Take the proper precautions before logging miles with your four-legged training partner.
Like many endurance athletes, Vanessa Rodriguez had romantic ideas of turning her dog, Ginger, into her most trusted training partner. Despite the fact that the San Diego-based ultrarunner’s mixed-breed pooch was more interested in couch surfing than pavement pounding, she embarked on a plan for transformation. It didn’t take long, however, to discover the process would not be without its challenges.
“At first, when we would go outside, she was incredibly excited, hard to control, and wanted to chase and sniff everything,” Rodriguez says.
Ken Goldman, owner and founder of the dog gear brand, Stunt Puppy, says he encounters many runners who initially doubt their dogs’ running abilities.
“People always say to me, ‘That would be so cool to have my dog run with me, but I could never get him or her to do that.’ But it’s totally doable, probably even easier than getting your dog to walk if they are physically healthy.”
If you plan on running with your dog, be sure they have reached maturity and their growth plates have closed. Some experts cite 18 months as a good benchmark, but others suggest it depends on the breed. Smaller dogs take less time to reach full size, while the biggest breeds might not fully mature until 24 months. Also, be cognizant that some breeds are more adept runners than others. Short-nosed dogs, like pugs, and giant breeds, like Great Danes, are typically not the best choices.
However, the majority of dogs can and will run. While you can’t haul them out for a brisk five-miler when they are young, preliminary training can begin as soon as you bring your pup home.
“Long before you begin running with your dog, you want them totally leash trained,” says Elizabeth Devitt, a veterinarian and founder of All Star Dog Run, a series of dog-friendly running events in California. J.T. Clough, a professional dog trainer in Hawaii, author of “5K Training Guide: Running With Dogs,” and the brains behind www.mauidogremedies.com also recommends experimenting with running drills in an open field before advancing to organized training. “Run across a park, stop and wait,” she says. “This is a great way to build muscles, ligaments and tendons safely when they are young.”
Once your dog has reached full maturity (or you’ve adopted an adult dog), Clough suggests owners check in with their vet and slowly ease into running. “If they’ve never run before, you have to build mileage gradually, just like a person,” she explains. By starting with a half to a full mile every other day, adding no more than 10 percent mileage with each passing week, you’ll build the pup’s endurance as well as its musculature. Clough teaches the owners and dogs she works with to utilize treats as an incentive for obedient walking and running.
“You need 1,000 repetitions of correct decisions before they will get it,” she advises. “You may have to slow down before you get faster.” If your dog is easily distracted while on the run, reward her with a treat when she refocuses and continues to move forward. Keep in mind that this means your initial dog-accompanied runs are more about the dog’s training, rather than your own.
Devitt emphasizes the importance of monitoring your dog’s health throughout the process, both during a run and while your dog is resting. And be sure your dog has access to clean, fresh water before and during runs in warm conditions. While you may be dripping in sweat, effectively cooling yourself on a hot run, your dog is only able to pant and utilize minimal sweat glands in their feet. Humidity and dark fur can make things even dicier.
By the time your dog is slowing to a trot—with its tail and ears down, tongue hanging out and heavily panting—you may have gone too far. Most dogs will run beyond exhaustion to keep up to its master, often to its own peril. Plus, some dogs will run until their paw pads are raw, so it’s important to ease into running and not push your pup beyond its limits.
With the proper care and mileage build-up, the majority of dogs will be thrilled to become your most favored running partner.
“We built a lot of trust in those early stages of run training,” Rodriguez says. After six months devoted to building up Ginger’s mileage, their bond is stronger than it has ever been. Devitt points out that running seems to inspire happiness and motivation in all species. “Once you get them trained,” she says, “I dare you to turn down your dog looking at you with its leash in its mouth.”
- Water: Runs more than 45 minutes, especially if the temperatures are hot, should always involve water breaks.
- Fuel: For longer runs, bring along high-protein treats that contain fat for your companion. While humans initially burn carbs during exercise, dogs’ endurance is more of a fat-based fuel.
- A four- to six-foot leash: Your dog should always be at your side within three feet of you.
Doggie Gear Guide:
Ruffwear Quencher, $15
In warmer weather, this collapsible water bowl allows you to offer your pup water on the run.
Stunt Puppy Stunt Runner, $35
A hands-free leash with a stretchy lead, the Stunt Runner allows both you and your pup some leeway.
D-Fa Ice-Barker, $139
Made from 100 percent New Zealand Merino wool, D-Fa offers a jacket fit for all dogs, and especially for shorthaired dogs, exercising in the coldest temperatures.
Cardio Canine, $50
This hands-free leash features a storage pouch and 14-ounce water bottle holder for efficiency and safety.
This piece first appeared in the November 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.