From exercise and diet to training and quality time with the family, there’s a whole lot you can do to keep your dog happy and healthy. Tim Falk reports.
A healthy dog is a happy dog, and we all want our pets to be as happy as possible. But do you know what you can do to help your dog be (and stay) in tip-top condition from puppyhood right through to his senior years?
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. The journey to a healthier pet, however, begins with eight simple steps.
Step 1: The right diet
The old health campaign slogan that “you are what you eat” applies just as much to our four-legged friends as it does to us. The right diet is essential to your dog’s overall health and wellbeing, helping him stay active, fight off disease and generally tackle whatever life may throw at him.
“We recommend feeding a premium-quality dry dog food twice daily and offering dental treats to keep their teeth clean,” PETstock vet Dr Bronwen Slack says. “Speak to your veterinary nurse about choosing the best diet for your dog’s age, breed and activity level.”
Frankie Moore, a dog trainer and canine-conditioning master trainer who runs AgilityFit, says that in order for our dogs to remain healthy and fit, what we feed them should support the amount of activity they do. “This also speaks to the quality of food we feed them,” she says. “If they’re dining on your leftovers, it’s not an ideal diet for them. In general, dogs need a well-balanced diet that includes variety.”
Keep in mind that if you give your dog treats, either for training purposes or “just because”, that you should feed her less at mealtimes to balance out the volume of food overall. Treats should also be chosen wisely, with a steamed lean meat such as chicken representing a much healthier option than many fatty options.
Step 2: Regular exercise
The right diet and regular exercise must go hand in hand if you want your dog to be of optimum health. From a daily walk to a regular swim, a dog sport or some backyard play, it’s vital for your dog’s physical and mental wellbeing that all his exercise needs are met.
“Regular exercise is hugely important for the physical health of your dog, keeping their heart healthy and their weight at its best. But don’t forget the mental stimulation that exercise provides, allowing your dog to exhibit their natural hunting and chasing behaviours,” Dr Bronwen explains.
As with humans, all dogs should have a level of fitness for their overall health. While it certainly can’t prevent every illness or unexpected event, it helps our dogs live a long and happy life.
“Keeping your dog active and stimulated helps stem common, unwanted behaviours arising from boredom and excess energy,” Frankie says. “Start with something you know you can do such as simply walk. At least one walk a day with your dog will help get them moving. Take them places such as the bush or the beach, and take them on different walks every other day to help keep them interested.”
Regular obedience training is another great outlet for your dog’s energy, while playing actively with your dog will ensure she gets plenty of exercise and has a whole lot of fun. But if you want to take it to the next level, you can look up a dog sport that might be suitable for your pooch.
“There is a great variety of sports including K9 Nosework, rally obedience, agility, fly ball, herding and retrieving, and many more,” Frankie says. “Your dog gains so much from doing a sport with you. Participating in a sport suitable for your dog and your schedule is a great way to connect, bond and get fitter and healthier together. Not only do you gain a more active lifestyle, your dog gains a structured environment to learn, get fit and build on unique skills, such as using their nose in K9 Nosework. Sports help build confidence, teach a dog how to think and work together with you and, at the end of the day, are a lot of fun.”
Along with her husband, Simon, a personal trainer and running coach, Frankie runs AgilityFit, which specialises in fitness for human and canine competitors of agility. “My belief is that prevention is always greater than cure and I would love everyone to enjoy some level of fitness with their canine best buddy,” she says.
“Specifically for the sport I compete in — agility — there is a higher risk of injury due to lack of fitness. I wanted to create awareness for fitness in this sport and share my love of fitness and dogs with agility competitors across the world. So I created AgilityFit to help human and dog agility competitors be the best they can, on and off the course.”
You can find more info at agilityfit.com.au
Step 3: Maintaining weight
With the right diet and exercise, you can help your dog reach a healthy weight and stay there. Carrying around a few extra kilos will not just affect the way your pet looks; it can also be very damaging to his health.
“Keeping a healthy weight will keep your pet happier and help them live longer,” Dr Bronwen explains. “Overweight pets have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Flat-nosed breeds such as Pugs and Bulldogs can experience difficulty breathing if they carry some extra weight on their body.”
If you are unsure whether your dog is overweight, visit your vet for a body condition score. If your pet is heavier than he should be, your vet will be able to work out a diet and exercise plan to help your dog lose weight.
