Otis approaches the wobble board with curiosity, sniffing at the turquoise plastic. It’s the first time he’s encountered anything like this, and he has so many questions. Why does it tip from side to side? Why does it make that noise when the edges slap against the floor?
Two-year-old Otis taps at it, surprised that his paw doesn’t slide around on the textured surface. He places one furry white foot squarely down on the board and steadies himself before adding his other front paw and looks up at his guardian Kelli.
Kelli and the other humans in the room gasp and coo, and Otis wags his tail at the attention. Having conquered the balance board, this little French bulldog is ready for the next activity in his “doga” — dog yoga — class.
This connection between humans and their furry friends is exactly what Kimberly Gray envisioned when she launched Fitness With Fido. A longtime dog groomer and certified personal trainer, Gray leads pairs in yoga, Pilates, cardio and more — all classes that are designed to help people develop fitness routines while deepening their bond with their favorite pal.
According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness industry is booming, with people spending $4.2trillion on classes, gear and supplements globally as of October 2018. Of that, $595billion goes to the “Fitness and Mind-Body” category, which includes health clubs, gyms and yoga studios.
With figures like that, businesses obviously are enjoying a boom from people who are looking to adopt healthier lifestyles. But because traditional gyms and studios aren’t right for everyone due to time or mobility concerns, Gray and others have carved out an even deeper niche in the fitness market — working out with animals. The idea is that dog guardians should be exercising their pets anyway, so why not use that time to get a quick workout or meditation session for the human body, too?
The concept for Fitness With Fido came to Gray as she was training for a Tough Mudder endurance event several years ago. Because of her intense workout schedule, she was spending less time with her dogs Oscar and Leah. “I got guilty looks from my dogs and I felt bad, so I started working out outside more with them,” she remembers. “After a few times, I thought other people might like this.”
Gray’s online research found that there were no “dog and me” fitness classes in the St. Louis area, but she did come across someone who had launched something similar in California. She reached out for advice and then began putting together a business plan, drawing upon her business administration degree and her experience managing a grooming salon. She launched Fitness With Fido in 2015, hoping to help humans and dogs form stronger bonds and stronger bodies.
The business has evolved over the years as Gray learned what her clientele was looking for — fewer straight dog obedience classes or pups simply hanging out while their guardians trained, and more paired activities and balancing exercises for both the humans and the pups.
For her regular “doga” or “puplates” (puppy Pilates) classes at the Academy of Pet Careers in Chesterfield and the Miller Haus in Wildwood or the “yappy hour” events throughout the region, Gray often brings a variety of gear for the dogs to use — stability balls, bone-shaped balancing cushions and step platforms. As the humans hold yoga poses or do jumping jacks, their dogs often join them or wait patiently for their next command. The activities for both friends often revolve around core work — exercises geared toward the abdomen, lower back and pelvis — and Gray has been seeing progress from those who frequent her classes.
“You’ll get these dogs who are shy or they don’t want to put their feet on a piece of balancing equipment,” Gray says. “After normally about three classes, I love seeing them come walking in, strutting their stuff. You’ll be like, ‘Step up on this’ and they just step up. They’re naturals now, and you wouldn’t even know they were nervous before because they’ve built so much confidence.”
“I’d say 40- to 60-year-olds are my main group of women. As we get older — people and dogs — you lose balance, so I always try and work on the core because I think it’s really important as you age,” Gray continues. “But yeah, they can definitely tell. They’ll tell me if they’re going hiking and trying to skip rocks or something, ‘Oh I can do that so much easier now.”
Gray says that St. Louis has been an ideal home for a dog-centered business, thanks to events like the annual Purina Pet Parade and pet food companies Purina, Nature’s Variety, Royal Canin, Solid Gold and more.
“In St. Louis, people love their dogs. I’ve heard a few people say how they’ve moved to St Louis specifically because where they came from, there was no dog stuff,” Gray says. “We’re getting more dog friendly restaurants and coworking coffee lounges like the Miller Haus. I think there are just more places starting to open up that allow dogs.”
As Fitness With Fido grows, Gray will continue adding different types of exercises and classes for human/dog pairs (she recently debuted paddleboarding on Simpson Lake in Valley Park) and hopes to one day open her own dog-centric fitness studio.
After all, everything Gray does comes down to one thing.
“I love dogs. I mean, that’s just really why I do it,” Gray says. “I want people to be healthier because that means they’re doing more with their dogs. We should live healthier lives because the dogs, they’re not with us long enough.”