Confessional: on going from fat back to fit

I’m really looking forward to telling you about the various aerobic adventures that Nala and I undertake together every week on Fit Dog Friday. But doing so would make feel dishonest if I didn’t confess something first: I let Nala get pretty fat.

such ears
Look at that adorably gigantic head!

When we first adopted Nala, she was a typically skinny, awkward teenage GSD–in fact, she was probably a little bit too skinny, thanks to a life that consisted entirely of charging around at top speed with other dogs.

After a few months, Nala had gained about five much-needed pounds. At some point during the winter, her chest filled out a little bit (which, I recently learned, is typical for adolescent dogs of her breed between the ages of 18 months and 3 years). We got in the habit of not going on hikes–thanks in large part to Nala’s environmental sensitivity, they were just so difficult and unpleasant, and I worried that exposing Nala to difficult environments without knowing why she was stressed would just make her worse. And then, central Texas plummeted into the wettest spring in recent history. We couldn’t have hiked if we’d wanted to. And have I mentioned that Nala has almost no natural interest in playing fetch? She’ll chase a ball a few times, but she would rather tug, smell things, lay in wait for squirrels, or roll in the grass while you rub her belly.

The result? For a whole month, the best exercise that Nala could get was walks around our neighborhood, and I spent a significant portion of each walk shoveling cheese into her mouth whenever she saw a car. Is it any wonder that she ballooned up to a body condition score of almost 7/9?

squirrels cause what I call Nala's
She was still adorable, of course. But what you can’t see here is that I couldn’t even feel the bones in her sternum under that fluffy, creamy neck ruff.

You guys love it when I tell you my mistakes so that we can all learn from them, right?

So, lesson one: Try not to countercondition triggers that your dog sees a lot of with cheddar cheese. Then again, I chose cheddar because I know that it’s Nala’s absolute favorite thing short of fresh goat cheese, and I was comfortable “closing the economy” on it outside of seeing her trigger. Still, if your dog loves something as much as she loves cheese, use that.

Lesson two: It can be particularly hard to see if your dog has gained weight if she has a thick double coat, so it’s important to learn to body condition score your dog, and to do it every week. Learn what she feels like at a healthy weight–don’t wait until she’s already fat. I could have saved us all a lot of grief if I had been checking to see how palpable Nala’s ribs were, uh, ever. In fact, to learn what her ribs should feel like, I ended up surreptitiously body condition scoring the dogs of friends (sorry, friends. I only did this after finding five totally conflicting accounts of what part of my own hand my dog should feel like! Desperate times, desperate measures, etc.).

In keeping with my obsessive personality, I leapt immediately into action upon realizing that Nala was overweight! We did several things to help her return to her svelte self. I’ll describe them here in case it can help anyone else–but please remember to use common sense, to build up your dog’s stamina slowly, to have consideration for any joint conditions your dog might have, etc.

1) Put Nala on a diet.

I followed this article by Mary Straus, originally published in Whole Dog Journal, as though it were a religious text. It has great suggestions regardless of whether you feed kibble, raw, or a mixture of both.

For the sake of full disclosure, I eventually ended up transitioning Nala to a BARF style raw diet, largely because I’m a nerd and I enjoy that sort of thing. That’s definitely not necessary for your dog to lose weight! But getting extra moisture in her food helped Nala feel fuller even on a reduced ration, so if you can do anything to add moisture to your dog’s diet–even just soaking their kibble–I’d recommend it.

2) Took up running.

I’m going to level with you: I hate running. It’s boring. I’m asthmatic. It’s sort of the worst thing ever. But trying not to trip over Nala and get myself killed whenever she skids to a halt so that she can sniff something lends a little extra excitement to the activity. I like using a leash with bungee cord in it to keep Nala from slamming into the end of the leash and damaging her spine when she runs faster than me. Also, it helps keep me from being pulled onto my face.

squirrel!
Nala’s Couch to 5K: Trot for half a block. Skid to a stop, spin around, and sniff for a minute, crossing back and forth on the sidewalk several times. Take off running again. See a squirrel! Check in, then nearly get yourself and the attached human killed as you reap your Premack-y reward. Repeat until suddenly you are home. How did that happen?!

3) Resumed weekend hikes.

meghan's iphone pictures (all dogs) (7.11) 297Out of consideration for Nala’s environmental sensitivity, I found some gear that would allow her to be as physically comfortable as possible in the hopes of diminishing her stress. She wears either a padded harness or an H-shaped harness and a 20 ft long line when we hike, a setup which immediately made hikes easier and more comfortable for everyone than trying to do them with a front-clip harness and a leash.

There are lots of great greenbelts and hiking trails in my area, many of which involve trekking uphill on loose, rocky terrain–great for building strength in Nala’s back legs. A lot of the creeks are full of water right now, too–swimming and walking in the water is great, low impact exercise. As an additional bonus, all that positive exposure to new environments seems to have helped her learn to acclimate to new places more quickly.

4) Begin doing exercises to increase body awareness and condition her core and back legs.

