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Mile for Mile, a Dog Is a Man's (or a Woman's) Best Workout Partner

THEY WON'T GIVE YOU PAUSE: Every other Saturday, dogs sheltered by the Washington Humane Society come to Rock Creek Park for exercise. Above, Mimi leads the way for volunteers Kristin Kaplan, left, Erin Winograd and Kristy Richie.
THEY WON'T GIVE YOU PAUSE: Every other Saturday, dogs sheltered by the Washington Humane Society come to Rock Creek Park for exercise. Above, Mimi leads the way for volunteers Kristin Kaplan, left, Erin Winograd and Kristy Richie. (Photo By Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
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By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Unlike first kids Malia and Sasha, my brother and I never convinced our parents to let us adopt a dog. "I'm allergic," lied my dad, while my mom came up with a more creative excuse: "We don't believe in species subjugation." Actually, they didn't believe in picking up poop. Which, in hindsight, is understandable.

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But I've come up with a new, foolproof tactic for kids pleading for a Portuguese water pup: Tell your parents it could help them lose weight.

Then hand over a copy of "The Dog Diet: What My Dog Taught Me About Shedding Pounds, Licking Stress and Getting a New Leash on Life." The author, Patti Lawson, found herself quite by chance saddled with a pooch; she then discovered, just as unexpectedly, that her new roommate was shrinking her waistline -- by stealing her snacks, providing the comfort she used to look for in pints of ice cream and forcing her to wake up before dawn for walks. (The first lady could certainly vouch for that last point: A few weeks ago, she told a group of congressional wives that Bo has her up and out at 5:15 a.m.)

"She wanted to be so active, and it became much more fun," says Lawson, who quickly discovered that exercise with her furry personal trainer could be its own reward. "And she never begged me to stop for a latte, like my girlfriends."

Jessica Berger Gross shares a similar experience in "enLIGHTened: How I Lost 40 Pounds with a Yoga Mat, Fresh Pineapples, and a Beagle Pointer." When she and her husband adopted Salem from a shelter, they figured they were signing up for "love and snuggles," not a weight-loss program. But that was before they realized that only an exhausted Salem wouldn't chew up their furniture.

"Living and exercising with a dog teaches you to integrate fitness in a natural way. It's not always about putting gym clothes on," Gross says. Instead, she and her husband learned to burn calories by heading to the dog park and exploring hiking trails. Now they're walking for an hour a day, and often plan two- or three-hour excursions on weekends, which help improve their attitudes as well as Salem's. "We become grumpy if we don't get our exercise," she adds.

Before you go off and adopt a dog for the fitness benefits, though, remember that unlike a set of stretchy bands, the total tail-wagging package comes with a fair share of slobbering and shedding. If you're like my parents (or apartment-dwelling me), that might sound a little, well, ruff.

And there's another way to dabble in dog time. Every other Saturday morning, volunteers for the Washington Humane Society gather to give the friskiest residents of their two shelters a workout. Kevin Simpson, director of animal training and behavior for WHS, has dubbed the year-old group the People & Animal Cardio Klub, or PACK. (Because pack animals run together. Get it?)

"People love it because they're helping out and getting exercise," he says. The cooped-up canines get an even better deal: They're socializing and blowing off steam, which means they'll be better behaved and, thus, more adoptable.

Watching the group meet up a few weeks ago for a jog in Rock Creek Park, I realized it really is true what they say about runners coming in all shapes and sizes -- including seven-pound, four-legged balls of fluff.

Because some of them can seriously dash, and because volunteer Josh Kaplan, 28, never knows whose leash he'll be holding, he puts in extra gym time to prep for PACK outings. "If I don't do the treadmill, I can't do the four miles," he says. "I don't want to keep the dog from getting exercise. So this gives me motivation."

There's a role for anyone who wants to lend a paw, from "greyhounds" like Kaplan who can keep up with the speedsters to "bulldogs" who handle the slowpokes with a gentle jog/walk. (To sign up, write Simpson at AsktheTrainer@washhumane.org,or call him at 202-723-5730, ext. 122.) And plenty of folks show up with their own dogs just because it's fun.

After all, explains 36-year-old Dolores Hamilton, Alley, her Rottweiler, always has her sprinting anyway. "If I walk with her, all she'll do is pull me along," says Hamilton, who adds that she'd never be breaking this much of a sweat solo. "I would have no motivation to run alone. She gets me out of the house." Alley also has Hamilton cross-training with "stick tug-of-war."

Simpson recognizes that PACK could stand to branch out a bit as well. His black Lab never minds joining him on jogs, but she also digs in-line skating and biking, which are possible future activities for the group.

Perhaps such varied workouts would also be wise for the first family? If the Obamas want to prevent Bo from tearing up the Lincoln Bedroom, they'd better get moving.


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