There’s no running partner quite like a dog. The uncontrollable joy when you grab your dog’s leash is infectious and is almost guaranteed to get you out of the house to hit the roads or the trails. And who else can we convince to run in rain, snow, sleet, and even a stiff Kansas wind with us? Whether a seasoned runner or a newbie, your dog can help keep you motivated in your toughest moments and be there to share your greatest runs. My dog, Tara, has helped me train for five half marathons. She keeps me going on those tough long runs when I just want to take a break and she races me, pushing me faster, when I’m working on speed. In honor of our upcoming Dog-N-Jog race this weekend, I’ve put together 10 tips for beginning a running program with your pup.
1. Warning: Always Consult a Physician Before Beginning an Exercise Routine
We see these signs and warnings every time we go to the gym or read about starting a new exercise routine, and the same goes for our dogs. It’s a good idea to take a trip to the veterinarian before beginning an exercise program with your dog, particularly if she hasn’t had a complete physical in awhile. Just like in people, we want to make sure there are no heart, lung, or musculoskeletal abnormalities before beginning a running program. Also, ask your veterinarian to teach you how to evaluate your dog’s Body Condition Score to determine if she’s at a good weight, which will be helpful for you to evaluate her condition as you increase your mileage. And if your dog is under two years old, make sure to ask what age it is okay to start running so that the repetitive physical stress does not affect joint and bone development in young dogs.
2. Know Your Dog
It’s obvious from the vastly different physical characteristics that different breeds of dog were bred for different purposes and have different strengths and weaknesses. While our herding dogs and sledding dogs may be able to accompany you on even your longest distance runs, smaller breeds and dogs with flattened faces (e.g. pugs, bulldogs, etc.) may only be able to run shorter distances due to their conformation. It’s important to recognize your dog’s abilities and keep your expectations in line so that you are not pushing your dog beyond his physical capabilities.
3. Start Slowly
If your dog has been a couch potato her entire life, or even if she’s active but has never done any endurance running, it’s important to build up slowly to avoid injuries. I follow the same general rules for building doggy training plans as for people – build weeks increasing no more than 10% total mileage and no more than 10% long run distance interspersed every 2-3 weeks with a step back or recovery week. If you are already running consistently, you may want to plan some runs in which you can run a short loop with your dog, drop him off at the house and then continue on the rest of your run until you’ve built up your dog’s endurance.
4. Be Aware of the Weather
Unlike people who can sweat, dogs use panting as their primary mechanism for cooling themselves. Because dogs are also extremely willing to please, they may push themselves past the point of safety on hot days. If you notice your dog is excessively panting, trying to seek shade, or lay down during a run, it’s time to stop and let them cool down. Tara is fairly heat tolerant for a German Shepherd Dog, so my general rule of thumb is no more than 3-5 easy miles when it’s over 80 degrees F. You will need to find the comfortable point for your own dog, and avoid pushing him beyond his tolerance.
And on that note, if you need water on a run, there’s a good chance your dog does too! For short runs (under 6 miles or so), I don’t carry water and have found that Tara will not drink even if I offer it. On longer runs, especially on warm days, I offer water every time I take a sip. You can teach your dog to drink from a bottle or there are small collapsible bowls you can use that will fit in a hydration belt. Since Tara has never learned to drink from a bottle, in a pinch I will pour water into a cupped hand and let her take a few sips. There’s no need to gorge themselves on water, just enough to quench their thirst.
This is a tough aspect to cover, and could fill an entire blog since such a large percentage of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Running is a great way to help your pup get more exercise and lose some of that weight, if needed. You may also be helping your dog live longer, as some studies have demonstrated that thinner dogs may have greater longevity. If your dog is already a good weight – something your veterinarian can help you assess (see #1) – you may have to increase your dog’s rations to fuel the extra exercise. Dogs may also benefit from extra nutrition on long runs (10+ miles), but their smaller size means they probably do not need nearly the number of calories that we do, so it’s important to be careful to find an appropriate balance.
7. Strength and Stretch
I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but just like you, your dog will benefit from strength training and stretching. Cross-training such as swimming, hiking, and tugging can help build muscle strength. You can also use simple tricks such as doggy push-ups, perch training, and backing up to improve body awareness and agility. Learning to do simple stretches and massage on your dog can be a great benefit for them to work out sore muscles.
8. Leash and Potty Training
There are two major training items that can make runs with your dog much more enjoyable. First, is teaching your dog to run properly on a loose leash. I’m not too picky, Tara can run at my side, behind me or in front of me as long as she’s not dragging me around the entire run or constantly crossing my path. I prefer her to run out in front so we’re not stepping on each other on narrow trails, but if she wants to be at my side, who can argue with that? In my opinion it’s easiest to train loose-leash walking then translating that to running. The second major item is teaching your dog to eliminate on command. It’s not a hard thing to teach (simply give the cue you choose every time your dog eliminates) and it saves a lot of frustration on the run. Obviously, when they gotta go, they gotta go, but the less stops the better! Some dogs will catch on to these faster than others, but if you put in the time having both of these “skills” will make runs much more enjoyable. 🙂
9. Observing Your Dog
I’ll never forget the day I was out with Tara and she went completely lame on one leg. She was non weight-bearing, but otherwise happy as a clam. I had no idea what she’d done to herself – there were no yelps of pain, no sudden twists, turns or stops that could have caused it. When I stopped to check her, I found a 3 inch long thorn sticking out of her pad. After removing it, she was back to normal, so we ran home where I was able to clean and more thoroughly evaluate it. It’s incredibly important that you learn to observe your dog for injuries especially through any subtle gait changes. Dogs are so incredibly stoic that they often don’t show us overt signs of pain unless it’s really really bad, so we need to be able to pick up on the little things. Sore muscles or injuries may lead to lameness that requires rest (and possibly vet intervention) for healing. Paw pads are a frequent place of minor and major running injuries, so I try to inspect them daily for any cuts or abrasions. In the summer be aware of the hot asphalt and in the winter, the chemicals and salt used on roads and sidewalks can burn the pads.
10. Have a Blast!
(The obligatory “have fun” tip). Running with your dog is not just a great way to stay motivated and to get fit, it’s fun! Explore new routes, try trail running with your dog, or find a dog-friendly race to do together. Just take the time to appreciate the pure and simple joy that dogs have when they get to go on a run with you. 🙂
What additional tips do you have for running with your dog(s)?
Disclaimer: The contents of this post and blog are my own opinions and should be used for informational purposes only. The information presented here is not a replacement for your veterinarian’s medical advice or care.
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