Proper run training for you and your most loyal companion.
Few cultures on the planet treat their dogs like Americans, and more specifically, Coloradans. We buy expensive organic chow and tricked-out, joint-preserving doggie beds. Our four-legged friends accompany us to the office, coffee shop-and, perhaps most importantly, on training runs as our loyal pacers and are reminders of all things joyful and humble about the sport of running.
Whether you’re preparing to adopt a dog or already have one who matches you stride for stride, it’s mutually beneficial to know how to run train properly with-and ultimately respect and protect-your favorite canine companion.
Let’s start with puppies. If you’ve recently acquired a young dog or plan to do so (see sidebar on good running breeds), there are a few things to know when teaching your dog how to run with you.
First, don’t even start running with your puppy until he or she is not a puppy. Veterinarian Tim Hackett, Chief of Staff-Small Animals at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, says seven months would be the earliest he would recommend a dog begin run training.
Dogs must reach skeletal maturity first, which in giant breeds may not happen until up to 20 months, says Dr. Erick Egger, a professor of Small Animal Orthopedic Surgery at Colorado State. According to Elizabeth Simpson, who as owner of Boulder-based Tenderfoot Training sees the dogs of many athletes, “When a young pup’s muscles tire, they cannot support the skeletal system and now you are grinding bone against bone and doing damage.”
Once your dog reaches skeletal maturity, best confirmed with a quick vet check-up, it’s time to start endurance training. Just like humans, dogs need to build up mileage progressively. “Treat your dog as you would a friend you are helping get started,” says Simpson. “Don’t ask too much and increase the time and difficulty only as he gets stronger.”
Hackett, who runs three paved miles every other day with his dog with one longer trail run per week, suggests starting with a mile a week while assessing recovery, watching how quickly heart rate and breathing return to normal and monitoring how your dog’s feet are holding up. Pad wear is arguably the most common injury in dogs that run regularly.
Elite runners might start run training by completing a full, fast-paced run, then picking up Fido for a comfy cool down, suggests Simpson.
Of course basic training will also be helpful for a younger dog just getting used to running in a controlled environment. “A well-trained dog is far more fun to run with than an ill-mannered dog who runs off, lunges at people, chases dogs or cars, and forces you to stop every two seconds because he has to mark another tree,” says Simpson.
Basalt-based author of Canine Colorado, Cindy Hirschfeld, who runs with her three-year-old mutt Tansy, has found a loophole. “We haven’t been very successful at training her on leash. She zigzags back and forth, which is a pain in the rear when you’re trying to run in a straight line!” Compromise between dog and master is found at off-leash areas, such as a non-wilderness designated National Forest trails or voice-command-allowed trails within Boulder’s Open Space system.
As you continue to increase your dog’s mileage and pace, it’s important to remember a pet is always at your mercy regarding breaks, explains Hackett. “Your dog will run as long as you do, whether she’s exhausted or not, so don’t drag her on your marathon training run,” says Hirschfeld, who caps pooch-accompanied runs at 10 miles.
Remember, too, that dogs don’t sweat like humans. They cool down through panting and disperse some heat through their feet. Neither of which are very efficient, Simpson points out.
Knowing your dog’s resting heart rate and respiratory rate so you can assess recovery is helpful, says Hackett. For example, a rapid heart and respiratory rate that doesn’t slow with rest is one of the first signs of heat exhaustion. Others include collapsing, altered consciousness or unresponsiveness, and high-pitched wheezing or gasping for breath.
Taking frequent water breaks, choosing shady running routes and working out in the morning or evening when temperatures are cooler are also important to your dog’s safety. Hirschfeld taught her dogs to drink from a portable hydration pack and water bottles. Others prefer a collapsible nylon dog bowl.
A diet rich in meat protein and digestible calcium with lots of micronutrients, good bacteria and enzymes will help your dog maintain a healthy body and endure rigorous workouts, says Simpson. According to Hackett, “High-energy foods are fine, but you will still need to watch weight to be sure calories in equal calories out.” Joint-easing supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin may be beneficial for older dogs.
Be careful not to feed your dog for an hour before and after you run. A dog’s stomach acts as a holding tank during digestion, explains Simpson, and eating too close to exercise time can make your dog vulnerable to dangerous gastric torsion or bloat.
Beyond endurance training, safety habits and diet tips, what’s most valuable is your relationship with your dog. “Running really takes up a small portion of your day and the rest of your time with your dog will be spent living a normal life,” says Simpson. “Your dog needs to be a good match for you and your lifestyle.”
Best Running Breeds
Young, short-haired, large-breed dogs with nice long noses are the best for running companionship, says Hackett. Consider a greyhound or lean Labrador retriever. Simpson recommends sight hounds, herders, setters, taller hounds, gun dogs, sled dogs or mutts that are a healthy mix of these breeds. Hunting breeds, except the Rhodesian ridgeback, may be unpredictable runners since they are genetically designed to hunt. Huskies work well for cold-weather endurance training. Avoid smaller dogs with short noses and legs, such as pugs and or bulldogs, and learn about each breed’s risk factors for long-term physical conditions such as hip or elbow dysplasia.