How to keep your pet fit during the winter

Updated: December 18, 2014 - 2:15 pm

Dear Dr. Hershey,

It is so cold and icy outside that I don’t want to go out to walk my dog.  Is there anything I can do to provide him exercise inside the house? 

 — Deena

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Dear Deena,

Exercising a dog during the winter in our climate can certainly be a challenge.  Every spring I see that my patients have gained weight over the winter months because they are simply not as active.  Below is a list of indoor exercises that your dog might enjoy.  Of course if your dog has mobility issues, don’t force any exercise that is uncomfortable. 

A Land Treadmill: Many dogs can fit on a human size land treadmill.  It is important to note that although very large dogs may fit on the treadmill when in a standing position, they may not be able to fully extend their legs when running on the treadmill.  It can actually be a disadvantage to run a very large dog on a treadmill because they will shorten up their gait to prevent falling off of the belt.  This abnormal gait can lead to muscle tension.  For medium to small dogs however, training them to a land treadmill can be a great way to exercise them.  If you have never put your dog on a treadmill before, make sure to introduce it slowly. Start by putting them on the treadmill when it is off. Give treats, and then slowly start the treadmill.  Keep giving treats and watch your dog to make sure she is comfortable on the moving belt.  If this is going well, you can increase the speed and space out the timing of the treats. Never leash a dog to a treadmill and always stand by in case your dog is having trouble. 

Stairs: If you have carpeted stairs, this can be a great exercise tool.  For healthy, active dogs, you can play a game where you race her up the stairs.  For dogs that aren’t as strong you can leash your dog and slowly take the stairs.  To make the most out of this exercise, make sure that each leg is moving up the stairs separately, not “hopping” up the stairs.  Dogs with certain knee or back problems may not be candidates for stairs.  Consult with your veterinarian if you think that your dog may have mobility issues preventing use of stairs.  Going up stairs shifts the weight to the back, thus strengthen the back legs, and going down stairs shifts the weight to the front and is great exercise for the front legs.

Hide-and-go-seek:  This used to be a favorite game I would play with my dog “Cookie”.  We had a special “look” that would indicate that either she or I would want to play.  When we gave each other the “look”, I would run into a different room and try to hide before she could find me.  If I hid well and she couldn’t find me, then I would make noises until she could locate me in the house. 

Crawling: Crawling works the core and legs muscles.  Find something that your dog can fit under only when crawling (under the bed, under a chair etc.).  Have him lie down, and then coax him to crawl to you by offering treats. 

Indoor obstacle course: Set us items for your pet to jump over, weave around, etc.    You could set up an obstacle course that involves doing figure 8’s around a set of stools, then jumping over some short hurtles of rolled up towels, then finally jumping onto a sofa and waiting at the end of the course.  

Work on training his mind as well as his body.  Teaching your dog to do “nose work” can occupy a lot of time.  Nose work is a fun search and scenting activity for dogs.  You can train your dog to find objects that you’ve hidden around the house.  There is great information on the web about how to train your dog for this activity.  For starters try www.funnosework.com. 

For fun exercise videos using equipment like balance balls, check out Fit Paws (www.fitpawsusa.com).  Their Youtube site has lots of great ideas for indoor exercise.   

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at drhershey@westgatepetclinicmn.com.