“Wow, a Fitbit for dogs,” I thought when I first noticed that one of my otherwise-sane friends had attached a shiny round silver tracker to her dog’s collar. What a world, Fitbit for dogs. My attitude could be summed up as: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
But that was before I discovered the pet body-shaming industry, after which Fitbit for dogs quickly seemed quaint.
Of course people should encourage their animals to exercise–according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 54% of dogs and cats in the United States are overweight or obese. But there’s a big difference between a leash and true bodyshaming technology. What I’m talking about are doggie treadmills, doggie running services, doggie gyms, doggie personal trainers, doggie Pilates, doggie protein powder, and doggie weights–things designed to make doggie muscles.
The first of these discoveries, for me, was the doggie treadmill, which features side panels for keeping a dog focused on his run and usually costs between $500 and $3,000. Elaborate, sure, but it has a certain logic to it. Dogs like to run. Maybe it’s too cold to take them outside sometimes. Power to those entrepreneurs.
The discovery of doggie gyms, like the 6,000-square-foot facility that just opened in Alexandria, Virginia, however, was a bit harder to swallow. It costs $60 for a one-month membership at that gym, and that’s more than I would pay for a human gym. But after considering agility training–the sport of showing off your dog walking through tunnels, tipping over seesaws, and weaving around poles–it made a little more sense.
Then, just when I began to wrap my head around the idea, I found the canine personal trainers.
Dog walkers are so 1995, it seems. In New York City, there are dog runners, endurance athletes who will take your pet for a jog, who charge $32 per 30 minutes. Dog fitness trainers like those at The Nerdy Dog Fitness in New Hampshire, meanwhile, offer personal training sessions for dogs that include jogging, swimming, and low-intensity exercise using Frisbees, balls, and other toys.
Nerdy Dog also offers team fitness classes for dogs and humans, kind of like baby-and-me swim classes, for $12 each. Don’t live in New Hampshire? You can download the program online for $47 (or read a pamphlet entitled “Lose the Pooch With Your Pooch”). Or, if you live in North Hollywood, the Thank Dog Bootcamp has a similar doggie-and-me fitness program for $25 per class. The recreation department in Arlington, MA has also offered a $293 six-week option.
Working out with your pet I could get behind. But when taken to its absolute furthest incarnation, this concept becomes Paws-ilates, which is exactly what it sounds like: Pilates that incorporates your pet. You can buy the 60-minute DVD for $24.99.
This was a rabbit hole of pet fitness I hadn’t anticipated, and it was far from over.
Still not satisfied with your pet’s body? There’s a corner of the pet supplement industry, which is expected to reach $1.6 billion in 2017, that’s for you. It’s called Gorilla Max, and it’s advertised as a “Dog Protein Powder for Muscle.” It is a more intense version of its sister product, Bully Max, and a 30-day supply costs $44.99.
The image on the Gorilla Max label suggests the product is designed to turn your dog into the most terrifying version of itself. More likely, people buy it because they are dealing with rescued dogs that need to gain weight or dogs that compete in pulling, dog jumps, or other competitions. Some of these, like the pulling competitions, are controversial (sport enthusiasts say it satisfies a dog’s natural instinct, animal activists say it’s cruel).
So wait, if there is protein powder for dogs, that means there is weightlifting for dogs, too, right?
You betchya. A company in Wisconsin that would not return repeated phone calls throughout this week makes weighted collars ($53.99), vests ($76.99), and kettle balls ($49.95) for dogs. The makers of another weighted vest, the K9FITvest ($69.99), say they’ve solved potential problems with doggie resistance training. “If you would like us to speak to your vet please let us know,” its website says. “Many conceptions about weighted vests are based on previous design limitations.”
Is this even safe for pets? The American Veterinary Medical Association was unwilling to give a clear-cut answer to whether body building for dogs is a good idea. Instead a spokesperson sends me a statement. “Physical fitness is an important component of your dog’s overall health and happiness, but you need to make sure you don’t do more harm than good,” it says. “Dietary supplements aren’t under the same scrutiny as veterinary drugs, so you should talk with your veterinarian about what your dog consumes and if that’s truly necessary.”
“Finally, any physical activity your dogs engage in should be fun and rewarding for them, and not a chore.”
Gail Miller Bisher, who founded a fitness training for dogs business in 2009 and is writing a book about pet fitness, says dogs will be healthiest if they exercise regularly in a breed-appropriate way, see the vet, and eat a proper diet. She sees most of the supplements, resistance training, and other pet fitness equipment on the market as unnecessary for most dogs. “They are not people,” she says. “And they do not need to be treated as such. They are not body builders, and they are not able to make their own decisions.”
Of course, most pet fitness products are sold not only under the premise that they are safe, but also that your dog will be missing out on something crucial without them.
The chief marketing officer at the company that makes Gorilla Max, Jamie Seymour, positions the product as a way to give a dog, especially a working dog, what it can’t get from a normal diet. “It’s keeping your dog overall healthy,” he says. “A lot of dogs shed too much, they want their dogs to shed less. They want a better skin and coat. They want their dogs to have a healthier immune system [he claims the product fights infection]. When dogs work out, and when they’re training for show and for sport, this is a product that helps accelerate recovery time,” he says. “There are nutrients you wouldn’t get just from dog food.”
Not hiring a dog runner is also depriving your dog of something essential. “A walk around the block or a 15-minute romp around several times a day is minimal exercise and is NOT enough to meet the average dog’s needs,” explain the dog runners. “Active breeds such as dogs from the sporting, herding, hound and terrier groups, northern breeds and any mixture of these and virtually all adolescents require much more exercise!”
“A well-rounded fitness program includes resistance training to improve joint health, muscle, tendon and ligament strength; as well as cardio, balance and flexibility exercises,” the weighted vest makers advise. “It is recommended that you do strength training exercises with your dog 2-3 times a week for companion pets and 3-5 for performance dogs.”
The treadmill people are more blunt: “WHAT IS YOUR DOG’S HEALTH WORTH TO YOU?” one site asks in capitalized, bold type.
When a dog is drinking a protein shake at a dog gym, before getting on a dog treadmill, it’s maybe time to ask why we’re buying it all of these (expensive) products and services.
Actually body-shaming a pet is not possible, at least not in a way that leads to a credit card transaction, so the pet body-shaming industry must shame us instead. Animals, after all, tend to resemble their owners. We’ve been striving toward unrealistic ideals for our own bodies for decades. Now, at last, there’s a whole genre of products that encourages us to do the same for our pets.