I grew up an athlete. I don’t remember a season where I wasn’t playing soccer or softball or a year that I didn’t go to horse camp and ride through the freezing cold winter. In college, I was on 2 varsity teams, soccer and swimming. When I graduated I started distance running and have completed 2 marathons, multiple sprint triathlons, and over a dozen half marathons.
During those years of college sports and endurance training, I also spent time in the weight room and at the gym to cross train to prevent my body (and mental state) from burning out with all the activity. My cross training included using the elliptical or stationary bike, weight lifting using free weights, the weight rack, and machines, swimming, and exercise classes. As my health progressed, exercise has been a constant in my life, not only because I enjoy it but also because it acts as a therapy for some of my medical conditions.
Bringing a Service Dog to the Gym
Nothing much changed other than the intensity of my workouts until about 2 years ago when I brought my service dog home. All of a sudden, all my routines at the gym now had an additional variable. What to do with my service dog during the various workouts I enjoyed doing? Since then, I have successfully brought my service dog with me into multiple gyms in numerous states and have completed a wide range of workouts with her right by my side.
The first thing to remember when you are first considering going to the gym with your service dog is that the ADA has legally given you the right to have your service dog with you in all areas (with the exception of IN the pool) of the gym. I don’t think I have to tell you that a service dog in a gym is not commonly seen. I have only ever seen one other service dog in a gym. The front desk or membership staff or fitness trainers may try to deny access or limit where you are allowed to go with your service dog. Be prepared with the law to show them that access has already been determined. If you prefer, you can call ahead and ask to schedule a time to meet with the manager, but I prefer just to go and deal with the issue once.
Make Sure Your Service Dog is Comfortable
Once you’ve gotten past the front desk, the gym is yours for the taking! Although, before actually going to workout, you will need to make sure your service dog is comfortable around the equipment and noises that are unique to gyms. Dropping weights can startle even seasoned service dogs if they are not expecting it. Holding a down stay close to moving equipment can seem counterintuitive to your dog at first.
If you have the opportunity to do some training at the gym before going for workouts, take it! Slowly introduce your dog to the different areas of the gym and pay close attention to their body language and attitude to make sure they are not stressed or overly anxious. Keep these training sessions positive and slowly increase the exposure time and various areas of the gym until you are confident that your dog is comfortable in all areas of the gym.
What About Swimming?
Also, if you plan on swimming at the gym, this is an area that will absolutely require some training. If you have never taken your service dog to a pool, do this BEFORE attempting to bring them on the pool deck for a workout. While service dogs are allowed on the pool deck per the ADA, this is an area where you will more than likely experience some pushback from the gym staff. Ask to speak with someone in charge and be prepared with the law.
In addition, make sure your service dog is solid around pools before approaching the gym about having them on the pool deck. The last thing you want to happen is for you to show them proof that your service dog is allowed in the pool area per ADA, then have your dog go nuts when you get in the water and swim away. This will not only create an access issue that you will then have to deal with but can also make things difficult for other teams. Do not assume that because your dog is solid in all environments that they will be unphased by the pool as well. A public pool that you have just fought for access rights is not the place to introduce your service dog to you swimming.
Once you are confident that your service dog is solid around the equipment and ready to accompany you to the gym, go for it! Like I said, other than having your service dog actually in the water in the pool, you can have your dog with you everywhere.
Locker Rooms and Showering
In the locker room, be aware that if you choose to shower, you still need to have control over your service dog. You cannot leave your dog in the dressing area, go shower, and have no visual or physical contact with your dog. You will either need to find a spot close to the shower where you can maintain visual contact or have a friend or family member stay with your dog in the dressing area while you shower.
If you choose to have your dog close to the showers, be conscious of any hair your dog may leave behind and clean anything up. People do not like a locker room that is covered with other people’s hair, they will not appreciate also have dog hair around the drain as well. Bringing a mat that has a water-resistant side for your dog to lie on while you shower is a good option.
The Main Floor
On the main exercise floor, you have plenty of options. You shouldn’t feel that any exercise equipment needs to be off limits simply because you have your service dog with you. You may need to choose which piece of equipment you use based on what would be the best option for your service dog, but you do not need to limit your workouts to avoid certain areas.
If you are planning to use the cardio equipment, you will need to make sure your service dog is not out in the aisle or open area where someone could trip over them or the leash. But, also be aware that they are not too close to any equipment where they could possibly be injured. In general, keep them away from the back of treadmills, sides of bikes, and both the back and sides of ellipticals.
If the equipment is facing the wall, the best spot would be in front of the treadmill or elliptical or bike between it and the wall. However, there may not be space or the equipment may face an open area or walking aisle. In those cases, finding a machine on the end near the wall is probably your best bet. In the case that there is no option but behind you, find something to secure your service dog on and be sure to check on them regularly. It sounds silly, but bringing a cheap mirror from the dollar store with you will allow you to keep your eye on them if they have to be out of your line of sight.
The Indoor Track
For those of you who enjoy cardio but find machines endlessly boring, have no fear, the indoor track is not off limits! Make sure you are following the appropriate direction indicated (usually based on the day of the week) when you venture out on the track with your service dog. Typically, the inside lanes are for walkers and the outer lanes for runners. If you are walking, use the innermost lane with your dog on the inside, that way your body is between your dog and the other people on the track. This helps minimize the space you and your dog take up, and also helps prevent drive-by petting by the other walkers.
