By Julia Szabo
I confess I’ve been a workaholic since my early teens, applying myself diligently to schoolwork and to numerous after-school jobs over the years. So I know a serious work ethic when I see one, and my pets have it in spades—except their day job is recreation. They play as hard as I work, if not harder.
One of the most wonderful things about dogs and cats is their natural ability to entertain themselves, wherever they happen to be. Back when my dogs and I were house-hunting in Upstate New York, I’d take them for walks across various properties (on leash, of course). I knew the place I finally selected was “the one” for us because it didn’t take long for my Pit Bull Sam to flop on his back in the grass and do a gleeful “Snoopy dance.” Sold! (By the way, Sam still does that grass-dance every time we retreat to our cottage for some recreational rustication.)
“Dog is the god of play,” the 19th-century theologian Henry Ward Beecher wisely said. That goes double for cats and kittens; the world is their oyster bar. Our animals’ talent for improvising serious fun is something we all should cultivate. That’s one reason why, if you haven’t already got a dog or cat, you should hightail it to your local animal shelter and adopt one, then let him or her show you how to play like you mean it.
If your cat has appropriated a set of shelves in your home as her personal jungle gym, then you know how quickly and cleverly feline friends will turn any interior into their vision of the great indoors. My cats taught me how to decorate by literally voting with their feet on the subject of feline-friendly furnishings. They inspired me to build dedicated cat shelves that go all the way up my 11-foot office wall. Thanks to their lively lessons, I now encourage them to scamper about vertically as well as horizontally by using cat teasers, whether it’s something shiny trailing from the end of a stick, a catnip toy, or a laser pointer (just be sure never to point the laser directly in your cat’s eye— always direct the beam on the floor or wall).
With summer nearing its end, take advantage of the great outdoors—hiking is a great way to share down time with dogs. Dennis Owens, dog trainer extraordinaire and New York City’s go-to guy for turning shelter dogs into canine good citizens, recommends hiking in nature as a great way for humans and their hounds to stay in peak shape by enjoying a tandem workout. “Use the terrain that surrounds you as a natural agility course,” Owens suggests, “whether it’s climbing up rocks together, leaping over or crawling under fencing, or weaving between trees. Just make sure you carry lots of water for you and your dog.” No wonder my dogs greet Dennis as if he’s a rock star when he arrives for a training session—from their perspective he is!
Water sports are especially appreciated by amphibious breeds such as Labs and Lab mixes; seek out dog-friendly beaches or state parks with lakes or ponds. And don’t fret if you forgot Fido’s favorite Frisbee; Retriever-type dogs are just as happy to play fetch with a humble stick or piece of driftwood. Your leg, held straight out, also makes a good, anywhere hurdle for a dog to leap over, and your arms form a handy hoop to jump through.
Improvisation is the name of the game. Even an ordinary urban dog walk can morph into an extraordinary recreational romp. All it takes, in Owens’ words, is “using what you find in the environment around you.” So don’t just pound pavement on your next dog walk—make the outing interactive by teaching Fido to hop over hydrants, park benches, and construction barriers. “You want to keep it interesting for you and the dog, so change it up to keep you both motivated,” Owens suggests. My dog Angus particularly enjoys keeping his waist whittled by leaping on and off a large, tall planter permanently anchored to the sidewalk—and since it’s not planted with flowers, and he’s therefore not offending any urban gardeners—I allow him to do this to his heart’s content.
If, on the other hand, you’re the type to plan things down to the last detail, leaving nothing to chance, consider packing your own portable obstacle course in the form of adjustable, modular agility training equipment, such as Agilite (AgiliteDogs.com). These kits are simple to set up in a city park or country field or on a sandy strand. And if the weather outside isn’t cooperating, that doesn’t mean your recreation has to be rained out. My dogs couldn’t live without the brilliant Dog Tread exercise treadmill by Pet Zen (PetZenProducts.com), which lets the most energetic canines work up a happy, healthy sweat—in the cozy, dry comfort of home.