The leaves are changing, the temperatures are cooling down and the sun is setting earlier – all signs point to pumpkin spice season! As summer fades away, most of us exchange our running shoes and leashes for fuzzy socks and cuddling on the couch with our dogs. No judgment here! The Malibu surfer girl in me is excited to channel her inner Betty Crocker. ’Tis the season! And if you love the holidays as much as I do, you’ll probably have plenty of treats to indulge in as well.

One of the more practical fall holidays to remember is “National Pet Obesity Awareness Month”—a time to reflect and honestly assess whether we are helping our dogs maintain their ideal weight and body condition. As much as I love snuggling with my dogs, this is always the reminder I need to resist the urge to skip our daily exercise as we approach the holidays!

Obesity is a growing problem in the United States, for both ends of the leash. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 42.4 percent of US adults are obese. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates nearly 56 percent of dogs and 60 percent of cats are also dangerously overweight. Keeping our dogs fit and healthy is one of our biggest responsibilities as dog parents.

Being a dog trainer and mom to three dogs of varying ages, sizes and breed mixes, I’ve learned many creative ways of supporting the specific health needs of each dog. I’m passionate about helping other dog parents learn effective lifestyle hacks to meet their own dog’s nutrition and fitness goals.

Here are ten of my best dog trainer tips to help our pups stay fit and healthy!

1) Feed your pup the best species-appropriate food you can afford

Deciding how to nourish our dogs is one of the most important decisions we’ll make in helping our dogs live the longest, healthiest life possible. My heart dog, Preston, outlived many of his friends to the age of almost 18, and I have to believe it’s partly thanks to his lifetime of saying goodbye to kibble, avoiding processed junk treats and eating healthy, human-grade food.

Quality nutrition can help prevent health issues, support fighting diseases, minimize chronic allergies and best of all, fuel your dog with energy to make the most of every day.

I hear many of you say, “that fancy food is expensive!” Believe me, I get it! But the cost associated with higher quality food repays you in the form of fewer excess vet bills from treating problems that come with an unhealthy diet.

Healthy, high-quality food doesn’t have to mean investing in a commercial real food product. Even on a tight budget, simply adding a bit of fresh meat and veggies to their regular food is an easy way to make an impact. Home cooking your dog’s food in batches is an option as well. Just consider consulting with a holistic veterinarian who specializes in creating personalized recipes to make sure your homemade formulation is balanced.

2) Learn how to read pet food and treat labels

One of the best gifts you can give your best friend is learning how to decipher the label on their food and treats.  Nutritional quality and quantity is key to your dog’s healthy lifestyle! Did you know ingredients are listed in order of their weight, just like packaged human food? Make a commitment to research every ingredient listed on the label. If you don’t understand what something is, look it up! Your best friend is counting on you to make their food decisions!

As an example, let’s compare the ingredients in my Nativo Naturals freeze-dried raw Beef NumNums, and a made-up brand sharing the ingredient list of a classic, popular dog treat. 

(Yes, the name has been changed to protect this health-conscious dog mom!)

Real Product Name: Num Nums, Beef

Ingredients: Farm-Raised Beef, Beef Heart, Beef Liver, Organic Kale, Organic Broccoli, Organic Brussels Sprout, Organic Chagas Mushroom

Sounds good, right? Maybe just add some salt and seasoning if you wanna try!

Fake Treat Name: Pupper-OhNo,ThanksAnyway

Listed Ingredients: Meat By-products, Soy Grits, Sugar, Beef, Liver, Propylene Glycol, Salt, Garlic Powder, Caramel Color, Natural Smoke Flavor, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Red 40, BHA, Onion Extract.

Which would you rather feed your best friend?

3) Treat smarter: feed high-quality training treats

When you’re training, treats are the ideal way to reward good choices and reinforce wanted behavior.  Avoid cheap filler ingredients, like corn, sugar, meat meals and any by-products.

An easy, cheap alternative? Feed your dog “people food” as a treat!

People often love to #humblebrag about not feeding their dog scraps from the table. If that works for you, great! But I can’t help but laugh when people tell me that. Do you know the difference between a human chicken and dog chicken? I certainly don’t!

