You’re not the only one who’s been spending less time exercising during the spread of COVID-19. Chances are if you have a four-legged friend at home, they might be slacking too.
Aside from daily potty breaks and playing fetch inside (since local dog parks remained closed through early June), your dog has potentially seen a drop in physical and social activity since March. But there’s no reason to worry just yet.
We spoke with Kim Gilliam, co-owner of the region’s first dog gym or “canine sports club,” Frolick Dogs, in Alexandria, about how you can get your pup back on track with daily exercise even if the temperatures are high, as well as creative ways to keep up mental stimulation when playing indoors. Highlights from our conversation are below.
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For those who may have not heard of Frolick Dogs, how do you describe “dog gym” and what services do you provide?
Frolick Dogs opened in 2014, so we’re actually celebrating our six-year anniversary right now. We are locally owned by my husband and me. It’s a very small mom and pop situation, but basically my husband’s background was in dog training locally here at the Old Town School for Dogs, and my background was in association management, business and marketing. So when we thought it was time to make a change, we thought about opening our own place. My husband came up with the concept of a dog gym, and then I did all of the due diligence to see what that would really look like and how it would work.
As a dog gym, we really focus on dog exercise both physically and mentally, which can include a variety of things, but mostly agility, which is kind of the focal point of the gym. We have a full agility course, we also have treadmills and balance equipment for dogs. So those kind of make it a circuit workout. We think of it like if you were going to the gym, you’d want to hit all the major components of keeping a dog fit and healthy, but we also really think about the mental component as well. We also offer nose-work classes, obedience training, rally-type classes, things like that.
And each visit is personalized for the individual dog, because at some point your dog might age out of doing agility, for example, so maybe they shouldn’t be jumping or running, but they still need exercise or they still need that stimulation. And so we definitely want to focus on the full wellness of your dog, so we offer those things. But right now in the pandemic, we are offering day care (not overnight boarding), Monday through Saturday, and that’s where people drop their dogs off in the morning, picking them up at night, and we are in charge of making sure they get that physical and mental stimulation. Normally we work with 50 to 60 dogs a day, but right now it’s down to about 40 to 50 dogs a day.
You have had to keep your gym closed to public visitors since the pandemic began. What has that been like and what other safety precautions have you been taking?
When we open the gym up to the public, that’s where we offer visitors the full facility with the agility course, the treadmills, the balance equipment, and dog owners can come in with their dogs and exercise them in the gym. We’re there showing them how to get started. It’s not rocket science. But now, I don’t know when we’ll feel comfortable opening that back up mostly just because it’s hard to run around with your dog with a mask on, and it’s also not super fun. I don’t want to expose myself or our staff to too many external influences until we really know what’s going on. So that piece needs to be kept closed for right now.
Otherwise, pretty quickly when this all started, we wanted to keep everyone as safe as possible and we wanted to stay on top of that. We were reading every article, finding all of the newest information that was coming out. Very quickly we went to contactless drop-off and pickup, and that’s been very successful, as well as wearing masks and gloves. We were already disinfecting regularly anyways, but we added twice-a-day disinfecting to all commonly touched surfaces with a 24-hour disinfecting spray, and we don’t have any clients coming in or out of our building since pickup and drop-off is outside. We are literally the only people going into our building, our staff and the dogs. Thankfully, knocking on wood right now, no one on our staff has been sick, and only a couple of clients have had close calls. So we’ve been very lucky.
Let’s talk about the importance of exercising your dog. Why is it important not only for them to get physical activity each day, but also elements like core work and agility?
For obvious reasons, overall health and well-being, especially keeping weight off. If your dog has become more sedentary, let’s say we’re all staying home more and maybe there was a routine established before. We’ve kind of fallen out of that because now we’re home more and now your dog might be more sedentary, and that’s not great because you’re probably still feeding them the same amount. And in fact, because you’re home with them more, you might be giving them more treats or more stuff they shouldn’t be having. Instead, you really should be focused on keeping their exercise routine up. And I think for a lot of people, because their routines are just thrown off, they’re not doing as good a job on it.
For their muscle tone and weight, they do need exercise, just like we do to stay healthy and well. If they lose muscle mass, they’re more prone to injury. Again, just like us. If they gain weight, that’s more weight on their joints and they’re more prone to injuries. So keeping them at their ideal weight is just so important for their overall well-being and health. And then, also just keeping them active so that they have that regular activity level. Most importantly though, I think, dogs need a routine. They need that exercise to keep themselves mentally stimulated as well.
You might find the dogs are more destructive at home or they might be getting into more trouble lately. They may be demanding more attention and be more needy, or might be barking more. It can come out in a lot of different ways, whether it’s chewing on the furniture, stealing your shoes, barking, all of these little annoying things that they’re normally not doing. You might be thinking, “Why are they having all of these new, annoying habits in quarantine when they’ve always been so good?” And it’s because they’re out of their routine, they’re not getting that physical and mental exercise that they had been getting on a routine basis.
How much exercise should dogs be getting every day to maintain their routine and activity level?
It can vary based on their size and age, but for sure it’s 45 minutes to an hour and a half a day, somewhere in there. If it’s maybe an older dog or a smaller dog, you’re doing three, 15-minute walks a day, that’s probably sufficient. If it’s a more energetic dog, you should be up at the hour and a half mark. You can find criteria out there, but you can also tell from your own dog, like OK, now they’re starting to get tired.
