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Bow Wow Workouts help you - and your dog - get fit

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Susie keeps focused as she cuts through the cones with her human handler during a workout. The classes were designed by a personal trainer and a dog trainer. 'You're getting healthier and your dog is getting healthier,' says Debi Krakar, executive director of the Austin Dog Alliance, which piloted the classes in November. She also says, 'The whole mission is to see dogs as part of the family, train them and get them out and enjoy them.'

Susie, bless her butter-colored hide, seems more interested in the liver-flavored treats I am meting out than getting in a good workout.

Me, though? I'm serious.

I've reported for my first Bow Wow Workout with sneakers laced and a borrowed dog in tow.

The Austin Dog Alliance, a nonprofit group that places homeless dogs with adoptive families and trains dogs as therapy animals, has teamed up with certified personal trainer Jen Andrew of Greenfeet Fitness to offer the classes, which put both humans and their four-legged pals through the paces. The classes are open to any dog owner who's looking for a way to get some exercise.

It's hard to say who needs it more, the humans or their pets.

About two-thirds of adult American humans are overweight; a third are obese. Dog obesity is just as rampant — and damaging. Veterinarian Allen Codding of the Anderson Mill Animal Clinic says about 80 percent of the dogs he sees need to lose a few pounds; about 20 percent are obese.

Studies have shown that obesity in both species can raise the risk for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and certain types of cancer. "It'll definitely shorten their lives," Codding says.

So what's a pet owner to do? "It's exactly like people as far as increasing activity and decreasing calories," he says. "There are all sorts of things to do in Austin, from dog parks to walking around the block to Bow Wow Workouts."

Besides burning calories and improving cardiovascular fitness, the hour-long Bow Wow Workouts help pet owners bond with their dogs. They're fun, and they're more challenging — and interesting — than a walk down the street.

"You're getting healthier and your dog is getting healthier," says Debi Krakar, executive director of the Austin Dog Alliance, which piloted the classes in November.

The sessions are now offered three times a week at the Dog Alliance's indoor training facility in far northwest Austin, or, if the weather's good, at the park down the street.

The sun's shining today, so we've run a third of a mile to the park, where Andrew has set up five exercise hubs. We run from station to station, executing bicep curls, weaving between cones and tossing weighted medicine balls at one another, our dogs (theoretically) at our side.

Everyone loves Susie. She's a cupcake on four legs. We need more practice, though. Midway through the cone weave, I'm sort of dragging her along.

It's not that she's out of shape. My friend Marcy Stellfox adopted Susie from Heart of Texas Lab Rescue where she volunteers. Suze used to be tubby, but Stellfox, who works as a surgery technician at Hiway 620 Animal Hospital, helped her melt off 30 unwanted pounds. Now she's sleek and beautiful at 60 pounds, with warm yellow eyes and a nose like a Hostess Ding Dong.

She peers up at me a little sheepishly and watches politely while Stellfox and I heave medicine balls at one another. She likes it when we do lunges because I sneak her a few treats out of the Home Depot tool belt strapped to my waist. But she seems baffled when I slip a super-fat rubber band around my calves and shuffle sideways. She's trying, though, and by the end of the session she's trotting more or less at my side.

Stellfox has an exercise partner of her own, another yellow lab named Bubbles that she is fostering. (Looking for an exercise buddy? Bubbles needs a home.)

When we're done with the stations, we spend about 15 minutes doing core work. Susie likes this. She sits and pants in my face as I struggle my way through a 45-second plank hold. My muscles screech but Susie doesn't seem to mind as we tick off more abdominal exercises.

But what Susie likes best is the 5-minute doggy massage session. Her eyes squint shut as I roll her floppy ears through my hands like I'm wringing out a washcloth. Her tail does a slow wag as I stroke her back.

"It's way better than a walk, isn't it?" says Krakar as class wraps up and the half dozen students walk back to the Austin Dog Alliance offices. "The whole mission is to see dogs as part of the family, train them and get them out and enjoy them. If we can get people to that level with their dog, they won't dump them at the shelter."

It takes most dogs a session or two to get used to the class. But when they figure it out, most calm down and seem to enjoy it, Krakar says. The classes aren't appropriate for all dogs, especially aggressive or unsocialized ones, and it's a good idea to have a basic obedience class under the belt before signing up.

"It's not meant to run you into the ground. It's supposed to be fun. It'll lengthen and tone your muscles, not bulk them up," says Andrew, who adopted her own dog, Ginger, an Australian shepherd mix, last year.

"It's healthy for the people, and if the dog gives them incentive to be healthy, that's a good thing," Krakar says. "I have to exercise my dog every day and that's good — otherwise I'd put it off until tomorrow."

That's just one more reason to adopt a dog — they can motivate you to get fit. They're eager exercise partners, and area shelters are filled with animals who need good homes.

Katy Evans, 31, adopted her dog Mowgli from the Town Lake Animal Shelter last year. Today was her second Bow Wow Workout.

"I wanted to get back in shape, but it was hard to find time to exercise because I always needed to walk my dog," Evans says. "It's a way for us both to get an interesting workout."

Class over, Susie climbs into the back of my friend's truck for the trip home. Clearly, she's smiling.

For her, it's not a workout, it's playtime. She's one smart pup.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994