Putting Weight on a Skinny Dog, Revisited

In February of 2015 I wrote about my efforts to put some weight on my English Shepherd, Bones, who was not just thin but downright skinny. He was healthy but just seemed to burn off every calorie he consumed. Now that it’s a year and a half later, here’s how Bones is doing and some lessons I learned.

Bones Then and Today

When I wrote the first blog post, Bones had just weighed in at 40 pounds. His body condition was better than it had been but he was still thin. When I first became concerned for his thinness he was 37 pounds, his hip bones were protruding slightly, and I could feel his ribs without nearly enough muscle over them. He wasn’t starved, he wasn’t ill, but he was too thin. At 40 pounds (and 20 inches tall at the shoulder) he was better; he had some meat over his ribs but I wanted him to gain another couple of pounds as his hip bones were still too prominent.

Today Bones is 43 pounds, still 20 inches at the shoulder, and although lean, he is no longer skinny. He has muscle over his bones and his hips are no longer protruding. His coat is thicker. He’s lean, well muscled, and hard. He’s still very much a canine athlete but now he’s at a better weight and is in better condition. His veterinarian is happier with his condition now, too.

The Journal is Still A Good Idea

In the first article I talked about keeping a journal and I still maintain one but not as detailed as I did then. When Bones was skinny, I jotted down his meals, snacks, exercise and weight. I kept track of every detail. This was helpful as doing so allowed me to see what produced results and what didn’t. I could look back a few days or weeks and see how much exercise he got, what he ate, and perhaps why he lost weight (or gained).

Now that Bones is at a good weight, has been this weight for a year, and I’m more concerned with him maintaining it rather than gaining any additional weight, and because I know his body so much better now, I only jot down his weight at monthly weigh-ins. I do, however, still keep track of things that happen out of the ordinary. For example, if we go lure coursing (a vigorous sport that involves fast, hard, calorie-eating running) then I’ll jot that down just in case he loses weight that week.

Good Food is Vital

Bones’ diet is still a big part of his health program. He eats Honest Kitchen and I tend to rotate between Zeal, Keen, and Love. When I feel like cooking, I’ll cook up some meat and will give him that mixed with Preference. There’s no particular reason why I rotate foods, it’s just a personal preference and he does fine on all of them. I think varying the foods keeps him more interested in eating, though, and since he’s not a big eater. He eats two meals a day.

To keep his calorie count up, he also still gets snacks in between meals. Those might include the weight gain snacks I mentioned in the first article, or cottage cheese, yogurt, Honest Kitchen treats, or cooked chicken. I make sure the calories aren’t empty calories but instead are also good foods. As a personal decision for my dog, I avoid the treats full of salt, sugar, dyes, and chemicals.

How many snacks he gets on any given day will depend on what we’re doing. If we’re busy, he’s more active than normal, or he gets more exercise, then he’ll get several high calorie treats throughout the day. If we have a quiet day he’ll still get some treats (as they are a part of his daily diet) but he’ll not get as many as when he’s busy.

Exercise and Calm

Bones is, by nature, an active dog. He wants (and needs) to have a job and responsibilities. The days we do therapy dog work are his favorites. He also wants to bring in the morning newspaper. He keeps track of the family cats, he works in my dog training classes, and he enjoys his own training sessions. Bones also loves to retrieve, running hard for the joy of it, and likes to get his canine friends to chase him.

Exercise is important as it creates and maintains strong muscles. However, there is such a thing as too much exercise. If Bones is as active as he’d like to be, he would still be skinny, so a part of helping him gain some weight has been regulating his activity. For example, he’s allowed to play retrieving games and go running with his canine friends, but I call quits to the games when I think he’s had enough instead of waiting for him to be tired.

I’ve also taught him how to relax, as this didn’t come naturally to him. A reliable down stay helped teach him to remain in one spot, with quiet praise for being still, and then gradually extending the time of the down stay. For example, at home when he might be antsy, checking on the cats, patrolling the house, and asking to go outside to patrol the yard (for the fourth time), I’d have him lie down. With practice, he’s now able to do this himself, with minimal suggestions from me, and he’ll calm himself.

What Else I’ve Learned

In the process of learning more about this subject, I’ve talked to other dog owners facing this same issue and found out what works for them. I’ve also queried nutrition experts, physical fitness experts, and veterinarians. Throughout all of my research, there was one thing that everyone said, “Every body (human or canine) is unique and what works for one may not work for another.” That means there was a lot of trial and error to find out what would work the best. Here are a few of the other ideas I’ve pursued with Bones that might work for your dog.

Good, solid, uninterrupted sleep is important. A dog who is active, won’t relax, and doesn’t sleep well will continue to burn calories. If a thin dog is crate trained (even as a puppy) he could be re-introduced as an adult. The dog then can sleep in the crate rather than patrolling the house all night. If you like the idea of your dog patrolling the house, then use the crate for some good naps during the day.

Bones loves to run hard; he has since he was a puppy. When he runs, he pushes himself hard, and strives to go as fast as he can. I’ve never had a dog who has pushed himself this hard. It never dawned on me that a good hard run can release endorphins, the human or dog can get a runner’s high, and so will want to do that again to repeat that good feeling. Varying the dog’s exercise can help keep the dog fit and build muscle, but will help control that addiction that could cause the dog to repeat one particular exercise too much. So now Bones is allowed to run hard but not as much and as long and we’re adding other other exercises (to do instead of running) as well.

With the physical fitness trainer’s recommendation, I have also replaced a few of Bones’ hard physical exercise sessions with walks or hikes. Long, steady walks can use up nervous energy, build muscle, and increase the dog’s appetite but will also be calming for the busy dog.

Maintain Contact with Your Veterinarian

Bones has been to the veterinarian a few times this past year and a half although thankfully not for any illness. Instead, he tore a toenail on one paw, skinned a paw, and was bitten by ants. Each time I asked his vet to also take a look at his weight and body condition and she was pleased a bit more each time we came in to see her.

Contact with your veterinarian can help you determine whether your dog’s thinness is normal for him (as it is for Bones) or whether a health problem is behind it. A friend’s dog was found to have a vitamin B12 deficiency and when his diet was changed and supplements added, he began to gain weight and now for the first time in his adult life, he’s at a good weight.

Many different things can cause weight gain or loss, muscle gain or not, and other things that affect body condition so keeping a dialog open with your dog’s veterinarian is vital for your dog’s health.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

Expert Tips on Helping Pets Through Trauma
True or False? Separating Fact from Fiction about Dog Insurance