"Lean, active dog..." These are the first three words of the British standard for the Bearded Collie. The AKC standard is a bit more diffuse, but the first paragraph begins: "The Bearded Collie is hardy and active, with an aura of strength and agility characteristic of a real working dog." In the second sentence of the second paragraph it continues: "The body is long and lean, and though strongly made does not appear heavy." Now while, as we know, standards are definitely open to interpretation, can we be honest? Go over to the couch and take a long and careful look at Fuzzface. Don't prevaricate. Can you honestly feel all his ribs? Or are his hip bones padded with fat? Yes hair can hide a multitude of sins, and it often seems to do just that in Beardies which are tending to being overweight. While it would seem that the British judges prefer a leaner dog to the majority of Americans (only on this side of the ocean have I heard mention of dogs being too lean and muscular), one thing is clear - dogs which are leaner and fitter will in general live longer and healthier lives than their fatter counterparts.
While humans may claim that their weight is genetically determined to some extent, within dog breeds genetics tend to the breed standard. For this reason, claims to have an ectomorphic, endomorphic or mesomorphic Beardie are at best dubious. Some Beardies do seem to be so active they run right through all the food they consume and emerge as svelte as gazelles. Others, notably young boys, may be too interested in their environment to bother to eat. Fat Beardies generally eat too much and exercise too little for their particular basal metabolic rate (BMR). Thyroid level affects BMR, so that hypothyroid dogs have a lower BMR as the disease progresses. If your dog is fat, check its thyroid before embarking on a diet and exercise program. Particularly for older dogs, have a thorough physical check-up, too. Spaying reduces BMR a bit, but the difference is less than most people believe, and is easily corrected for when adjusting diet and exercise.
Diet: Feed a complete diet formulated for your dog's age and activity level. Actually, that's easier said than done. If you read the label of the food it should either tell you that it meets or exceeds the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient profile or that animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that the food is complete and balanced. (In general, foods which have undergone test feedings may be a better bet, as just making up the amounts of required nutrients doesn't guarantee their bioavailablity.) The exceed bit can be a problem. The protein percentage is given as "a minimum of", for example, which means your dog can be getting more than he needs. Another problem comes if you try to follow the suggested feed volumes for your weight of dog. In many instances you can be giving your dog substantially more volume than he needs if you follow the guidelines on the food. The question is, does he need these volumes to get his requirements of vitamins and minerals? Given that we have no real idea what those requirements are exactly, the answer is probably - who knows? Reduced calorie diets give the dog bulk so he feels full, and may be useful. Often, I find that obese Beardies have not become that way on dog food but on table scraps. A little may be OK for most dogs, but too much is not good. Dogs have food cravings, just like humans. These probably stood them in good stead in the wild when certain nutrients were hard to come by. Granted steak and pasta will appeal much more than Doggie Delite, but just like humans, the dog will have trouble stopping when he's had enough. In the wild you're always preparing for tomorrow when there may only be the odd cricket instead of today's hare supremo. Home made diets may be helpful for getting weight on the perpetually skinny Beardie, but balancing nutrients, both the basic protein, fat and carbohydrate levels as well as calcium, magnesium and all the lesser mineral and vitamins, is paramount, and beyond the scope of this article.
In general, reduce quantities of food fed slowly. Feed two or three small meals rather than one large one. Actually, free access feeding may ultimately result in your dog eating less even in the multi dog household. It's not guaranteed, however, and the dog may pounce ravenously on the unexpected bonanza and gorge for a few days or weeks before his enthusiasm starts to wane. Similarly, if you want to put weight on a dog, give two or three set feedings a day. Put the bowl down for no more than half an hour and then take it away, until the next meal. The dog gets the idea that he'd better eat now, because who knows when the next meal is coming (a little lapse in routine here may also help) and he will wolf down the contents accordingly. You can add a little extra food with each feeding. Remember to include snacks in calculating what your dog is getting. For the obese dog using part of his kibble allowance for training treats is often a good idea. If you decide to change to a different food do so gradually to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal upset.
Exercise: A tired dog is a good dog. Remember this, especially if you have a bratty Beardie. Bored Beardies get into more mischief. As with changing diet, increasing your Beardie's exercise should be done gradually. They should be getting a minimum of half an hour of good aerobic (running) exercise a day. More is better. However, binge exercising (climbing Mount Monadnock on the weekend and vegging all week) is not any healthier for them than for us. In general, Beardies like to run best in the company of other dogs, particularly other Beardies. They will run more in open spaces - fields, beaches etc - than on roads. Some in fact may try to opt to avoid leash walking as a form of exercise. Any exercise is better than none, but in this case they're right - it's a poor substitute for the real thing. If your Beardie likes balls and frisbees it makes it easier to exercise him. Again no binges please, all that jumping and sudden stops and changes of direction can stress tendons and ligaments. Herding provides a good workout, as does agility and flyball. In general, unless we're Seb Coe, we're not really fast enough jogging to meet our dog's needs. Adult Beardies trot at about 8mph, be my guest. We do better on a bike, preferably fitted with one of those attachments that hold the dog away from the bike so he doesn't get caught up in the wheels, and which absorbs some of the force if he dashes off to check out some off course excitement. I'm not really in favor of running dogs behind the car. No matter where you run them they're going to be inhaling more exhaust than is healthy. If you really have to do it, don't just tie them to the bumper, someone has to drive, while the handler keeps a constant eye, and hand, on the dog. Whether he's jogging or biking with you or running behind the car, it is better if the Beardie is on cut grass or dirt to avoid traumatizing his pads. This may be difficult to achieve.
I have been told that to maximize dogs gaits' for showing the constant stopping and starting of herding, fetch or playing with other Beardies is counterproductive. The dog should never be allowed to run or pace. I find that rather sad. I think Beardies running flat out are a joy to watch, their fun is infectious. Tread mills free our dogs to exercise under controlled conditions. They can always run on the flat or uphill to develop their rears, and to discourage their falling onto their front ends. Exercise levels can be gradually increased as the dog's stamina increases. The speed of the machine can be adjusted so that the dog always trots and learns to use himself properly. Machines are rather soleless, but most dogs don't seem to mind them at least. Maybe we could show them a video of a cat or sheep running to make it more interesting for them. The Sharper Image has a new treadmill that allows you to exercise side-by-side with your dog, although I still don't know if you're fast enough. (Dog only treadmills tend to be as expensive as the upper end human ones.)
Swimming can be very good exercise, however: 1. Chlorine is bad on coats and not good if swallowed in large quantities; 2. ditto salt and sand; 3. giardia and leptospirosis are among the nasty organisms dogs can pick up, particularly in ponds and lakes. Perhaps you have a nice big bath tub with a current maker.
However you decide to exercise your Beardie, start out slowly and work up gradually. If your Beardie is getting an hour of aerobic playtime and three miles of running a day he's probably extremely fit, moving as well as his structure allows, and is probably also very happy. Exercising bodies also exercises minds. If you get exercise as well as your Beardie that's an added advantage. (One of my clients reported losing 60lbs following my advice to make sure her dog got at least half an hour of exercise a day, and she wasn't that fat to start with.)
Our Beardies may not be worrying about fitting into their bikinis around about now, but they're looking forward to a summer of fun. Excess weight in the heat of summer puts an added strain on their hearts and hips, and makes them very uncomfortable. Do them a favor and help them get in shape. Health and happiness to you and your Beardies.