking — vigorous laps around the neighborhood at least twice a day — has significant health benefits for both dog and owner, says Dr. Robert Kushner, co-author of Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together.
"Physical fitness and putting your body in motion are good for you and your dog," said Kushner, director of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute in Chicago. "The other benefit is from the mutual bonding. There is an enjoyment from walking with your dog. There's a fun aspect to being outside with your dog."
Americans who are overweight — and their number is legion — often have dogs that are on the chubby side, too, Kushner said. His research found that more than half of American dogs and their owners are overweight — more than 50 percent of dogs and 66 percent of people. And that is no healthier for the dog than it is for the human.
"Dogs tend to adopt the same lifestyle patterns the owner has," said Kushner, who has a 4-year-old, 20-pound Havanese named Cooper. "If they are nibbling on snacks throughout the day, if their owner is giving them table scraps, this cause of weight gain in dogs and humans kind of travels together."
Some training helps
Cesar Milan, host of TV's The Dog Whisperer, emphasizes exercising your dog as one of his three commandments for "creating a happy, balanced dog."
"The walk is an extremely important ritual for a dog," Milan says on his Web site (and in almost every episode of his show). "It needs to take place twice a day, for at least 45 minutes each time, so that both the dog's mind and its body are given a good workout. This means the dog walks next to the owner or behind — not pulling ahead. If a dog is 'walking' a human, the dog perceives itself as pack leader and the human is not in control."
That was Maria Bates' problem. The St. Petersburg lawyer wanted to exercise in her Crescent Lake neighborhood with her hound mixes, Zara and Maddox. This seemed like a good idea, until she actually tried to take the mischievous mutts for a spin around the lake.
"I didn't take them on walks because it was painful," Bates said. "They would run after cats, squirrels, anything moving. With two 75 pound dogs, they equal me. They would end up dragging me down the street."
The alternative was to let Zara and Maddox take care of their outdoor needs in the yard, which they destroyed, Bates said.
One day a few months ago, Bates ran into Casanelles on one of her brutal attempts to exercise the hounds. "I stopped her one day, when she was walking about six dogs, and asked her for help," Bates said.
"After the first one-hour session it was like night and day. She taught me how to be the leader, pay attention and walk correctly without pulling all the time."
Now, Bates gets out with her dogs three times a day: a 6 a.m. walk, a midday walk and a 1.5-mile jog in the evening.
"I've been walking for years," she said. "But with them now I'm able to jog at night. It's safe."
To combat the heat, Casanelles advises hosing down your dog before an outing and using cold towels draped over their backs.
Some dogs need sunscreen, but it's best to use a pet-specific product, because they will try to lick it off. Check your favorite pet store for brands like Doggles, Nutri-vet and Epi-Pet, or look for them online.
If your dog is a real couch potato, visit the vet before embarking on a fitness program.
"It's usually not too difficult" to get your dog going, said Dr. Harvey Partridge, a St. Petersburg veterinarian. "First, make sure that they get an annual physical and look for severe arthritis or heart problems.
"But if you have a dog that's grossly overweight, the one thing you have to worry about is the heat, especially with Labradors and golden retrievers."
Keeping your dog from overheating is key, Partridge said.
"The rule is, dogs can only cool their body efficiently up to a certain point. After 100 degrees a dog's cooling mechanism just doesn't work very well. Whenever the temperature is above 100, that's the dog's temperature. If you're out at the Northeast Little League park playing ball and you're exercising and it's hot, that's where you should be careful.''
Some dogs will just plop down in the shade when they're tired. But don't count on it.
"We do see dogs that literally run until they collapse,'' Partridge said. "They just don't know when to quit."
Try to go out in the mornings or evenings, when the temperature is still in the mid 80s, he said.
Like overweight humans, overweight dogs benefit most from exercise and reduced calorie intake. Also like humans, dogs should not be subjected to crash diets.
"You don't want to take weight off rapidly," Partridge said. "Three percent a month is a good rule of thumb. If it comes off faster than that you can actually make your dog sick."
To help really hefty hounds, a new drug called Slentrol has been introduced that prevents fat from being absorbed into the dog's system. "It really works well," Partridge said.
But just like similar medications for people, it's no panacea. To keep the pounds off, your dog still needs to eat right — and of course, get plenty of exercise.
Logan Mabe is a St. Petersburg teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.