If readers are unable to drop their dogs off for doggy day care or they don’t feel safe taking them to the dog park, what other ways can they get physical and social activity this summer?
In recent months, aside from being careful because I own my own business, I still have done things where I’ve met up with friends in their backyards and let our dogs play, where each of us is at our own corner of the backyard, but the dogs could still play. I’ve done walks with friends where we keep our distance, but our dogs are able to engage and things like that. The dog parks are opening back up as well and just to be safe, you can go when it’s not a very busy time at the park, if you’re able to do that. Of course, once people return to the standard work schedules and work days out of the house, it becomes harder to manage that. But right now there’s some flexibility, so go when it’s not the busy time of the day at the park and they can enjoy that as well.
Any safety tips for exercising dogs in the summer, or keeping them entertained inside?
Going for a walk first thing in the morning is a great idea, when it’s not too hot and you can actually enjoy your time, maybe even go a little farther if you’re feeling it. Same thing goes for late evening, after say 8 p.m. once the sun goes down and the road has cooled off.
Some people aren’t going to be able to do that, so in the middle of the day when it’s warmer, stick to grassy areas since dogs can walk for a lot longer on grass than on the road. Stick to the shade, take lots of breaks. You might just want to do things in smaller increments and take breaks along the way. Always watch your dog for signs of being overheated too.
You can also do a working walk, so you can have them sit, stay down, come when they’re called, and you do use all your obedience tricks. If you have shake and rollover, like whatever your mental things that you can do with your dog, do those on your walk, make it a working walk instead of just a wander where they’re sniffing. Make them work, and instead of going 3 miles, maybe do 1 mile, but the whole time you’re making them heel, sit, stay calm. And you’ll both be exhausted after a mile because you’ve been working that whole time.
If you’re indoors, you can have games in the house. You can make little agility courses with a broom and two chairs (for jumping), your table covered with a cloth (for tunnel-running), and you don’t need a big space either. I have a condo, and with a little creativity you can figure it out. You can have your dog balance on things, if you have a muffin tin, you can make them use their nose to find the treat that’s underneath, and you can always look up videos on how to teach your dogs tricks. Even if you just do 10 minutes a day of training, you can show them off, and now you have the actual time to put in the work to help prevent them from barking, learn how to heel on their walks, make them sit before they eat dinner, whatever it is, all of those things keep them mentally stimulated in your engagement with them.
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Aside from adapting to the pandemic, what’s the best part about owning a dog-inspired business?
I would say two things. One, I love seeing dogs try new things and conquer them. We’ll have people come into the gym for the first time and they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, my dog’s not going to do any of this,” for whatever reason, such as their dog is shy or they might be kind of lazy. So we’ll go back to the gym and I’ll use treats, a squeaky toy, whatever I can use to motivate that dog, and I’ll have them start with jumping, and they’ll do that. And the dog will get so excited and start wiggling and waggling, and go over to the owner as if to say, “Oh my God! Did you see that? I did it!” Then maybe we’ll try the tunnel and other equipment. And before you know it, the dog has learned three different things and we’re able to run them around the agility course with those three obstacles that they’ve learned. The owner will respond with. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. I have an agility dog, all of a sudden.” It’s been six years, and I still know that I look ridiculous when I’m cheering on a dog like that. But at the same time, it’s a big deal when it’s the first time a dog has tried it and they’ve done it. I love seeing owners pull out their cameras with these big, bright smiles because their dog just learned something new.
The other part for me was when we opened this business, I kind of knew all of that stuff was to come. I knew it would be really fun and what to expect. But the thing that was unexpected was we built this community. Our day care clients, which we have had most of the same on and off for the past six years, they have now supported us through a pandemic. We couldn’t be more thankful for the community that we feel are responsible dog owners, that have invested time, money and energy into their dogs. It’s this cool community that we’ve had our ups and downs, but they have bolstered us through them. With the pandemic, even though I was panicked and trying to figure out how we are going to make it and what we can do to keep everyone safe, I had this sense of calm and a part of me be like, “It’s OK because we have the greatest clients and the best community around, and Alexandria is an amazingly supportive community in general with small businesses.”
What are you looking forward to most, when the time feels right, to having dogs and visitors back in the space?
I think we’re very excited to invite everyone, but especially these new pandemic dogs, right? There are all of these rescue dogs and new puppies, and we love to host puppy play groups and large dog meetups. We also have all types of breed groups too. We love hosting all of these, whether it’s different people or different breeds coming in together, and it’s really fun and it’s very social, because people love talking to other dog owners.
I think there’s going to be a real need when things start opening back up again, in all of the ways that there’s going to be people with dogs that need a lot of socialization, need a structured environment to meet up with other dogs that isn’t just the dog park.
We also typically offer birthday parties and other types of space rentals, so we might have “Yappy Hours” or we’ve had “Bark Mitzvahs” and different types of events here. We used to have up to four parties a weekend.
We’re also glad to still be doing our obedience training, even in the pandemic. There have been so many people getting dogs during the last few months, whether it be puppies or rescuing dogs that need homes. There has been a lot of demand for obedience training because a lot of people are integrating new dogs into their homes. So that has continued to be offered. // 3208 Colvin St., Alexandria
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