My social life has declined since I brought home Shirley, my seven-month Miniature Schnauzer, Red-Heeler mix.
My friends joke that I act more like a mom to a newborn baby rather than a dog owner. And I admit, it’s true. I feel guilty leaving her at home for a ten-mile afternoon run and I fantasize about the day when my training can double as her playtime. But while we’re working on it, it’s going to take a while before she can accompany me on my trail workouts.
Dogs make great running partners. They’re enthusiastic and motivated and they can help hold you accountable. After all, if you don’t get your workout in, neither do they.
But not all dogs are ready to run or even meant to run at all. No matter how many times they fetch the ball, if they haven’t been conditioned to handle the effort, taking your dog running can cause serious and long-term damage.
Here are a few steps to helping your dog reach his or her training-partner potential while staying healthy and ensuring dog-jogging longevity.
Start With a Health Check
Before taking your pup out for a day on the trails it’s essential to get a clean bill of health from your vet.
Running is a high-impact, cardio-intensive activity and can leave your dog at risk for injury and long-term joint dysfunction. Running a dog before they’re ready risks life-long consequences. They could develop joint problems, like hip dysplasia, luxating patellas or arthritis. These are painful, debilitating conditions; it’s far better to be safe than sorry.
In the book Fitness Unleashed, veterinarian Marty Becker stresses the importance of good cardiovascular health and optimal weight. Overweight dogs struggle more with running than their slimmer counterparts and are more prone to injury due to the impact brought on by the extra couple of pounds.
Your dog’s age is an important consideration as well.
While an elderly dog may have a body developed to handle the miles, his or her fitness will have declined. Be cautious as well about running with a young dog. Depending on breed and size, it takes between six months and two years for a dog to develop fully. Engaging in regular high-impact exercise, like running, before full development can significantly increase injury risk.
Lastly, Becker emphasizes that dogs with pushed-in noses, like Bulldogs and Pugs, have difficulty getting enough air and staying cool, which can make running dangerous for them. Although long strolls in the park are encouraged for such dogs, running is risky and not recommended.
Go For a Walk
Just if I were prescribing a training plan to a person new to running, dogs need to build up distance and speed gradually. Before taking any running steps with me, Shirley and I went on 2-3 long walks a day, sometimes lasting an hour or more. This not only got her conditioned to being outside on her feet for long periods of time but also was a great opportunity to train her to be well-behaved when on and off the leash.
After several months of long strolls, Shirley and I went for our first “run.”
We called it a run because there were some running steps. However, the very first jog was about a half mile and took over twenty minutes. We ran for one-minute and walked for two or more while taking several sniffing and treat breaks along the way.
By starting with walking and alternating with short intervals of running, Shirley was able to build up to running slowly, while letting her muscles and bones develop appropriately.
As your dog gets more comfortable running, his or her distance and speed can increase over time.
Just as runners are advised to increase their distance no more than ten percent each week. Becker recommends that dogs new to running increase about five percent. That gives him or her time to adjust to things like paws rubbing against the pavement and the singular movement of running on a leash.
Especially in the early days of your dog’s new training plan, it’s critical to pay attention to body language.
Look for signs that he or she is tired, needs a drink or is overheated. Canines heat up fast and will often keep going even if they’re hot or exhausted. Becker explains in his book that dogs only sweat through their paws and mainly release heat through panting, which is much less efficient than how we release heat. Coupled with their furry layer, our pups are far more susceptible to heat exhaustion than you and I. It’s important to be wary of that, even on days that feel cool.
Your dog can also get aches and injuries, and can just become too exhausted to keep going.
A Tired Dog is a Happy Dog
The best thing about running is its simplicity; you can lace up your shoes and go for a jog just about anywhere.
However, these rules don’t always apply to your pup. While your dog can run on streets and sidewalks, the hard surface can be tough on their body, just like too many miles on pavement can be tough on yours.
Shirley and I go out on a two-mile dirt loop with a creek running along side of it. The dirt is easy on her paws and it’s a great place for us to practice running, walking and socialization.
During the summer months or in a warm climate, hot ground, regardless if it’s dirt or pavement, can scorch paws leaving them raw and tender. If the ground is too hot for you to walk barefoot, then it’s too hot to take the dog out for a jog.
In hot weather, running during the cooler parts of the day allows your dog to go farther, faster and with less chance of overheating. If you do choose to take the pup out in the heat of the day, be sure to bring water with you and to take frequent stops in the shade.
The Breed Determines the Run
When you’re deciding how far to run, consider your dog’s breed.
The average dog can run anywhere between two and five miles, according to Sarah Wharton, owner of Marathon Dog Walking and Training in Oakland, California. Certain breeds are built for speed but lack endurance. Others won’t be able to outsprint a squirrel but will be able to outlast you in a long training run. As you plan your runs, be sure research the type of running best suited to your dog’s breed.