When Nala and I jog or hike, I encourage her to jump up on every bench and weird tree we encounter. She gradually learned to tuck her back feet in when she jumped up onto narrow benches. If she has good footing, I ask for tricks like “high five” and “bravo.” For weirdly shaped fallen trees like the one to the right, I’m thrilled to pieces to see her get up there at all. I taught her to “sit pretty” and to pivot on an upturned pot partially in the name of fitness, too.

5) Find an intense form of exercise or two that Nala is willing to engage in a few times a week.

*leap!*
*leap!*

Fetching can be great exercise, but what if your dog just isn’t super into it? Nala likes tugging, but it’s not exactly aerobic, even if it does help strengthen her core and her hocks.

No, we needed something that would take advantage of her capacity for speed without exhausting the human being entertaining her. For some dogs, that might be a flirt pole. For Nala, it’s chasing the spray from the hose like a maniac.

*chomp!*
*chomp!*

The first picture may look like a dog leaping heedlessly at my face, but it’s actually a left finish, one of the behaviors we learned for Rally Obedience. In fact, I’m really proud of it, since it’s the product of months of work building Nala’s impulse control so that we could actually play with the hose safely.  But that’s a story for another day!

6) Find a way of keeping track of your dog’s weight that makes sense for you.

For some, this might mean weekly happy visits to the vet to be weighed. You could also weigh yourself, pick up your dog, and step on the scale again. If, like me, you don’t have a scale and weekly vet visits aren’t very convenient, you can also measure your dog’s rib cage and waist every week or two.

Whatever method you choose, having concrete evidence of progress is really reinforcing for the human half of this equation! It can take weeks of hard work for your dog’s body condition score to move a full number in the right direction, but they might be losing a few ounces or quarters of an inch each week. Even when I still couldn’t quite feel Nala’s ribs without digging my fingers in, it was encouraging to know that she had lost an inch and a half of bulk from around her ribcage in about two months. Without that kind of clear indicator that we were moving in the right direction, I would have gotten pretty discouraged.

I’m happy to say that after nearly four months of hard work, Nala is finally about a 5/9 as of this week. Her waist is sharply defined behind her rib cage, and smaller than her hips. I can feel her ribs with very gentle pressure.

so shiny!
It’s hard to get a decent picture of Nala’s waist, since her fur blends perfectly into anything that isn’t my clothing. Still, hopefully you can see the sharp contrast between her ribs and her waist, and the slightly less obvious contrast between her waist and hips.

More importantly, her energy level is much higher than it was when she was overweight. She’s quicker and more agile. She asks me to play with her again! And I don’t know if you noticed, but a lot of those activities–training tricks? Teaching Nala to interact with her environment in new ways? Taking in nature together?–are great ways to bond with your dog. Frustrating though it might have been at times, we’ve had a lot of fun getting here.

Since she’s a big dog with a probable genetic predisposition to joint issues, it’s important to me to get Nala as fit and conditioned as I can, and to never let her get overweight again. I’m looking forward to telling you about the weekly adventures we engage in to keep her trim!

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17 thoughts on “Confessional: on going from fat back to fit

  1. Good for you for seeing a problem, making a plan and getting it done! I think it can be very difficult for most people to adjust diet when activity level changes. I know we always have issues when winter rolls around coming off of summer training and fall hunting.

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    1. Yes! I like to optimistically consider Nala “active,” but sometimes the weather and our schedules put our activity levels at “potato.” I’ve definitely learned to be more honest with myself about how much food she needs!

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  2. Great post! Zoe got fat, too when we lived with our inlaws because there was nothing for dogs to do there. Their area is not very dog friendly and the neighborhood wasn’t very safe to go for long walks in. I’m very happy we are back in a dog friendly area with lots of hikes and places to run and swim. Personally, I don’t think it’s that awful that Nala got overweight while you were doing behavior mod. You have to do what you have to do.

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    1. Our neighborhood is bad for dog fitness, too! It’s small and surrounded by very busy roads, which still make Nala a bit nervous.
      I agree! I hope that no one comes away from this thinking that DS/CC and behavior mod are bad. I don’t regret doing it at all–arguably all of the things we’re doing to get her back in shape wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t overcome the main thing that made her nervous in new places.

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  3. This is a wonderfully inspiration post for me. I have an overweight dog and I’m helping her lose weight. It’s nice to compare notes. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. What an awesome post! So glad you realized Nala needed help and you covered all the bases to get her back to a good weight with diet and exercise! Good for you both! My mom loves running with dogs despite landing on her face about once a year, she just keeps going 🙂 Hope you can stay upright!

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  5. Good work! Barley is working on losing weight, too. She also has a coat that makes it really hard to tell what’s going on beneath the fur, so sometimes it’s hard to notice that she’s gained weight until a significant amount has been added on. She’s very mischievous, though, so even when we’re very active and she’s on a diet, she likes to try to sneak the cat’s food when I’m not looking, which seems to be the biggest contributor to weight gain. I’m glad to hear that Nala’s starting to play and have more energy again!

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