“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep the mind strong and clear.” – Buddha
I recently had a session with the cutest couple ever, Anna and Mick. They had two dogs, a new puppy, and an adorable Boston, Foxy, who is about 5. And a bit...eh..."fluffy".
Here's the thing: of all of the people I meet with and train, Anna and Mick are about the most solid I've seen in a minute. Asking extremely intelligent questions, giving the correct answers to questions I'd specifically set them up to answer incorrectly; they are what I'd describe as perfect clients. They were, however, a bit obsessed with every aspect of their dogs' health. Not in a bad way, but bordering on benevolent helicopter parenting. Right on down to how they were feeding their dogs (organic, natural dog mix, not kibble, from a delivery service). Naturally I was curious as to how Foxy had become so overweight with:
- 4(!) walks every day
-measured, precise amounts of food
-one greenie every day
It didn't add up.
They informed me that Foxy has allergy issues, and her skin would sometimes get dry and itchy, so their previous vet suggested giving her a teaspoon of sunflower oil with every day. Legit. The problem, which they eventually found out, is that there are a lot of calories in that teaspoon of oil. More than a Boston needs. It was hard to notice her putting on weight because it was so slow and gradual, but when they took her to a different vet the next time, the vet yelled at them about Foxy's weight.
"She's fat! Do you want your dog dead?"
The vet continued on their tirade about Foxy's weight and the damage her owners were causing to her health. As they were telling me this, even I was getting angry. Yes, Foxy was fat. That is a fact. But were Mick and Anna to blame? No. These are wonderful pet parents who were following the advise of another vet, trying to solve their dog's discomfort. The side effect was weight gain. Further, when they noticed it, they took steps to fix it! They even bought Foxy a fitness tracker to wear on her collar (something I'd never even known existed!). Was it their fault she was fat? No. However, it was their responsibility to fix the issue, and they were stepping up to that responsibility beautifully. They just need a little bit more time to get where they needed to go with her. She didn't put the weight on in a month, it's not coming of (healthily) in a month. Think of it like this:
For a human, eating one extra 50-calorie Oreo cookie a day can make you put on 5 pounds per year. The calculation is basic math: if about 3,500 extra calories make you put on a pound of body fat, then 50 times 365 is 18,250 extra calories which, divided by 3,500, equals about 5 pounds.
After 2 years, it's 10 pounds you've packed on. And so the cycle continues, provided that you're only taking in extra 50 calories. The cycle is worse if you're taking in more. Remember, calories in must equal calories burned, or you're going to store those calories. To further complicate matters, some of us have very efficient bodies, who act like calories are to be hoarded like toilet paper during a pandemic.
So yes, the rules can have a little flux, too. So let's start with some basic behaviors and mindsets we need to change to help our overweight dogs live long, happy lives.
Stop the Shame of Fat
Foxy is foxy, no matter what she looks like. That's my starting and ending point. She is a wonderful dog, with a wonderful personality. She's a beautiful gift to the world, but the wrapping paper she's wrapped in doesn't quite match the amazing gift that she is. But that's okay, who really cares about wrapping paper anyway? She's beautiful. Fat is an inanimate object, not a sentient part of her. It's a part of her, yes, but not who she is.
Accept the Consequences
Foxy is indeed a chow hound (#SolidaritySister) and does love her food. That's fine. And we all know if feels good to show our love our animals and those dear to us. But at what point is that love turning into a selfish love? In other words, I love my dog so much that I'm willing to risk losing her to an early death due to the joy I get in giving her a treat? Are there better ways to show your love an affection? Or, if you do want to show your love with food, are you still doing the math? If I were to tell you that every extra treat over your dog's calorie allotment took away 3 minutes of her life, could I get you to think about it differently? I'm sure all of us would gladly take an extra 3 minutes of time with our dogs when the Rainbow Bridge is getting nearer. I know I would gladly have taken it with my Sparta.
Rethink the Treats You're Giving/How You Give Them
How many calories is that treat? Can you break it smaller? Nope, even smaller than that. Can we change up what she's getting as a reward? My Sparta loved frozen green beans. It was her thing. Some dogs like frozen carrot pieces (look in the freezer section for those tiny, perfectly portioned cubes of carrots). Anything that has less calories.
Now, instead of just giving it to her, can you get her to jump over or crawl under something first? Move just a little. Bonus: you're Piloting your dog, and getting money from their piggy bank when you work together like this. So weight is decreasing and your relationship is improved at the same time. Cha-Ching! For a detailed description of how to give more positives with less treats, give this a read.
Scrounge for Change
No, not pocket change, but tiny little changes that add up to a huge amount. Changing your dog's health isn't always about the huge changes, it's about the sum of the equation. While diet is always the largest component of weight gain, exercise is key as well. Start very, very slowly, and always speak with your vet first.
Part of our game plan with Foxy included a backpack, which she will be wearing all day (as long as someone is awake in the house). Just a tiny, tiny amount of weight in the backpack (from .25%-1% of their body weight) worn all day will cause them to burn up more calories without actually feeling like a routine workout. Don't put more weight in to get it done faster: you can always add weight later as they get closer to healthy, but you can't un-damage a dog. Take it easy.
Remember that Oreo cookie conundrum I mentioned earlier? Well, the same thing happens in a positive way, too? So Foxy is burning up 30 extra calories a day wearing the backpack (at least!), that's a win in the math vs. healthy weight battle!
Bonus: you don't need to be involved! Put the backpack on, keep an eye on your dog initially to make sure they're comfortable, and then they are slowly cooking off all that extra unhealthy weight while you do other things. Learn about the joys of the backpack and how to utilize it here.
For other ideas about how to keep your dog active (that don't necessarily involve going for a walk!), give this link a read. Remember, the walk is there mostly to get money out of your dog's Piloting Piggy Bank, the rest is just extra bonus points for exercise and a bit of mental rebalancing. Breath in the air and clear your mind.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember can be summed up by my favorite Ben Franklin quote:
"Everything in moderation, including moderation."
Keep it in moderation. Give your dog the treat. Share your food with them, if you truly wish to. Just understand everything that entails so you can keep it within moderation.
Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio