See Spot run --and do yoga?!
The pet wellness biz is booming. Are doggie treadmills and yoga more
bark than bite? A girl (and her dog) investigate
Mark my words: The day is coming when “dog trainer” will mean “personal trainer for a dog,” as in: “I’ll be there at 8:30, right after I drop off Fifi at the gym for her trainer appointment.”
I know this because I attended this spring’s Vegas Pet Expo at Cashman Center, where at least a dozen vendors were promoting dog fitness and wellness services. These aren’t just your run-of-the-mill $10-a-day walks (although they do that too). No, they’re more and more like the things you’d buy for yourself — massages, treadmills, yoga lessons, even therapy sessions.
And people are certainly buying. Americans spent more than $50 billion on their pets in 2011 — an all-time high — according to the American Pet Products Association. The service category flourished, rising 7.9 percent from 2010 to 2011. Last year, U.S. pet owners spent $3.8 billion on grooming, boarding, pet hotels, pet sitting, day care and other services — including exercise. For good reason. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 53 percent of adult dogs (a total of 41.1 million) are overweight or obese, potentially causing osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, breathing problems, kidney disease and shortened life expectancy.
If you’re like me, your initial reaction to this is: “Why can’t people just get off their lazy butts and take their dogs for a walk?”
The answer to that question may be the key to the success or failure of the companies offering said services, but, as I would begin to learn at the Expo, it has less to do with motivation than you might think, and more to do with the psychology of dog owners.
Like most dog people nearing middle age with no children of their own, I’m completely into my canine sidekick, Aja, a blue-eyed, salt-and-pepper coated Cocker Spaniel. Even as I scoffed at the slackers who would outsource their dogs’ fitness activities, I was tempted to try out all those services on Aja. Call it a combined need to show her off and spoil her.
The amazing self-walking dog
It started with the treadmill, a collapsible, 79-pound model being made by a local startup, Dog Pacer. As I strolled by the expo booth, Aja in tow, a skinny German Shepherd trotted on the treadmill, “Over it” written all over her face.
“Aja could do that,” was my first thought. Forget that she’s 12 now, and recently recovered from a broken front leg. We did once win in the small-dog category of human-canine 5k. I walked over.
All smiles, Dog Pacer President Yaniv Rosenberg began his pitch. He had a full arsenal of answers to my first question — the lazy butts one — mostly having to do with inclement weather and impossible work schedules preventing people from getting outside for themselves, let alone Fido. I listened as Rosenberg told me how David Ezra, the owner of the local Anytime Fitness franchise, started Dog Pacer because he couldn’t find an affordable home treadmill for Bella, the skinny German Shepherd, and understood that she needed 25-45 minutes of rigorous exercise per day.
Pointing to Aja, I asked, “Can she try it?”
After a few safety instructions from Rosenberg, Aja stepped right on the treadmill and started walking … albeit at something like 0.2 miles per hour. All I had to do was crouch in front of her and hold a treat just out of reach. Every so often, at Rosenberg’s prompting, I would give her the treat and say, “Good girl,” in an encouraging voice, and take another treat from the stash nearby.
He stopped after about five minutes. When I picked Aja up, I could feel her accelerated heart rate.
“She did great!” he said.
Yes, she did, I agreed, my vanity appeased.
Leaving the booth, I saw nothing the $499 treadmill could give Aja and me that we didn’t already get on our daily walks. But I could see how it might benefit someone who is disabled or can’t get outside for other reasons.
“Some people are lazy,” Rosenberg conceded. “But it’s not only that. In the northern and northeastern U.S., there are five months out of the year when you can’t be outside running with your dog. Here and other states, it’s too hot in the summer. Florida, it’s too humid. Seattle, it rains too much. In urban jungles, there’s nowhere to go.”
When I would ask her later, my vet, Michelle Parantala, would point out that treadmills have long been used in pet physical therapy centers.
“If it leads to people exercising their dogs and cats more, great,” she said. “But just like human treadmills, they can make great towel racks.” In other words, you can’t just put your dog on a treadmill and walk away. It still requires dedication — not on the dog’s part, but on the human’s. That point would be driven home in my next experiment — with dog therapy.