Step 4: Lifelong training
The next step on the journey to a healthier pet is regular training. Short and sweet daily training sessions offer myriad benefits for your pooch, providing mental stimulation and exercise, improving her behaviour and providing you both with a great way to have fun together.
“Training sessions for both mental and physical fitness enhance us equally,” Frankie says. “Even if it’s just five minutes a day, a dog can get a lot of benefit from teaching basic obedience, tricks and games.
“Dogs are clever animals and are highly trainable. By helping them develop their thinking minds, you develop a stronger bond of working together.”
The benefits of working together through training are many. Your dog becomes eager to listen to and work with you, is calmer and is not bored, so doesn’t have to look for other stimulation such as digging up the garden.
Step 5: Social skills
Dogs are social animals that thrive on regular interaction not only with people, but also with other dogs. Giving your pet a chance to sniff, lick, play and explore with other canines is crucial to his mental wellbeing, and Frankie says this all starts with socialising your puppy.
“Socialising your dog is arguably the most important part of training,” she explains. “Like us, they aren’t going to like every dog or person they meet, and it is not fair to expect them to just get along in a place such as a dog park. Socialising is not only meeting a variety of dogs at the dog park; socialising means meeting lots of dogs, other animals such as cats, young and older people, in various environments and over a long period of time.”
However, it’s important for you to be with your dog and support her when meeting new dogs. Watch her body language and understand when she’s had enough.
“I highly recommend joining your local dog club where you can join in puppy obedience, rally obedience or agility classes and learn to train your dog with a lot of other dogs and people around. This is a great way to let dogs work while being around other people and dogs in a controlled environment,” Frankie explains.
Off-leash dog parks are also great places for your pet to make new friends and, if you want your dog to interact with other animals you know and trust, setting up a doggy playdate will also be beneficial.
Step 6: Preventing parasites
Owning a dog isn’t just long walks on the beach, wrestling in the backyard and snuggling up on the lounge in front of TV. Despite the many joys that our pets bring, they also require a little bit of hard work.
Nasty little parasites are probably the last thing any pet owner wants to think about, but it’s your job to protect your pet against any health risks. Dr Bronwen says parasite prevention is a critical part of the healthcare of your dog.
“It is important to protect your dog against fleas, intestinal worms and heartworm,” she explains. “While flea and intestinal worm infections are not fun for your dog to have, they can usually be easily treated. However, heartworm infections are far more serious and it is very important to protect your dog against them. Speak to your veterinarian about getting the heartworm protection injection each year.”
If you live on the eastern seaboard, tick control products must also be considered. Talk to your vet about what you need to do (and when) to protect your pooch against parasites.
Step 7: Regular check-ups
Unless your dog suffers an illness or injury, you probably won’t feel all that inclined to take him to the vet, especially if he’s a nervous or uncooperative patient. But the reality is regular health checks with the vet are an important part of responsible dog ownership.
“One year in a dog’s life is like seven years in a human’s — a lot can change in this time,” Dr Bronwen says. “A quick visit to your vet every year will allow them to pick up on any health issues early before they become big concerns.”
Annual vaccinations provide the perfect chance to get your pet’s health checked out as your vet will do a full physical check-up at the same time. “Remember that your dog will require a dental clean about once every two years and that dogs older than seven are senior citizens and should be on an arthritis prevention plan and have annual blood tests to keep an eye on their kidney and liver health,” Dr Bronwen explains.
Step 8: Quality time
The final step on the road to canine wellbeing is perhaps the most important. While diet, exercise, training and veterinary care are all crucial, they will all be wasted if you can’t provide the love, attention and interaction your dog needs.
“Exercising and playing together is a great way to spend quality time with your dog. Not only will this make your dog’s day, but it will also have great mental health benefits for you, too, as both exercise and time spent with pets reduce stress and anxiety levels,” Dr Bronwen explains.
Regular, positive interaction with their owner is highly important to a dog’s wellbeing. Frankie points to the fact that dogs are social species that live in the family environment and have been bred specifically, over a long time, to be companion animals.
“In our society today, dogs coexist with humans mostly in a family environment and are considered part of the family. In this, it is entirely up to the owner what kind of existence the dog has in that environment,” Dr Bronwen says.
“Food and shelter are not the only important things for overall wellbeing. Quality interactions with the family through play, companionship and mental and physical stimulation are all important parts of a dog’s wellbeing.”
Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory