AAHA hospital unveils new way for owners to bond with their pets—as workout buddies

(Owner Lori Wyatt on the floor of the newly opened TAD Wellness Center)

Kathy likes to use the treadmill when she goes to the gym, and when she does, you can usually find Sophie, her golden retriever, loping along on the treadmill next to her.

“Best workout partner ever,” says Kathy.

What kind of gym lets you bring your dog with you, and lets her workout alongside you? Just one, right now: the TAD Wellness Center in Cary, Illinois—but TAD owner Lori Wyatt, DVM, DABVP, CCRP, hopes it’s the first of many.

TAD is short for The Animal Doctor, one of three AAHA-accredited practices Wyatt owns in suburban Chicago. TAD Wellness Center is a combination state-of-the-art human gym and canine physical therapy facility where people can work out alongside their pets.

As far as Wyatt knows, no one else is doing anything quite like it: “We came up with idea and designed the whole thing,” she told NEWStat. “I’ve even filed a patent.” 

Wyatt says they completed the construction of the Wellness Center pre-COVID, but it didn’t open until this past October. She was inspired in part by the ongoing pet obesity epidemic, and the fact that exercise and diet are an integral part of overall wellbeing for both pets and people. 

“We know how important the human/animal bond is,” Wyatt says. “People enjoy walking their dogs, and dogs enjoy being with their owners when they’re out exercising. The endorphin levels go up, the oxytocin is released.” So, Wyatt thought, why not build a facility where people and their pets can exercise together?

She mentions the proliferation of doggie daycares where dogs are allowed to run free, but says those kinds of environments aren’t  a good fit for many dogs with orthopedic or neurological issues—issues she deals with daily in her practice. “Those dogs just can’t be in that kind of environment with other dogs. The Wellness Center provides those dogs with a controlled, indoor environment where they can thrive year-round.” 

That’s important in Illinois, where Wyatt says a lot of dogs don’t do well in the harsh winters. Summers can be a problem, too. “Illinois  gets hot and humid, you could still have problems walking your dog in the heat,” Wyatt adds. “It provides a great place for year-round exercise.”

“It’s not taking the place of an outdoor walk,” she’s quick to point out. “But clients can use it any time they want.”  

Another big draw is that, unlike doggie daycares, owners don’t have to drop the pets off and leave them.

Clients can sign up for a free day to try it out, and paid memberships range from one month up to a year.

 The equipment for humans includes treadmills, ellipticals, recumbent bikes, and spinners—all paired with a canine treadmill so owners and pets can work out side by side. Wyatt says hospital staff monitor the dogs while they’re on the treadmill so the owners can focus on their own workouts.

There’s also a separate fitness center on the upper level with strength-training equipment so owners can get in a full-body workout. While they’re busy on the weight machines, their dog can do a 20-minute water aerobics session in the Wellness Center’s swimming pool. The aquatic center also has underwater canine treadmills.

Wyatt says the Wellness Center has regular physical therapy equipment that both owner and pet can use, and they’ve set it up as a circuit they can take their dogs through: “We have cones for weaving. We have boxes of different heights they can jump up and down off of. We even have therapy balls they use for core training.” 

Wyatt says they had the basics of the canine portion of the gym set up already because they do post-surgery physical therapy for dogs who have disk issues and neurological issues, among other conditions.

The water treadmills are only operated by staff members, and technical staff are the only ones allowed in the swimming pool with the dogs: “Owners aren’t allowed in the pool for safety reasons,’ says Wyatt, so there’s always a staff member in the water with them. Dogs are in life jackets. “Someone’s always in attendance,” she adds.  And there’s always a staff member on the main floor where the treadmills are paired with the human aerobics equipment.

“Some dogs have never been on a treadmill,” Wyatt says, “so the staffer will walk with them for a little bit to get them used to it.” It usually only takes a few minutes for dogs to get the hang of it. “We haven’t had any yet who’ve failed the treadmill,” she adds.

A staff member will accompany any dogs who need to rest to the break room while their owner continues to work out. “The owner doesn’t have to do anything to manage their pet.”  

The Wellness Center has proved so popular that if clients want to use a particular piece of equipment, they need to schedule their workout in advance to reserve the machine.

Pets who aren’t patients and owners who aren’t clients are welcome to use the facility as well as those who are, but they must sign up in advance. Wyatt says new dogs are required to have a wellness exam first to make sure there are no physical issues that might cause problems: “Do they have heart murmurs? Do they have any lameness? Limb issues? Are there any neurological problems? Those are the things that we want to address.” 

Wyatt’s staff takes all of those things into consideration and then makes recommendations for canine workouts. “We do girth measurement. We have a weight-loss program also that some dogs can sign up for.” TAD staff also can monitor dogs’ diets and make dietary recommendations.

“[Having a health condition] doesn’t mean that they can’t exercise, but we’ll make recommendations on what is the best exercise program for that particular pet,” Wyatt says. For example, if it’s a neurological patient or there are orthopedic issues, “then maybe water therapy would be better than the treadmills because the natural buoyancy of the water is going to reduce the load on the limbs.” 

The Wellness Center has a lift that hoists these patients into the swimming pool so they don’t have to walk up steps or a ramp. 

“We also have heart monitors that we put on the dogs so if they do have some kind of arrhythmia or underlying heart problem, we can monitor that while they’re exercising.”

That real-time information-gathering is a critical component of Wyatt’s long-term plan.

“Eventually we would like to have a custom-designed app that can transfer all that information back to the dog’s patient record so it all becomes part of their permanent file.” That real-time info gathering is in the patent.

Wyatt hopes to have the app and monitors in place within the year, and she’s currently researching different monitoring devices that would meet her plan’s specific needs: “We want something that doesn’t have a lot of wires that you ’d have to attach.” Bluetooth, for example, would allow for quicker feedback without putting a lot of extra stress on the pet. 

“We want them to work out,” Wyatt adds, “But we don’t want them to be worried about what’s attached to them.”  

So far, TAD Wellness Center has been a big hit with clients.

Mark Regas, who fosters dogs for Illinois Doberman Rescue and currently has 10 dogs living with him, works out there three or four times a week—and always with at least one dog. “I get to work out, and the dogs get to be right next to me and work out,” Regas told NEWStat. “I think it's fantastic.” 

Regas says there’s definitely a learning curve for dogs on the treadmills: “The first time they’re scared, then the next time it’s like, ‘Oh, I know how to do this.’” 

“You’re right next to them and just encouraging them and they want to walk while you're doing the elliptical or treadmill or the bike,” he adds. ]

Regas often sees Kathy working out with her dog Sophie  while he’s there and the two owners have become friends.

“I usually do cardio and strength training,” Kathy (who asked that her last name not be used) told NEWStat, “so I'm usually at the gym for a good two hours and I love having my dog next to me because it's really motivating, it gets her exercise, and it really takes away from that guilt factor of being away from her.” 

She says the staff is great with Sophie, but there are times when she feels guilty: “I probably run 4 miles each time I’m there. I’m just trying to concentrate on my own workout. My heartrate is pretty high so it’s kind of hard to focus on her.” 

Kathy knows she’s distracted, but says the staff is on it: “They just keep Sophie going. They take her on bathroom breaks, water breaks; they keep her motivated. I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

Photo credit: © Karl Wyatt