Five Great Things You Can Do for Your Dog in the New Year

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Slim down. Recent studies indicate that if your dog is overweight, it can actually shorten his life. And pet obesity is a growing health problem, due to today's more sedentary lifestyle. In fact, the recently updated National Research Council's Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats says as much as 25 percent of America's pets are overweight. You can tell if your dog is too fat by running your hands along his sides -- if you have trouble feeling his ribs, he's got a problem! And did you know that dogs should have waistlines? Consult your veterinarian about a weight-loss plan, which will probably involve more exercise, fewer snacks between meals, and food that is lower in fat.

Assess your dog's changing needs. When dogs are young, they can seem indestructible -- they run for miles, play for hours, and even will plop down on cold, hard floors for a snooze. But just like the rest of us, they slow down as they get older and need extra comfort -- as well as more medical care. If you notice your dog taking longer to get up from a lying-down position and having trouble jumping on and off furniture, take her to the veterinarian to see if she has a treatable age-related condition such as arthritis. You can make her life more comfortable in other ways, as well, such as getting a heated dog bed to soothe aches, or regularly brushing a graying coat to keep it in condition.

Take him for the longest walk of his life. And make it a regular habit. Everybody knows that it's much easier to exercise with a partner, even a furry one. And walking is particularly great exercise. It's easy on both human and canine joints, and provides a relaxing and fat-burning (yes, they can happen at the same time) workout. Both you and your dog will enjoy the mental and physical stimulation of long walks, whether the scenery is wooded glades or busy urban streets. Research local parks and nature preserves for canine-friendly areas, make sure to bring lots of water for both of you, and no matter where you are, even the most remote-seeming forest, make sure to bring out everything you brought in, including dog poop!

Stretch her mind. Like humans, dogs need constant mental challenges to keep their brains happily humming along. Try adding some new commands to your dog's repertoire or twists to old ones. If your dog already knows how to sit and lie down, teach her how to roll over or speak. Or invent a new game: Take a favorite toy and hide it in another room while your dog stays in the kitchen on a down-stay. Both of you will enjoy hunting for it! If you have a particularly active dog and a big backyard just waiting for some fun, try setting up some basic agility courses. If you've got a friendly, gentle dog who's up to date on all her shots, volunteer for some hospital or school visits -- you'll be doing a good deed while your dog laps up the extra attention.

Help the species. Love one dog, love them all. And that can mean helping unwanted hounds at your local shelter or animal rescue group. Donating an hour or two a week to walk a shelter dog is much appreciated by both shelter staff and under-exercised, cooped-up dogs. If you don't have time to dog walk, donate a soft old blanket to comfort some elderly dog in his cage, or a toy or two for puppies to play with (even a simple ball will do). Most shelters accept donations of office equipment -- many have "want lists" on their web sites. If nothing else, cold hard cash is always welcomed by underfunded shelters.