Treadmill training for dogs

When should you consider putting your dog on a treadmill? 

This tool can benefit dogs — whether they're healthy, overweight or injured.

It can be difficult to give an active dog enough exercise, especially in the winter. Cold, slick conditions set up humans and canines alike for discomfort and injuries. One potential solution to this dilemma is working your dog on a treadmill.

“Visiting a skilled veterinarian or sports medicine specialist is recommended to determine if your dog is a good candidate for this type of exercise. Such a veterinarian will also help establish protocols to safely follow,” says Dr. Christopher Frye, assistant clinical professor and section chief of the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.

Things to consider

Safety is paramount when introducing your dog to a treadmill and continuing the work.

“In general, the patient may need to be conditioned to the device through positive reinforcement and partly motivated through these techniques,” Frye says. “An appropriately fitted harness is recommended, as well as one or two people comfortable with providing any necessary support, motivation and helping to ensure safety. Furthermore, dogs may need rest between sessions (days off) or during a session (interval training). An experienced professional is recommended to initially assess the patient and provide these recommendations.”

Frye notes, “The treadmill should be an appropriate length for the patient and the speed at which they are moving. We use animal-specific treadmills with safety side rails to help our patients track in a straight line.”

Large dogs have much longer strides than humans when you consider the full reach from the front leg extended forward to the rear leg extended back. For this reason, human treadmills are not long enough for many dogs to move naturally. For a dog, the treadmill should be 1.5-2 times their body length.

“The treadmill should be able to move slow enough for the patient. Exercise should be controlled at a walk or trot,” Frye says.

Exercising on a treadmill is not the same as walking or running on land, and it may be more challenging for your dog than you might expect.

“It should be noted that a treadmill moves under the feet of the participant, forcing the limbs backward and behind the body in stance phase. This is the opposite of typical land movement when the limbs are voluntarily moved in the swing phase forward and then the body follows suit by rolling forward over the limbs during stance phase,” Frye says.

“For this reason, treadmill exercise does not perfectly mimic land walking. Some benefits are that it will help pull the hind limbs into extension during a walk so patients with hip dysplasia and limited extension may benefit; however, there tend to be increased braking forces and the potential for exacerbated foot scuffing in some patients.”

He continues, “Whenever we choose treadmill, all these factors, and others, are taken into account to determine if it will benefit the patient.”

Treadmill work for healthy dogs

“Treadmills may be used as an option for patients and/or family members that are unable to easily or safely walk outside in the winter for exercise,” says Frye.

“We also use them in dogs that are quite fit and would be challenging for their human counterpart to physically exercise them to the extent of taxing this fitness. Examples of this type of dog are working or sporting breeds including field trial dogs, police dogs, search and rescue, and tracking. Patients that require increased hindlimb or forelimb strengthening may benefit from a treadmill with incline and decline functions to help shift weight to the front or back of the patient for increased strengthening.”

If your dog fits one of these profiles, start your treadmill journey with a veterinary rehab specialist. They can help introduce your dog to the treadmill in a controlled setting and can guide you on the best exercise plan for your dog. As you and your dog get more comfortable, you may be able to purchase a dog treadmill and use it at home (they cost between $400-600).

Recovery and rehab

Treadmill work can play a role in the recovery and rehabilitation for a variety of orthopedic and neurological disorders.

“We tend to incorporate treadmill exercise for a number of reasons in various patients,” Frye says. “For patients suffering from neurological disease, the consistent speed and timing of the treadmill allow us to focus on reestablishing a straight gait patterning by stimulating spinal cord central pattern generators as part of reflex arcs for a chosen optimal pace. This differs from typical walking in which our canine patients like to weave and ‘stop and smell the roses.’

“These patients also benefit from the sensory feedback of placing their feet and moving their joints as well as strengthening and endurance work. Many compromised patients require body weight support when using land treadmills and active assistance in placing their limbs,” continues Frye.

“It should be noted that we most often use water therapy with underwater treadmills, as many of our patients benefit from the buoyancy of the water during early rehabilitation or the resistance of the water during endurance and strength training. We use the land treadmill more when the patient cannot enter the water (after surgery, with infections and for dogs that don’t tolerate water).”

Getting started

If you think your dog could benefit from treadmill work, contact a rehab specialist for a consult. Whether your dog has a complex mobility issue or simply needs to blow off some steam, this is a great way to try out a treadmill and determine if it is a good fit.

“However,” Frye cautions, “treadmill exercise could be counterproductive or dangerous depending on the health status and willingness of the patient to cooperate.”

Expect the first few sessions to be slow with a lot of stops. Your dog will first need to learn how to get on and off the stationary treadmill safely, then the practitioner will start moving the belt a little as you both encourage your dog to walk. With patience and positive reinforcement, most dogs figure out the game and come to enjoy their workouts.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.