When I take my dogs for a walk, all my neighbours recognize my little Papillons. They don't always recognize me. I'm about half the size I was two years ago; I've lost 125 pounds. What's my secret? Actually, I owe every ounce of my weight loss success to my little dog, Pogo.
Pawsing For a Reality Check
I didn't start out planning to lose weight. It was my dog who was dieting. Pogo needed to lose about half a pound; on his small-dog frame, the equivalent of 10 pounds worth of love handles on me.
I'd cut down just a bit on the serving size of his super premium dog food and added some pumpkin and veggies for volume, a sensible option for my little guy. One night, after scarfing up his dinner, Pogo gave me a sad look that clearly asked, "Isn't there more?"
"You're just fine. You've had plenty," I lectured him. Then I looked down at my heaping plate of spaghetti and had an epiphany. "Deborah, you are such a hypocrite!" I said out loud. The next day, I was at my first Weight Watchers meeting.
Until that moment, I was in absolute denial about my own serious weight problem. I viewed myself as sort of plump. As middle-aged. As a victim of a fashion industry that for unknown reasons had started making sleeves on clothes surprisingly small.
Pogo and I weren't alone in needing to lose weight. About half the people and half the pets in North America are overweight. Everyone knows it's important for humans to lose weight, but you may not know it's just as important for your dog. Northwestern University (NU) in Chicago did a study with overweight people and portly dogs. Almost half the owners described their pudgy dogs' condition as "ideal."
However, in a study done by Purina, slender dogs lived almost two years longer than dogs that were just a little bit overweight. Slender dogs have less health problems, too. Arthritis, diabetes, and other diseases that are caused or made worse by extra pounds can dramatically reduce your dog's quality of life.
Treating Ourselves As Well As We Treat Our Dogs
In my case, I soon realized that for many years I'd been taking much better care of my dogs than I was of myself. I shopped for them in the all-natural food store, and then went to the bargain brand supermarket for my own food. I took them to their veterinarian if they sneezed, but it had been a lot of dog years since I'd seen my own doctor.
I made a simple pledge to myself to take care of all of us in my home with the same diligence. I was committed to the health of my dogs-and to my own. In addition to following my new healthy regimen, I finally went to see my human doctor for all those middleage tests we should have. I was happy to find I was quite healthy and my new lifestyle will help me stay that way.
The World's Best Exercise Equipment
When it comes to exercise, dog-lovers have a leg up- make that four legs up-on the rest of the world's dieters.
In the NU study, the overweight people were given a sensible diet and advised to take daily walks with their dogs. A control group without dogs got the same diet and exercise recommendations. Not only did the dog owners lose more weight, they were happier.
"What surprised us was how much fun the participants had. That isn't common in a weight control program," says obesity expert Dr. Robert Kushner, who designed the study. "They didn't say they felt deprived. Many participants said they wouldn't have entered the program or stayed in the program without the dog."
Kushner and veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker wrote a book called Fitness Unleashed! A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together (Three Rivers Press, 2006). This book is a healthy and sensible guide to dieting and exercise for both people and their dogs.
For those of us who were never jocks, exercise can be intimidating. I can't imagine going to a gym full of hard-bodies. Walking my dog is a Lycra-free zone of acceptance. Because I'm focusing on my dog instead of myself, I feel free to take the risk of exercising my less than perfect body.
People who exercise with their dogs have fun, no matter what their level of fitness may be. That's not always the case with other exercise plans.
"You don't grow to love the StairMaster. No one talks to their free weights. In walking your dog, you develop a richer, deeper level with your dog," says Dr. Becker. While he was working on his book, he decided to practice what he preached and walk his dogs more. The result was a 42-pound weight loss for him.
Pogo and I started out with one-mile walks. It's now common for us to log five or six miles. But I had a problem: though my two older dogs weren't up for the demands of longer, faster paced walks, I didn't want to leave my other buddies behind. My solution was to buy a pet stroller, a flashy red jogging model. I let the old dogs walk at their pace as far as they feel comfortable, and then put them in the stroller. Pogo and I pick up the pace and power walk the rest of the way.
Points To Ponder
Our dogs don't wait to go have fun until their rear-ends are a certain size. We shouldn't either.
We know that a round, short Pug is just as wonderful as a tall, slender Afghan Hound. We should accept our own kind of beauty so easily.
The fact that some of us gain weight more easily than others is also explained in the world of dogs. As much as 70 percent of the risk factor for obesity in dogs can be traced to your dog's breed, according to Dr. Becker. Greyhounds and Whippets almost all stay naturally lean, while stocky breeds like the Labrador Retriever and Beagle tend to pack on the pounds. Still, with the right diet and exercise, dogs of all breeds can weigh the appropriate amount for their builds.
Of course, my weight loss and Pogo's won't last if we don't keep our eating and exercise habits for the long term. Because of my dogs, I'm optimistic that I've made a true lifestyle change. I look at what I put into my mouth just as carefully as I always monitored what my dogs ate.
And exercise? There is no personal trainer as demanding as Pogo. He expects fun every single day, rain or shine. I hope a lot of people and dogs will be inspired to come join us. Summer is here. It's the perfect time to snap on the leash and go for a walk. ■
Deborah Wood is the pet columnist for The Oregonian newspaper and the author of 11 books, including The Little Dogs Activity Book released in January. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with three Papillons and a cat, and follows the Weight Watchers program, attending their meetings weekly.