Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
When my boo’s dog, a sleepy Plott hound mix, stays at my house, his schedule rotates between three projects: napping on the bed, napping in the yard, and then napping on the floor to cool off from his hot yard nap. He follows two-minute bursts of energy by recovering for the rest of the hour. If he had things his way, we’d be stretched out in indolence all day while I dropped snacks on the ground next to his nose. He almost got his greatest wish.
But when I started to shelter in place and exercise around the house, the Plott hound discovered I was not as languid as he once assumed. He launched a full-scale inquisition. When I’d lunge around with weights or do bicycle crunches, he’d stare at me with telekinetic intensity. He would bark twice, then finally leap off the couch to rescue me from the floor.
As the weeks dragged on, I began to receive other reports of dogs trying to save their owners from exercise. Abby pouncing onto my friend’s stomach whenever she lies on her mat. Spindle nipping the free weights and bringing my friends shoes to them so they’ll go outside instead. Tent the fluffy puppy play-growling on the yoga mat. And then, flooding the frames of fitness leaders on social media, canine incursions into strangers’ exercise stories: a Samoyed intercepting an Olympian from using her stability ball; Mik Zazon’s disrespectful professor-looking dog refusing to let her learn a dance move or fixedly starting at a core exercise demonstration (third photo, worth it).
Why I watch short videos of other people exercising is maybe the greatest animal mystery, but what I really want to know is: Why does my dog go to wild-town whenever I try to do fit things?
It might just be the sweet temptation of novelty, I learn from Dr. Paul McGreevy, a professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney. Novelty, he says, is likely to “trigger investigation.” “The barking suggests the dog’s willingness to find out more about your unfamiliar activities,” he says, to see if “there is an enjoyable role” for her. “Dogs are opportunists. The first response to novelty in well-socialized dogs is: What’s in this for me? Or, for Labradors: Can I eat it?”
Dogs could also be reacting to a specific movement, as they understand it. Lunges, for example, are like an invitation to a dog party, says Dr. Nathan Lents, a biology professor at John Jay College. “The usual play invitation among dogs involves lowering the front end, while keeping their back end high with tail up and wagging. A lunge recapitulates some of that posture, particularly with the legs,” he says. Lents says that dogs are always hunting for clues. If the dog associates fitness clothes with going on a hike, she might be particularly thrilled. This is because they’re like wonderful little spies. As Lents puts it, “dogs are very observant of human behavior and have excellent associative memory.”
Fitness things can send the dog all sorts of mixed signals. Are we going outside or aren’t we? Biologist Dr. Marc Bekoff, the author of the Emotional Lives of Animals, says that a difficult routine could bewilder your dog witness, because “you look fun, but you’re stressed.” Bekoff says they’re really attuned to stress or happiness— and if you’re doing something that looks like a play pose, but your face is scowled because it’s a brutal squat, the dog could find this perplexing or intriguing. Bekoff is, very coincidentally, working on a book about what the world will be like for dogs when humans disappear. “What’s happening, depending on the individual dog, evolves from wolves. Movement is an attractant to them, that’s why they chase things.”
Since I started researching this domestic phenomenon over the past few weeks, the dog who watches me has calmed down about my exercise in the house. He’s mostly back to his original pastime (falling asleep in my direction). He did discover that my exercise mat, when placed on this tiny wooden deck at the top of my yard, makes for an amazing toy if he runs onto it very quickly. He sprints over, skids down the deck on the mat, flies off of it, and back down the yard. It’s his own little exercise routine. Nothing makes me happier now than waiting for him to run over. I remember what Lents said about being very observant and having an excellent associative memory, and I think this dog and I are favorite friends because we have so much in common.
* All dogs’ names changed for dog privacy.