Any lean, human-grade protein, such as chicken, turkey, or steak is going to be healthier than commercial dog treats – and save you a trip to the pet store. Many dogs have a taste for healthy veggies, like carrots or broccoli. Experiment to see what your dog loves, and then use it to get their brain working!

Instead of drowning your pup in tons of not-so-yummy treats during a training session, choose a higher-quality treat and use it sparingly. The more they want it, the more they’ll work for it.

4) Ration your dog’s daily meals and treats to help nourish your relationship

Divide each of your dog’s daily allotment of food into bowls or baggies, and use their food as a reward in quick, five-minute training sessions throughout the day. Even if you feed raw or gently-cooked food, you can offer a spoonful as training reinforcement. When you feed a healthy diet, your dog’s meals can be as delicious and high-value as “treats” ;)

Finally, don’t always trust the “recommended feeding” on a bag: your dog will be much happier working for a variety of healthy, high-quality protein choices.

5) Make time for daily fun and fitness!

Every dog loves to exercise, whether exhilarating cardio or low impact enrichment, so make sure you give yours an outlet that is appropriate for their health, personality and stage of life.

Some of my favorites are a game of tug, fetch, flirt pole, or a carefree romp at the park, combined with impulse control practice and positive reinforcement training. Don’t forget that you can get some exercise in, too! If your pup is up for a combo workout… a slow SNIFFari, scenic hike adventure, sunset stroll on the beach or a jog through the park are a great way for you both to bond while working on your health!

For more ideas, check out my upcoming video collab with DogTV!

6) Don’t forget body conditioning in your dog’s fitness regime!

Just like people, our dogs feel better, and are at a lower risk of injury, when they regularly work to strengthen their core and condition their muscles. Take 20 minutes, a few days a week, to help your dog stretch and strengthen their body. One of my favorite resources for K9 Conditioning is Bobbie Lyons Pawsitive Performance.

7) Weigh your dog at least once a month

Your dog may not wrestle much beyond rolling around in the grass, but you can have fun teaching your dog to get on and off the scale for monthly weigh-ins. Paying attention to your dog’s body condition gives you a better chance at early intervention for certain diseases. If you notice a significant weight gain or sudden weight loss, schedule an appointment with your vet right away.

8) Take photos of your dog!

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably doing this already. Every week. Every day. Maybe every hour. I mean…who could resist that face?

Adorable pupper photo shoots are great for making people smile on social media, and but also for tracking their health. Creating a visual reference on at least a monthly basis can help keep you accountable for any changes you might not otherwise notice.  Take a pic from the front, side, and overhead angle every time you do a monthly weigh-in!

9) Invest in regular blood work for your dog

Aside from giving you an accurate assessment of your dog’s internal health, blood work can help your veterinarian understand the cause of rapid weight gain or weight loss.

10) Schedule regular vet checkups.

Vet checkups are a cornerstone of your dog’s physical health. You should see the vet once a year at least, or twice a year for senior dogs.

Routine visits help you stay accountable, giving your vet the opportunity to check your dog’s body score and help you make a game plan for your dog’s weight.

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Hopefully, these tips have given you a little pawsitive inspiration to invest in your dog’s wellness!

Now, shut your computer, put down your phone, grab a cozy jacket and head outside with your pup to embrace the crispy cool air—the end of summer doesn’t have to mean the end of your dog’s exercise routine! As always, if you have any questions specific to your dog, please consult with your veterinarian.

How do you keep your dog looking and feeling their best?

What is your dog’s favorite way to stay healthy?

Share your tips in the comments below, or by tagging us @DogTV @LauraNativo with the hashtags #PetObesityAwareness and #HealthierIsHappier.

My dogs and I are getting ready to trade in our paddle board and surf leashes for hiking boots and fleece jackets. If any of you are in California, and game for a socially-distant hiking adventure, you know where to find us!

Happy fall! Love & Licks, Laura Nativo, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP

Read on for my interview with Dr. Laurie Coger