If you want to run on the track, follow the same general idea. This time take the outermost lane and keep your dog on the outside. This will again, minimize how much of the lane you take up as a team, and also keep your dog out of the traffic of other runners. NOTE: Some gyms prefer slower runners on the inside running lane and the faster runners the outermost lane. If that is the case, have your dog on the side closest to the walkers. This will give more reaction time as you come upon other walkers and runners and keep your dog from getting in the way of a serious runner.
If you’re not so much into cardio and prefer to lift weights, don’t feel that you need to avoid any specific areas because you have a service dog. If you are using weight machines, bring your service dog with you as you rotate between machines. At each one, be sure to place your dog in a down stay that is close to you, out of the way of any moving parts on the machine, and not in the way of anyone else who may be walking around or using other equipment.
Since you are not on each machine for an extended period of time, you do not need to make sure your service dog is tethered for each down stay but remember that they must remain in control whether by a hands-free leash or with verbal commands. If you use verbal commands, please use the leash as you move between machines.
Free Weights and Weight Racks
Now, for those of you who prefer free weights and the weight rack, be aware that these areas of the gym require the most planning and the highest level of awareness to keep your service dog safe. While it is important to make sure your service dog is not going to be in the way or too close to cardio equipment, that area is a much more controlled environment. When you venture into the weight lifting area, you have many other people to consider.
I highly recommend keeping your service dog out of the free weight area and weight racks at all times. This does not mean you cannot use these areas, but that you need to be more strategic. You do not want to put your service dog at risk by being next to someone who is maybe lifting more than they should and drops a heavy weight near or even on your dog. As much as you plan and prepare and do your best, you cannot control other people and what they are lifting.
When using free weights exclusively, find a corner or side of the area where you can place your dog in a down-stay for the duration of the workout. Ideally, this would be against one or more walls. Bring the free weights over to your chosen area (don’t forget to rerack them when you are finished!) and feel free to go about your workout without needing to constantly worry about your dog being in the way.
If you need to use a bench for part of the workout, try to choose one on the edge of the area where you can keep your dog out of the mix. If none is available, ask one of the fitness trainers if it would be possible to move one off to the side for you to use. Most of the time, if you explain that you are concerned about your service dog’s safety as well as keeping them out of the way of other people using the weight area, they will be willing to help you find a way to make it work.
Using the weight racks is actually a bit easier than free weights with a service dog, surprisingly. This is because most weight racks are placed facing a mirror. Use the space directly in front of the rack against the wall/mirror for your dog’s down-stay. They will be out of the way, in your line of vision, and not at risk of dropped weights. Even better, if you are working in or have another person working in between your sets, you do not need to move your dog each time. You will just need to move to the side so they are able to see the mirror, and your dog will still be within reach and out of the way. While changing the amount of weight on the bar, keep your dog in the down-stay against the wall/mirror under your voice control.
Additional Considerations at the Pool
If you’re a swimmer and have already resolved any access issues in the pool area, be aware that there are a few extra things to consider when you have your service dog in the pool area. While a mat for your dog to lie on can be a good idea in the regular gym area, in the pool area you will definitely want something underneath your service dog. This is for both your dog’s benefit and the other people in the pool area. Community pools can be slightly less than spotless. Using a mat for your dog will help reduce the gook picked up by lying on a wet surface for however long you choose to swim.
In addition, especially for dogs that shed, this will prevent hair left on the deck for you to have to clean up afterward or to accidentally get washed into the pool since the deck is likely to be wet and slightly sloped to the pool. I also recommend bringing a towel to wipe your dog off after leaving the pool area since they will probably be a bit soggy even with a mat to lie on.
Medical Alerting at the Gym
If your service dog is for medical alerting, you may want to consider training a new alert that can be performed at a distance. If you are swimming and your blood sugar drops, your dog will not be able to get to you. It will be your responsibility to “check-in” with your dog on each lap even if only through eye contact, but if you choose another alert behavior, your dog will still be able to alert. It can be as simple as transitioning from a paw alert on your leg to your dog pawing the air to alert when you are apart. NOTE: Training another alert is also beneficial for people on cardio equipment where the dogs cannot safely get close to the machines.
This last section is for those of you who enjoy attending the various exercise classes offered at many gyms. Again, don’t feel that these classes are off limits! For the majority of classes, choose a spot on the side of the room where your dog can be in a down-stay in a corner or next to the wall. This will hold true for classes where equipment is required, too.
Remember, for cycling classes, make sure your dog is far enough away to not be at risk of being hit by pedaling. For the classes that may use both the exercise studio and other areas of the gym, you may want to talk with the instructor ahead of time to determine what the best option is. If it is a combination class that has strength sets in the exercise studio and intervals on the track, you will need to keep your service dog with you during the intervals, you cannot leave them in a down-stay in the room. Follow the same guidelines for the track that are listed above.
NOTE: The only class that your service dog should NOT attend that is offered at many gyms is hot yoga. It is not safe for a dog to be in a hot studio for the 60-90 minutes class. If you would like to try a hot yoga class, leave your service dog at home and bring a friend or family member instead.
Go For It!
Now you’re ready, so start getting active! Having a service dog is a way that we are able to be as independent as possible, despite having a disability. You should not feel that you need to avoid the gym simply because you have chosen to use a service dog. Even if you prefer less traditional exercise, such as CrossFit or parkour or dance or acrobatics or rock climbing or whatever it is that you enjoy, aim to follow the general guidelines outlined above.
Keep your dog away from the main action in an area where they are not at risk of being injured or potentially in the way of other people. If you loved being active and playing sports before becoming disabled, don’t allow that to be a reason to stop going to the gym. And if you’ve never been active or ventured into a gym, having your service dog by your side is a great reason to start now!