Pooches with paunches go for wet workouts

Owners take their pets to dog gyms, pools to shed pounds, have fun

Maryland Journal

December 11, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,Sun Reporter

There's no nice way to say it. Chloe, a fiery redhead with a silky mane, is not just fluffy - she's fat.

Her once-trim middle now is paunchy. Her formerly frisky gait has been replaced with a waddling lumber.

Like many who are trying to slim down, Chloe has begun a reduced-calorie diet, and she's at the gym for some exercise.

The 3-year-old golden retriever-German shepherd mix will spend the next half-hour swimming laps in a heated pool built specially for dogs.

Though her first aquatic adventure at the Canine Fitness Center in Crownsville seems more traumatic than enjoyable - Chloe spends most of her lesson flailing and gnawing at her leash - her owners are hoping that with regular sessions, she'll shrink from a hefty 103 pounds to an ideal weight closer to 70 pounds.

"We gave her too much people food, too much treats," admitted Bob Ruckle of Arnold as Chloe splashed in the pool, staring at Ruckle and his wife, Joann, with pleading eyes.

Center co-owner Lynne Chaput explains to the couple that Chloe's behavior is typical for first-timers. But it never takes long for the business's furry clients to fall in love with swimming, she assures them.

Pets have long been treated like members of the family by doting owners, driving the popularity of pet spas, pricey doggie day cares and swank boarding establishments. Now there are doggie gyms and swim centers, some of which even offer massages.

Though fitness centers at first were billed as places where dogs could rehabilitate and get physical therapy for injuries, more and more owners are taking their dogs to exercise as a way to have fun, stay fit, or lose a few extra pounds.

It's an idea that's long overdue, said Marty Becker, the resident veterinarian for ABC's Good Morning America and co-author of Fitness Unleashed, a book about exercising with your pet.

"Fat cats and pudgy pooches are funny in cartoons, but it's deadly serious in real life," Becker said.

"There's a lot of denial going on about overweight pets," he said, adding that an estimated 50 percent of household pets are carrying extra pounds.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, U.S. pet owners will spend an estimated $2.7 billion this year on pet services, which include things like grooming and boarding but not veterinary care. Overall, $38.4 billion will be spent on pets, the association predicts, a figure that's been rising steadily.

In the region, two other swimming facilities for dogs have popped up recently - both in Baltimore County.

And in Fredericksburg, Va., there's Pup N Iron, which has a dog gym with agility equipment, a pool and treadmills. They also offer customized physical fitness programs and personal training sessions for your pooch, according to the gym's Web site.

Becker points out that dog gyms can be good for very active dogs but that swimming has benefits for nearly every dog.

"It's perfect across the spectrum - for the dog [that is] training for the iron dog triathlon to the canine senior citizens," Becker said. And when it comes to weight loss, swimming offers dogs the same benefits it does humans.

But Maury and Lynne Chaput didn't start the Canine Fitness Center in Crownsville with weight loss in mind.

The idea for the facility came in 2000, when their black Lab, Shadow, tore the meniscus in her knee. To avoid surgery, Shadow's vet recommended an exercise regimen that included swimming, but the Chaputs could only find one place to take Shadow - a horse farm with an outdoor pool.

"It was February," Lynne Chaput said. "We were freezing. She was freezing."

On the way home, the Millersville couple decided to open a swimming pool just for dogs.

Shadow's veterinarian assisted Lynne with a market study. A certified public accountant, Lynne put together a business plan and applied to several banks for loans. When she presented the idea to a bank president and a conference table of loan officers, she said, she received slack-jawed looks, but also a lot of support.

It cost $600,000 to buy the 5-acre parcel and build their center, which has two indoor pools, both heated to 80 degrees. The pools are 14 feet by 26 feet and 4 feet deep. The chemicals are balanced to be safe for dogs.

Now open nearly four years, the center has about 1,500 clients, the Chaputs said. Turnover tends to be high among the clientele, but that's a good thing - the dog has either recovered from its injury or has lost weight. About a third of the animals are referred by vets for health reasons, and the remaining two-thirds come for fun and fitness, the Chaputs said.

One client who has stuck around is Lily, a black Lab.

Her owner, Burch Manley of Arnold, began bringing her when the center first opened. Lily's vet suggested swimming to help her strengthen an injured knee and prevent weight gain. Four years later, it's part of Lily's weekly routine.

Now 8 years old, Lily is in good health and her weight is normal.

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