What up, dog?
For that, I called Renee Cawley of Move Mutt and made an appointment for her to come to my house, as she normally does with clients. Cawley can tell you a thing or two about dedication. She said she worked with one dog, an Australian Shepherd named Tucker, for a year and half before he conquered his bad biting habit and was finally adoptable. A family in Denver took in Tucker and loves him to this day.
It’s the culmination of Cawley’s dream: to prevent dogs that could be great pets, with some help, from being euthanized. Her for-profit dog-therapy company KineticK9 helps pay for her nonprofit, Move Mutt, which offers free services to dogs in the care of local rescues.
Her approach, greatly simplified, is to tire them out, then submit them to the appropriate techniques for behavior modification. As Parantala told me, one truism of the pet wellness industry is, “A tired dog is a good dog.” Cawley takes the rescue dogs out for hikes, walks and other activities, and works with them to curb the bad behaviors that can prompt adopters to return dogs to rescues — in short, making these pets much more adoptable.
She has some data to back her up. In a 2010 study by the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, three-quarters of shelter dogs that got daily walks were permanently adopted, compared with a little more than a third of those who weren’t walked. Three times as many of the non-exercised dogs were euthanized than the exercised dogs.
The trouble with my dog, as far as Cawley was concerned, was the lack of trouble. Aja has been over her separation anxiety (common in dogs abandoned by their original owners, as was her case) for years. Although Cawley was happy to pet Aja, she could see her services weren’t needed.
After telling me the story of how she survived dog-bite-induced sepsis and went on to found Move Mutt despite partial paralysis and memory loss — not to mention two amputated fingers — Cawley left, continuing the mission she feels is the reason she survived her ordeal.
“I was spared for something,” she said. “I think that something is that I can, in turn, save lives. Dogs are being put to sleep in shelters that don’t need to be.”
Stretch your pooch
I’d actually tried doggie yoga before with Aja — and failed. At the studio where I teach, a woman had given an afternoon workshop. While other dogs sprawled in apparent bliss, their owners massaging their spines and stretching their limbs, Aja crackled like an electric wire. She wouldn’t sit or lie down. If I let go of her, she’d run for the door and scratch on it. The message was clear: “I want out of here.”
But that was a long time ago, and a one-on-one session would be different, I thought, as I drove to the home studio of Kristen Corral, owner of Little White Dog Company. Corral, who recently completed both UNLV’s animal massage and care certification and an animal yoga training program, offers one-hour private lessons for $25. She’ll teach humans how to do “fur striping,” “animal vibes,” “drummer’s howl” and other yoga-inspired moves with their dogs.
“Most dogs sit at home alone all day, and their owners sit at work all day,” she said. “This program is great because it’s physical and mental activity for both of them. It’s based on bonding and communication between dog and owner.”
With a few ground rules. “Never force anything,” Corral said, trying to help me get Aja to sit on both haunches, instead of her customary sideways tilt. “An animal can’t tell you how they’re feeling, if something hurts or the pressure is too deep.”
I was at little risk of applying too much pressure. Aja, just like before, would head for the door every time I let go of her. After dragging her back to my yoga mat several times, I finally gave up. Corral suggested doing some poses on our own, to see if she’d return. No dice.
“It takes three to five sessions for them to get used to it,” she said.
I comforted myself with other excuses: My dog is too energetic to sit still for an hour. She was distracted by Corral’s Chihuahua, who modeled the poses. It was a new place, and she needed time to sniff around.
If it works for other pooches and their humans, more power to ’em. If the experiment taught me anything, it’s that I would do whatever’s required to keep my own fur-baby happy and healthy … no matter how wacky it might seem to skeptics.
Still, I wouldn’t go off-leash and just jump right in: Parantala cautioned that alternative therapies should sometimes be administered in combination with traditional medical care, and always in consultation with a vet. Even the amount of exercise a dog needs depends on many factors best determined by a vet. But, she stressed, every dog does need regular physical activity and mental stimulation.
And if owners can’t provide it, the number of professionals to happily fill the void will only keep growing.