Ready, Set, Go: Running With Your Dog
We know that running is good for humans, but it can be good for your dog, too. Not all canines are built for running, but most dogs in good health enjoy it, even if it’s only a couple of miles. Whether you’re a Couch to 5K newbie or a committed marathoner, there are some factors to consider before you take your dog out on a run.
Start With a Health Check
Before hitting the trails with your dog, it’s essential to get a clean bill of health from your veterinarian. Running is a high-impact, cardio-intensive exercise, and unless your dog has been cleared for this activity, he can be at risk for injury — or worse. Joint problems, like hip dysplasia, luxating patellas and arthritis, can make running painful or even impossible. Good cardiovascular health is also necessary for this intensive activity. Your dog’s weight is another factor; overweight dogs will struggle more with running than their slimmer counterparts. Your dog’s age is a consideration as well. While an elderly dog may be able to do some running, his fitness level will not be the same as that of a younger dog. Be cautious as well about running with a young dog: Depending on breed, your dog’s growth plates are not fully closed until he is between a year and a half and 2 years old. Engaging in high-impact exercise, like running, before he’s fully developed can result in an injury. Finally, brachycephalic dogs, or those with pushed-in noses, like Bulldogs and Pugs, have difficulty getting enough air, especially in the heat, which can make running dangerous for them. These dogs do better taking a long stroll.
Make Your Run Dog-Friendly
The great thing about running is that you can do it almost anywhere. But there are better and worse places for your dog to run. Your dog can run on streets and sidewalks, but the hard surface can be tough on his body. Dirt and grass are softer and can be much easier on a dog’s joints (and yours, too) than pavement, but beware of uneven surfaces, rabbit holes, sharp stones and other hazards. Pavement also heats up in the sun and can scorch your dog’s paws. If the ground is too hot for you to touch comfortably with the palm of your hand, then it’s too hot for your dog to run on. In hot weather, running during the cooler parts of the day, either early morning or evening, allows your dog (and you) to go farther with less chance of overheating. Especially in warm weather, be sure that you take frequent water breaks to help keep your dog from getting dehydrated. You can teach your dog to drink from a water bottle, which makes hydrating on the go easier for both of you. Be aware that drinking large amounts of water can predispose some dogs to bloat, so ask your vet how much water to safely give your dog during a run. When you’re deciding how far to run, take your dog’s breed into consideration. The average dog can run anywhere between two and five miles, according to Sarah Wharton, owner of Marathon Dog Walking and Training in Oakland, Calf. Certain breeds are built for bursts of speed, while others are built for endurance; as you plan your runs, be sure to consider the type of running best suited for your dog. If you are looking for a companion for long-distance running, choose a breed that does not have any extreme proportions, such as short legs, like a Dachshund, or a pushed-in nose, like a Bulldog. Wharton has found that the sporting and herding breeds are the most likely to run the longest distances. But small dogs, including Terriers and even Chihuahuas, can make excellent running partners as well. Small dogs may even have an advantage over larger dogs: They carry less weight, which means they experience less stress on their joints when they move. Even though the average dog may not enjoy a super-long run, some dogs do. Wharton’s record for running was a 20-mile run she took with a 60-pound mixed-breed dog. According to Wharton, the biggest limitation for physically fit and well-built canines is temperature rather than distance.
The Right Approach to Gear and Training
For the same reasons that you keep your own running gear to a minimum, keep your dog’s as simple as possible as well. The less equipment your pet wears, the more naturally he can move. A collar or a back-clip harness attached to a fixed-length leash are all your pet needs. Check your dog’s harness and collar both during and after a run to ensure that they fit properly and aren’t chafing. Avoid retractable leashes; they offer little control, especially at high speeds, and can be dangerous to you, your dog and other runners or pedestrians. Leashes that clip around your waist allow you to run hands free, but they should only be used on well-behaved dogs with some running experience. Reflective or light-up leashes and collars help make your dog visible when you are running in low light. Most runners follow some sort of training program; your dog also needs proper training to run safely. But while your training focuses on building strength and endurance, your dog’s training needs to start with good manners. Maintaining correct running form is challenging enough when you are running solo, but it’s almost impossible if your dog is pulling on the leash — and this behavior can lead to injury for you and your dog. Before your dog starts running with you, make sure he knows how to properly walk on a loose leash. Start by teaching your dog to heel. Once he is heeling, teach him to turn in response to a verbal cue. I use the word “turn” and then turn either right or left; my dogs know to follow me when they hear the cue. Train your dog to respond to turns at a walk first. Reward your pet for staying at your side by delivering a treat next to your leg as you change directions. Cues such as “jog,” “walk” and “stop” are also helpful for your dog; they can be used to inform him of any change in pace and can keep him from straining at the leash or lagging behind as you speed up and slow down. Give the verbal cue a second or two before you alter your pace in order to give your dog a chance to adjust his speed appropriately. Dogs should be well-socialized and comfortable around other canines and people, especially if you will be running with a group or participating in an organized race. If your dog lacks manners around people or dogs, talk to your veterinarian and consider enrolling in a positive reinforcement class to gain experience with this type of distraction before you sign him up for a pet-friendly 5K.
Start Slow and Run Safely
Just like people, dogs need to build up distance and speed gradually. Start by alternating walking with short intervals of running. As your dog gets more comfortable running, his distance and speed can be increased over time. Runners are conventionally advised to increase their distance no more than 10 percent each week; in his book Fitness Unleashed, my father, Dr. Marty Becker, recommends that dogs new to running stick to an increase of about 5 percent in the distance covered each week. Just as your body needs to adjust to longer runs, your dog’s does, too; for example, paw pads need time to toughen up and callous over. Your dog’s paws can be rubbed raw if he runs too far without any time to adjust. Since your dog can’t talk, watch his body language for signs that he needs to slow down or stop. Canines heat up fast and will often keep going even if they’re hot or exhausted. Dogs only sweat through their paws, not their skin, and mainly release heat through panting; in addition, your dog is wearing a fur coat, making him less adept at running in the heat. Your dog can also get aches and injuries, have equipment rubbing or just become too exhausted to keep going. If your dog is panting excessively, having difficulty breathing or his normally pink tongue has taken on a blue tint, he has overdone it and needs to stop. If stopping for a few minutes doesn’t do the trick, call your vet. Dogs who are overheating may also attempt to seek any form of shade or water. If your pet lags behind or tries to stop or lie down, take heed and slow down the pace to what your dog can handle, or call it a day and get some rest and water.