Sometimes we find ourselves with time constraints or unfavourable weather patterns that prevent us from giving our dogs the exercise they need. Sufficient exercise will not only keep your dog healthy and in tip top shape, it will also keep him mentally healthy. Especially when it comes to reactive dogs, who without enough exercise tend to get worse and worse. If you are working with a leash reactive dog, for example, it is imperative that the dog receive about 30 minutes of high intensity exercise before every walk. If your dog runs on a treadmill this is easy to achieve without the use of a backyard.
The first step to training your dog to run on a treadmill is to get your hands on a clicker. Next, you need to do what is called charging the clicker. Get 5-10 yummy treats. These should be very small and soft, so that the dog can eat them quickly. Have your dog, treats, and clicker ready. Click once, then immediately give your dog the treat. Be careful not to show the dog the treat before the click, otherwise this will become the cue instead of the clicker. Repeat this 5-10 times, or until your dog shows signs of recognition and anticipation at the sound of the click. Usually the ears will perk, the tail might wag, and the dog will focus his attention on you.
Next, you will start shaping your dog to enjoy being near the treadmill. For this step do not turn the treadmill on. Your dog is not yet accustomed to the sight of it, much less the big scary sounds and movements it makes! It is imperative to take this slow, otherwise you can end up going backwards instead of forwards. Bring your dog into the room with the treadmill and look at it. Wait until he acknowledges it in any way – this can be a glance, a sniff, a step towards. Click and treat. Repeat with the same criteria 5-10 times. If your dog is new to shaping you will have to include more clicks in each step than for a clicker-savvy dog. Once your dog is reliably looking at the treadmill (or sniffing, or stepping towards) up the criteria. For this you must first stop clicking for the old behaviour (i.e., a glance). Your dog should then try something new. Click for any increased interest in or movement towards the treadmill. Keep each session to 10-15 minutes and end on a positive note. You may have to do shorter sessions if your dog gets frustrated easily. I repeat, always end on a positive note.
The third step is to get your dog on the treadmill. The machine is still off at this point. Click for a paw on the treadmill, then two paws, then the whole body. You can, if you wish, encourage your dog to step onto the treadmill by patting it and telling him “up”, or whatever word means the same to him. The first time your dog has all four paws on the treadmill, click, treat, and praise lavishly. Repeat until your dog is happily jumping on and off the treadmill. This may take several sessions; be patient.
Once your dog is comfortable and happy with being on the treadmill, you can turn it on. Have a leash on your dog - you will use this to gently and unobtrusively (no yanking, just gentle leading) keep him safely centered. With your pup safely centered and leash held loosely in your hand, turn the treadmill on at .5mph - 1mph. Click and treat every few seconds as your dog walks - encourage in a soft voice if needed. Be sure to remain relaxed and positive yourself, as otherwise negative emotions will transmit to your dog and cause him to become nervous as well.
Continue with the clicking and treating until your dog is very comfortable at this level. Next session, increase the speed to 2mph. Once your dog is comfortable with that speed, start doing regular sessions at 3mph. Start with about 10-15 minutes each and gradually build your way up. Remember, you are still clicking and treating about every 20 seconds at this point. If you suddenly withdraw treats the activity becomes forced work rather than something to look forward to. My dog leaps onto the treadmill with her tail wagging when I say "you wanna go for a run?" - that's exactly the reaction you want to work up to!
From here on in, you will increase speed and duration slowly, as if you were training yourself to run. Too much too soon will result in injury and unnecessary vet bills. Over time you can reduce the number of clicks per minute, until you are only giving a treat for every 2-3 minutes of running. Just be sure to do this gradually, lest your dog lose enthusiasm in the activity.
Good luck, and enjoy your fit and tired pooch!