Expect to pick up more than just weights if you enlist in Thank Dog! Bootcamp, a fitness and obedience program that has started up in an Arlington, Va., park.
"We clean up our poop. It's one of the rules of class," says owner and personal trainer Karen Krieg, who had been looking for a way to merge her two loves: fitness and dogs. She found her inspiration while watching Animal Planet's "Dogs 101."
The show highlighted the work of Thank Dog!, which was founded in Burbank, Calif., in 2008 by Jill Bowers and her twin sister, Jamie. Bowers, a highly regarded dog trainer, had struggled with her weight until committing to a boot camp. Forty pounds peeled off, but she didn't like spending all that time away from her Doberman pinscher. Her mission? Create a boot camp they could do together.
"Knowing that some people don't have control over their dogs, I also wanted to add obedience. And I wanted to make it fun for humans," says Bowers, who played around with the structure until she settled on the Thank Dog! model. Each hourlong class is divided into 10-minute segments, alternating between cardio drills combined with dog commands and strength-building circuits (performed by just the humans).
That breakdown works, she explains, because dogs can't be trained for more than 10 minutes at a time. Plus, after 10 minutes of sprinting, high knees and shuffle steps, everyone's panting. "They need water, and the humans do, too," Bowers says.
Students in L.A. have lapped it up, and as the program has gotten media attention -- most recently, on an episode of "Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan" in August -- there's been demand to expand to other cities.
But replicating Thank Dog! isn't as simple as learning a few commands. "There's an amount of organization and creativity needed to keep it safe and interesting. It's not just running around a park with dogs," says Noelle Blessey, who took over as Bowers' partner when her sister decided to pursue Transcendental Meditation.
The gradual expansion started a year and a half ago, when Thank Dog! was licensed in Toronto. It's since spread to Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and the Washington area.
That's how I came to find myself holding the leash of Rosie, one of Krieg's two pit bull rescues, learning the basics of dog handling. Typically, new students get a personal one-hour training session before their first class to go over the commands. Because Rosie already knew the drill, I had an abbreviated lesson.
When I said, "Heel," Rosie followed me. She sat when I said, "Sit," got down when I said, "Down," and stayed when I said, "Stay," and walked in a circle around her. I had a bit more trouble following the directions for humans, which include keeping the dog to the left of you at all times and not allowing the dogs to get close enough to socialize.
"This way, there are no dogfights," explained Krieg, who said focusing on the human-dog relationship throughout class is also important to solidify your bond. "You're spending quality time together, not just walking and talking on the phone."
Humans, however, can get away with chitchatting, so I managed to meet some of my fellow students before the 6:30 p.m. class started.
Charlotte Labeau, 25, was beaming with pride over her pug Harry's progress in just one class. The duo had been practicing their moves with help from Krieg, along with Bowers and Blessey, who were in town for the launch. "I'm shocked. He sits and stays for more than two seconds," she said. "And he'll heel. He's never done that before."
Obedience wasn't on Keith Bare's mind as much as weight. The 51-year-old said he was there with Titus, his Tibetan terrier, to get a workout. "I want to keep me from getting fat and him from getting fat," he said.
We started working on that by getting in a single-file line and jogging around the field. And it was our turn to be obedient as Krieg shouted out commands. We had to get our dogs to sit (we continued jogging in place) and get down (yep, still jogging), get them back up again and then let them run forward while we shuffled sideways, changed directions, and eventually made our way to home base.
Lined up along the edge of the grass were 15 pairs of mats, one for the human and a smaller one next to it for the dog. Stakes hammered into the ground let us attach the leashes, so we could free up our hands for weights or resistance bands.
I ended up right behind Jen Flach, 43, and her foster, Coco, who'd come from the new rescue Presidential Pits. "I definitely get exercise with her," Flach said. "But it's not well-rounded exercise. Every time I try to do push-ups at home, she's right there."
With the anchor keeping Coco in place, Flach got the chance to do plenty of push-ups, and sit-ups and biceps curls and squats and chest flies. The format of each strength segment is to do three exercises three times. Letting people choose their weights and the number of reps keeps it accessible for all levels, says Krieg, whose mantra is "Do what you can."
Once the dogs realized they could hang out for a while, drink some water and maybe get a treat from Shera Beck, the certified dog trainer who's partnering with Krieg on the D.C.-area program, they seemed content to wait out the weights. It was never long until we unhooked the leashes and went for another round of cardio drills.
By the end of the hour, the field was filled with a bunch of exhausted humans and mellow dogs. "I'm tired and he's tired. I can tell from the way we're both walking," said Dana Mooney, 32, as she led Aiden back to her car. She and the German shepherd mix were ready for a good night's sleep.
And I was ready to turn over the leash to Krieg, although I'd happily buddy up with Rosie for another class, which might turn out to be a real possibility. Thank Dog! in Burbank offers a "borrow a dog" option, and Krieg is considering making that available here, not just with her dogs but also with dogs from area rescue organizations.
"There are people who don't have dogs because they can't have them where they live," said Krieg, who's seen how eager these folks are to play with a pooch. When she directed the fitness program for the Labor Department, she partnered with the Washington Humane Society to let employees walk dogs at lunch, and as many people signed up to do that as came to the gym all day.
Working up a sweat just becomes more appealing when a wagging tail is involved.