How to get your dog to slim down
Canines are in the grip of an obesity epidemic and one trainer has the answer: fat camp
Man's best friend is so fat he can barely roll off the couch to bark at the mailman. In the U.S., scientists are reporting that 24 per cent of all dogs are obese, and another 30 per cent are overweight. Veterinarians are sounding the alarm about shortened life spans. Headline writers are having fun with stories like the one about the beagle that weighed a gut-busting 21 kg. "Who ate all the Pal?" the Sunday Mail asked in England last February. "It must have been the Biggle." In Chicago's trendy West Loop neighbourhood, one trainer is trying to reverse the damage. She's putting canines on treadmills and taking them swimming. In fact, the Do Right Inn, opened by "dog whisperer" Ami Moore two months ago, may be North America's first fat spa for pooches.
For US$4,000, over a 31-day stay, Moore teaches fat dogs to go off-leash and then takes them everywhere with her -- even into local restaurants, where they lie quietly under the table while she eats. Six at a time, she says -- "I rent a big van and I pile them all in and I take them either to Lake Michigan or the Chicago River and I have them play in the water for half-an-hour or an hour a day." She also puts them on the treadmill, where they build speed as they get fit. "I get on first and then I put my trained dog on, and then I say, 'Okay, it's your turn,' " she explains. "I know it sounds bizarre. But they like it. They become addicted to the movement because that's what nature made them -- migratory carnivores."
It's been three years since pet obesity reached epidemic proportions, according to Washington's National Academy of Sciences. People still argue about the causes, if not the cure. Some say like master, like dog. Others think owners are just too tired after a long day to exercise their dogs. Whatever the reason, some owners are turning to professionals for help. At Camp Lotsa Dogs, a country retreat in Kendal, Ont., near Oshawa, dogs can gambol in a pack for hours a day, which sure beats what they get for exercise at home. Its owner, Susan Steiner, complains that "everyone takes their dogs for two 10-minute walks a day, because, you know, it's hot out, it's cold out, it's raining." Asked how many campers are fat when they arrive, she says, "All of them" -- pugs to poodles. "I am really upfront about it," she says. "When people come for the assessment, I go, 'Wow. Fat dog.' "
In Winnipeg, veterinarian Nancy McQuade is subtler. "You never want to say, right off the top, that a dog is fat," she says. She talks about a new client who brought in a 50-kg lab last week; she did the exam and complimented the dog before suggesting it had a weight problem. " 'No,' the owner said. 'He has a big frame.' I loved that one." Other owners have said their dogs just have big hair. "I get impatient," McQuade says. Obesity can shorten a dog's life by four or five years. "I tell them, you're killing your dog with kindness."
That's a lesson Martha Garvey learned. Her 2005 book My Fat Dog was inspired by her beloved dog, Faith, a lab-, beagle-, pitbull-cross she adopted (already fat) from a shelter near her home in Hoboken, N.J. Faith was "very food driven," Garvey says. For the book, she interviewed trainers and learned how not to cave in to Faith's imploring looks. She began taking Faith for regular weigh-ins. The dog lost weight. "There is no question that there is a psychological element involved with people who overfeed their dogs," she says. "They can spend a lot of time thinking about it, or they can use a measuring cup."
Moore's solution is exercise, obedience, and less food. For the past 10 years, Moore has been in business with a dog-training facility, Doggie Do Right 911. She says she got interested in dog fitness because she noticed that dogs with behavioural problems often had medical problems too. Many owners initially contact her, she says, because their dogs are aggressive -- and fat. "Most fat dogs are very socially dominant to their owners," she says. "They are always demanding more -- more petting, more attention, more food."
Moore guarantees the owners a sylphlike, well-mannered dog, and she offers a lifetime of follow-up. Half her clients have happy healthy dogs as a result. But she has no patience for the other half -- usually women, she says -- who abandon her program. "Overfeeding is simply a reflection of the owner's own lack of love," Moore says. " 'I don't feel loved, so here puppy, have a cookie. See, he took it. He loves me.' " The sad part, says Camp Lotsa Dogs' Steiner, is that the dog loves them anyway, "madly and passionately, no matter what they do."