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How to Get Fit with Fido

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may12homespunweb.jpgBy Heather Newman

RISMEDIA, May 12, 2008-(MCT)-Linda Simlar of Oxford, Mich., was a frequent walker. But it took two large black Labrador mixes to lead her to her first running race-and a new friend.

Like runners, walkers and skaters all over, she discovered what exercising with her dog could do for her and for the dog. Along the way-like so many others-she reaped additional benefits.

“I think that owners forget that exercise can be fun and rewarding, enhancing health on all levels-physical and emotional-and encouraging the bonding process between dog and owner,” says Karen Sullivan, author of the new book “Get Fit with Your Dog” (Barron’s, $9.99).

If you want to get out with your dog, there are several events coming up this weekend and next month. But it doesn’t take a special occasion to making exercising with your dog special.

For Lillian Quam, a 30-year-old physician’s assistant from Chesterfield, Mich., it’s a family outing. She, her husband, Ron Quam, 35; her 16-month-old son, Aidan (in a jogging stroller), and their two boxers make a formidable caravan. She’s training for the Bayshore Marathon next month, which she will be running for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.

“They’re a good distraction,” Quam says of her running companions, Pancho Villa, 6, and Brutus, 5. “Their faces are so happy to be out and smelling the air. It definitely makes it more enjoyable and takes the monotony out of mile after mile.

“The minute I put on my tennis shoes, they know. I can hear them panting: `Let’s go!’ Their leash makes a little clink, and the minute they hear that, they’re at the door ready to bolt.”

For Dr. Michael Yates of Leonard, Mich., a semiretired emergency room physician and head of the Stony Creek Running Club, it’s seeing his Jack Russell terriers scamper off to chase sticks or snowballs.

He started running with Strider, now 7, after seeing someone do a run across Michigan with a Jack Russell. Now he’s training a new terrier, 1-½-year-old Lilly, whom he rescued a couple of months ago. They’re very task-oriented, he says. Strider will run for an hour in the parking lot at a local park, chasing what Dr. Yates throws, even after a 6-mile run.

“They’re great company. It’s good exercise for them. And it’s a talking point _ people love dogs,” Yates says.

For Simlar, a 49-year-old manager for a heavy-haul trucking firm, it’s the friendship and fitness she discovered.

Rex, a black Lab mix, had been Simlar’s buddy for a long time. She and he would sometimes walk gamely around their Oxford neighborhood in the mornings, but there was no disguising it: At 8 years old, he was a little roly-poly in the middle. And they didn’t always get out as often as they could.

“Me and my husband were going to walk-were gonna, were gonna, were gonna. It’s easy to stay in bed,” she says.

Then she met Jenny Cook. They knew about each other because both their sons were in a chess club at school and in Boy Scouts. When they talked, they discovered that they both left for work later in the morning, so they decided they should do a morning dog walk. Cook’s dog, a bouncy 2-year-old named Dugan, was also a black Lab mix.

It was one of those casual decisions that you look back on as having made a huge change in your life. Simlar and Cook, a 32-year-old dietitian, became fast friends. Every morning at 6:45 a.m., they’d leave their houses, Simlar at one end of the neighborhood, Cook at the other, and they and their dogs would meet in the middle. They’d walk and talk out the troubles of the day.

“We call it therapy,” Cook says. “And it if hadn’t been for the dogs, we would neither of us be out there.”

As the months went by, they started talking about Cook’s upcoming road races. And before long, Simlar said, “Well … maybe I should train for one.” Cook jumped right in, and late last summer, they started training for last fall’s Turkey Trot footrace in Oxford.

The dogs were there as constant companions and eager reminders: You’ve got to run. No whining about getting out of bed in the morning, no skipping days when it’s pouring rain.

“It just makes it so much easier to know that someone’s waiting for you,” Simlar said. “It doesn’t make it any warmer. But it does make it easier.”

Rex lost some weight, and as he closed in on 9 years old, he was becoming a hottie again, Simlar says. But don’t get the idea that they were dragging the dogs around: As any dog owner knows, no matter how well-behaved they are, dogs are really masters of the walk.

If they changed their route and Rex didn’t approve, he’d sit down in the middle of the road and refuse to move. If they passed a place where a lawn sprinkler was on, he’d bolt for it and lap up water until he was good and ready to leave.

That first race came and went, and they continued to run every morning. Then suddenly in March, Rex died from a rare stomach problem. Simlar was crushed.

“Our first outing without him was beyond description,” she says. “We had Jenny and Dugan dragging me around, bawling. That was no fun. I took his leash, but it didn’t fill the hole in any of our hearts.”

But Simlar wasn’t ready to give up on their morning meetings, or on running with her dog. So it wasn’t long before she listened to Cook and rescued a black Lab mix puppy from a shelter. She named him Frank.

“Even at 10 weeks, he’s catching on,” she says. “We are walking-and looking around, biting the leash, barking at other dogs, papers, etc.-and all is right in the universe again. Exercising with Frank doesn’t seem like exercising at all. It’s just something we do. The fab four are back on the road!”

Precautions

If you’re going to exercise with your dog, you’ll want to take some precautions to make sure you’re both healthy when you’re done.

Start any serious program by taking your dog to the vet, says Stephanie Baron of the Michigan Humane Society. “It’s kind of like people: You don’t want to overdo it,” she says. Your vet can advise what exercise your dog is suited for and what precautions to take.

Condition the dog’s feet to the road gradually, or invest in doggy booties to protect delicate paws. Michael Yates, president of the Stony Creek Running Club, is working with his young Jack Russell terrier, Lilly, on the family’s dirt road to get her ready for the real thing. Lillian Quam, a physician’s assistant, says she has used Neosporin on her dog’s pads when first starting up again in the spring after a long winter off.

Watch the dog for signs it needs a rest. “If the dog is lying down or panting, he should take a break,” says Karen Sullivan, author of “Get Fit with Your Dog.”

Pack water. Quam uses a big water bottle that has been frozen, so that by the time the run has been under way for a while, it’s cold and slushy. She’ll sprinkle it on her boxers’ backs, too, a process she says they don’t care for much, but they feel better afterward. Baron says many pop-up dog bowls designed for camping can easily fit in a fanny pack.

© 2008, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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