Dogs on treadmills is not a new concept; our canine companions have used treadmills (also called slat mills) to do our dirty work for decades. Walking and running on wheels (think of a giant hamster wheel) was a way for smaller breed dogs to help out inside the home. As they walked, these little tykes turned the wheel, which was connected to the spit in the stove. Their walking turned the meat on the fire, ensuring a proper supper for the whole family. Large breed dogs were employed on slat mills out in the farm, where they worked as corn shellers and bean sorters.
Nowadays, we can still see dogs on treadmills, but it’s not about farm and house chores anymore. Today’s dogs are in it for their health! Treadmills have many uses in veterinary medicine, from gait analysis to physical therapy to behavior counseling. At home, treadmills are used much for the same reason we humans use them – for conditioning when the weather or our schedule doesn’t allow for outdoor play.
We know that exercise is good for us, but it’s downright imperative for our pets, who come almost hard wired to need exercise in order to keep sane. Over the course of generations, dogs are bred to be hunters, ratters, and protectors. When they don’t get to exercise these innate traits, behavior problems stemming from boredom may arise.
Exercise is also important to reach and maintain a healthy weight. With about half of the pet population carrying more baggage than they should, and pet insurance claims for obesity-related conditions on the rise, any chance we have to get them to move is a benefit. While treadmills shouldn’t replace routine walks around the neighborhood or good old fashioned games of fetch, they do allow our pets to run at a pace that is comfortable for them for extended periods of time. This exercises not only their bodies, but also their minds.
Small and medium sized dogs are fine to use your treadmill, but larger dogs may need a treadmill with a longer belt, depending on the length of their gait. Before you start your dog on the treadmill, take a look at some helpful tips to get started:
- Start slow. Don’t expect your pooch to jump right on and start running. While dogs love to run, they won’t know what to expect from treadmill at first.
- Use a flat collar and leash for all training sessions. NEVER tie your dog to the machine. This could result in severe injury or death.
- Regardless of your dog’s abilities, never let him use the treadmill unattended.
- Don’t face the treadmill towards a wall. Besides having nothing to look at while running, your pet may inherently avoid trying to walk into a wall.
- Use plenty of treats and verbal praise to coax them to the machine. Your only first goal is to get them to hop up on the machine and then hop off. Once they are comfortable with this step, you can move on. Don’t be surprised if this takes several sessions over days or weeks. This is a new (and possibly frightening) experience for your dog.
- Once comfortable on the treadmill, you can start at a slow walk. You can hold the leash taut as you stand beside the treadmill, as if you were on a walk outdoors. You may find it helpful to squat in front of the treadmill instead, encouraging your dog to walk forward on the treadmill.
- Train your dog to sit once the treadmill is stopped and to only leave the treadmill on your release command.
- Once comfortable at a walk, increase the speed slowly (over a matter of days, if needed) to a speed that seems like a comfortable jog for your dog. This will vary depending on your dog’s gait.
- Again, start slow – just a few minutes a day for the first week. Gradually work your way up to 10 or 15 minute sessions. Athletic dogs may do well with 30 minute sessions.
If, at any point, your dog seems frightened by the training, stop immediately and back up to the last point that she felt comfortable. This is meant to be a fun exercise. Dogs that are hurried through training can develop a lifelong fear of the treadmill.
Get outside and exercise when you can, because that’s a fun way to enforce the bond you and your dog have. There’s nothing like seeing the smile on your dog’s face after a game of Frisbee or a jump off of the dock. But when the weather or timing don’t allow for fun outdoor games, treadmills are a close second in terms of fun and exercise!