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The A-list fitness guru develops workouts for people and their pets

By Kate Hogan
Updated December 17, 2009 03:13 PM
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Celebrity trainer Gunnar Peterson is known for whipping celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey into shape. But recently, the Duke grad decided to apply his skills to a different type of client: pets. A self-proclaimed “dog guy,” Peterson saw how obesity was affecting the nation’s dogs, and decided to do something about it. Together with the American Veterinary Medical Association and Hill’s Prescription Diet, he came up with several workouts people can do with their pets and posted videos and easy how-tos on petfit.com. Peterson recently spoke with PEOPLE Pets about what pet owners can do to keep their pets in perfect shape.

Why did you decide to do a workout routine for pets?
The main reason I decided to do it is because I’m a big dog guy – I have four mastiffs. More than 50 percent of the total pet population is overweight and some even obese. I think there’s a natural connection between people and pets: Over time owners can’t spend the time they initially wanted with their pets – over time it gets boxed out. To overcome guilt, it happens in the kitchen, where “guilt feeding” happens. But when you do that, you do your pet a disservice.

An ounce of cheddar cheese to a dog is like the average woman eating two-and-a-half hamburgers. One cup of milk to a cat is like five chocolate bars to a woman. Pets can’t control their food intake – they can’t say, “Hey, no thanks!” They can’t take themselves out. You get a puppy, you care about it, then you develop routines where you let the dog out, [you] go to work, get home and you can’t get the walk in that you were so well-intended to give at the beginning. You eat, you feed some people food to the pet and it starts to snowball.

How much is known about pets’ stamina when it comes to working out?
There’s a fair amount that’s known. But with humans and pets, it’s worth going to the doctor and getting the green light to work out, especially for a small animal. You don’t want to take a small, heavy animal out and start with a five-mile run. After a doctor’s visit, it comes down to common sense.

Do you think working out is easier with a pet involved?
No, but it’s rewarding. You deepen the bond you got the pet for in the first place. Some of the things we put together – like the fetch races or the fetch tease – those make it fun and it’s kind of killing two birds with one stone. All my clients have a shortness of time. I see people do a walk around the block, and that’s it. But you can change up the cadence of the walk – you can add intervals, or different footwork. Don’t worry about how you look. I know that when I walk my dogs and then burst into a 20-second sprint, they get excited. They wonder, “What are we doing now?” They love it! It’s like a little game for them, so their energy expenditure is higher just by varying walking style.

Do the same thing with cats – we call it light cardio on petfit.com. Do real jump rope or simulate the movement while holding a flashlight, and the light beam flickers against the wall for your cat to chase. You can do the same thing with the flashlight as you’re doing crunches. The cat jumps around and tries to catch the light. You’re interacting with your pet and you’re not just doing it because you feel bad and gave him the bacon in the morning.

How did you develop these exercises?
We did work with the American Veterinary Medical Association and Hill’s Prescription Diet. We came up with ideas of what people could do – like the “dogstacle” course. Animals have so much more fulfillment in their lives when they do activities like this. My dogs have a room in the house just for them with access to a yard. During the day, they get two 25-minute walks. Other than that they’re hanging out at the house, but I feel bad, still. It’s not unlike working with kids – you want to spend time with them, but sometimes you find your life gets so busy. Working with the people at Hill’s and the AVMA, you learn certain parameters and come up with ideas for people to do at home, while traveling, even at the office if they take their pet there. The dog or cat doesn’t have to suffer because your life got so busy.

Do you have any favorite routines?
I love the fetch tease abs – where you pretend to throw a ball and do crunches while your dog goes in search of it. I also love any “dogstacle” course. I have my kids do it, too, in our backyard. The kids do it with the pets, and it’s goofy fun! Once you’re 15 or 20 minutes into it, everyone’s working and playing and interacting. It does become more of what life should be about, as opposed to just eating on the go.

We have a pretty strict “no-human food to the pets” rule in my house. At the end of the day you have to have some boundaries. It’s not good for them – their bodies aren’t made for that. I know people give food lovingly, but dogs and cats are overweight for reasons humans are: bad diet, not enough exercise or a combination of the two. No one is trying to harm their pet, but you may be harming them while trying to do good. Pets can’t decide to go on a diet, so you have to monitor intake for them.

Tell us more about your own pets!
I have two Neapolitan Mastiffs named Luigi and Donatello, appropriately. We also have a Bullmastiff named Cashis, and a Dogue de Bordeaux named Lenox, which I received from Jennifer Lopez. They’re terrific, phenomenal with kids and massive, but fun-loving. They don’t need a ton of exercise, but that doesn’t mean they should get less than what they need. They get a lot of care – I wouldn’t mind coming back as them at all! For any pet owner, though, when it comes to your pet’s health and fitness, just remember why you got your pets in the first place. We need to take good care of them.

Check out Peterson’s how-to videos on petfit.com!