- A treadmill is great for indoor exercise for your dog.
- Use a treadmill year-round for warm-ups and conditioning for your dog.
- You can use a human treadmill for all but the largest dogs.
At this time of year, many of us make resolutions to get fit. Maybe you’re even thinking of getting back on that neglected treadmill that you bought for last year’s resolution. If you’re having trouble getting excited about the idea, here’s something to do with it that might be more fun: Teach your dog to walk on a treadmill.
A treadmill is a great way to exercise your dog when the weather is nasty. When the snow is higher than my Pug‘s head, we head down to the basement where she gets to walk for treats, I watch TV or listen to music, and both of us stay warm and dry. But it’s useful in other situations year-round as well.
“Many people are doing dog sports and it is important to keep our athlete dogs in excellent shape,” says Pamela Johnson, CPDT-KA. “Treadmills can be a great way to get your dog a full-body workout, without the impact. You can use the treadmill to warm up your dog before trick training, dog sports, long walks or hikes.”
Johnson has also found the treadmill valuable for rehabilitation when her dogs were injured. It was a lifesaver for me when I first got my dog and she was so reactive that walks outside were a challenge. And the training itself is a great mental workout for your dog on days when you’re stuck inside.
Getting On the Treadmill
Training your dog to use the treadmill means breaking the process down into small steps and building a positive association with each one. Start by treating your dog for simply getting up on it. “Dog gets on, click and treat. Dog gets off, click and treat. Repeat this step many times, then end the training session,” says Johnson. If your dog is not clicker trained, simply feed treats. Remember never to force the dog to get on equipment. “The goal is for your dog to want to get on the treadmill on his own,” she says. If your dog is nervous about the treadmill or not used to getting up on things, you may need to start slower by treating for simply being near, or looking at it, before working on getting up on it.
Once your dog is comfortable getting up and standing on the treadmill, the next step is to turn the power on. But don’t start the motion yet — this step is just to get the dog accustomed to the sound of the motor and fan. Treat for standing there listening to the noise. My machine was so quiet that my dog didn’t seem to notice it, so this step went quickly, but be sure to look for signs of stress and make sure your dog is completely comfortable before moving on.
Get Moving Gradually
Then comes the big step: Start the treadmill moving at a slow speed, and treat like crazy. “At this point, it’s important that your dog gets a high rate of reinforcement in order to build a strong treadmill walking behavior,” Johnson says.
Always remember to keep the training session short. Do multiple short sessions a day, and always stop before the dog shows a desire to get off. “It is best to always leave the dog wanting to do more, and not overdo it,” she says.
Also, make sure you don’t rush from one step of the training to the next. “Building your dog’s confidence is extremely important. Do not progress to any of the steps until your dog is completely confident and doing really well at the step he is on,” she says. She suggests expecting to spend a week on each step of the process.
Once Your Dog is a Pro
Remember that the goal is for the dog to love the treadmill. Mine whines at the basement door with excitement when she thinks that a workout is about to happen. Yes, for her, it’s partly about the cheese, but that’s OK. Johnson recommends that you should keep treating during workouts. “I am a firm believer in continuing to treat or reward dogs for behaviors they are doing,” she says. “This will keep those behaviors that we like strong and consistent.”
Still, some dogs might not need it. “My oldest Border Collie loves the treadmill so much that he will just get on and walk without me constantly reinforcing him with treats as he walks,” she says.
Once your dog is completely comfortable on the moving treadmill, you can increase the speed gradually. Remember to always hold the safety cord so you can stop the machine if there is a problem.
If your dog really gets into this — or you don’t already own a human treadmill — you can buy one specially made for dogs. Johnson notes that these are preferable for large breed dogs, who may have to shorten their stride unnaturally on a human treadmill. Dog treadmills have side panels, so you may need to do a little extra training to get your dog used to them. However, some trainers recommend you remove the side panels so the dog is completely at ease getting on and off the treadmill. You can see a video of Johnson training the whole process using a dog treadmill here.
Differences to Keep In Mind
It’s important to remember that walking on a treadmill is different from walking your dog outside in a number of ways. It’s more demanding physically, because there’s no stopping to sniff. Johnson suggests starting with five-minute workouts and building up a few extra minutes per week to a maximum of 20 minutes. If you want to increase the speed, do that separately from increasing duration.
Also, while the process of training provides mental enrichment, once your dog is used to it, it’s just physical exercise. A treadmill walk doesn’t provide the same mental stimulation as getting out and sniffing and seeing the world. But when that’s not possible for whatever reason, it’s a great alternative.