When it comes to running, hiking and even walking, there’s something soothing about the gentle pant and easy lope of a four-legged companion by your side. With the weather warming, now’s the time to bone up on your knowledge of safe practices for running with dogs.
Dr. Dennis Nowicki, a retired veterinarian, runner and resident of Durango, Colorado, knows better than most the safest route to developing a dog for distance.
He says the first rule is know the age at which it is safe to run with a dog. Keep the distance short if your dog is a puppy 6 months old or younger – 1 to 2 miles, at the most, in any one outing. From 7 months to 12 months, you can safely increase distances to between 4 and 6 miles. And at 18 months, the dog is sufficiently developed to go longer distances.
“The reason for this is the dog’s joints are still forming, and their bones are still growing,” cautions Nowicki. “If they over do it, they can develop joint problems and their growth plates could be damaged to the point they would stop growing. That can cause a variety of related problems.”
Best Running Breeds
Many breeds are natural athletes, and Nowicki recommends choosing one of the sporting or working breeds, or even a mixed breed dog, if you plan to train it to run. Medium-sized dogs between 30 and 60 pounds tend to be the most athletic and enthusiastic of the pack.
Giant breeds, on the other hand – such as the St. Bernard, Newfoundland and Great Dane – won’t go the distance as well. Given their sheer size, these breeds tend to have less stamina and endurance, Nowicki says. “They’re great hikers and walkers, but not runners,” he says.
So how do you know if your dog even enjoys running? I know my small-breed dogs make no bones about the fact that they have absolutely no interest in hiking or running. A short walk, yes! A long hike, I get the furry middle finger.
“Look for your dog’s excitement at the start of your run. If you’re doing a 15-minute mile to warm up and then pick up the pace, a dog that’s not into running will lag behind. You just have to use common sense,” Nowicki says.
As is the case with human runners, dog runners require a training progression and adaptation phase in order to build endurance.
Nowicki recommends gradually building up the time on the trail or the road, rather than measuring pure distance as the best way to condition a dog for running. “When my German Shorthaired Pointers were puppies, I would take them out for 30 minutes. When they were adults, I took them out for an hour. I gradually increased their time because they need to build up stamina first,” Nowicki explains.
The number one running injury Nowicki saw in his practice was muscle and joint sprains. Just like humans, dogs can be injured from running on hard surfaces too much, such as asphalt or concrete sidewalks.
Preferably, start dogs out on dirt trails and minimize harder surfaces. “Running them on softer surfaces will always result in fewer injuries,” Nowicki says.
When it comes to muscle injuries in dogs, many incidents can be avoided if the dogs are allowed to gradually warm up and cool down before running. Again, similar to a human runner, injuries are minimized when muscles, ligaments and tendons are properly warmed up and cooled down.
Manners When Running With Dogs
Nowicki says there are 5 behaviors you and your dog should master before venturing out onto the trails, roads or parks.
- Dogs should be able to walk on a leash without tugging or pulling.
- The animal should respond to the command “heel” and walk calmly by your side.
- Dogs must know the word “stay” and when give the command, they stop in and sit. This command will help protect your beloved running buddy from potentially jumping out in front of a car or if they encounter other dogs or wildlife that could be dangerous.
- Dogs need to know the command “come,” especially if you are running them off-leash. See #3 above for the same safety message.
- Sit is an essential command that all dogs should know and respond to.
You’ve invested in awesome running kicks and cooling outerwear to get you through the summer months. Fido needs the same consideration if you’re going to make a runner out of him.
Nowicki recommends a standard 4- to 6-foot leash and nylon collar. Better yet, a harness will prevent any mishaps if the dog’s collar became entangled in bushes or trees. Above all else, don’t use a choke collar. Attaching your dog to your running belt is also a great alternative, but only if the animal is skilled at basic commands and does not pull on the leash.
He also recommends buying booties for dogs who do a lot of trail or road running. The booties will protect their feet from hot pavement, as well as potential puncture wounds from thorns or cactus.
Heat & Hydration
Taking the right steps to ensure our pups are well-hydrated is essential, especially with summer right around the corner. Nowicki says take enough water on your run for yourself and the dog. “If your dog will drink out of a water bottle, that’s great. If not, carry a collapsible bowl made of lightweight nylon for the dog to drink from.”
One of the biggest mistakes runners make is taking dogs out to run when it’s too hot. If the outside temperature is under 85 degrees, the danger of a dog becoming overheated is greatly reduced. “If it’s over 85, I wouldn’t recommend it,” Nowicki says.
The risk of dehydration and heat stoke is real, Nowicki says. “Dogs don’t sweat the way we do. We can release our body heat through evaporation. But the only way dogs get rid of excess body heat is through panting. Excessive panting is a warning sign of dehydration,” he explains.
Nowicki adds that if the dog begins to lag behind, stumbles or trips, that’s also a sign of dehydration. “Look at their gums and lips. If they are beet red instead of a pink, that’s a sign.”
He adds that long-haired dogs are at higher risk of overheating, as are dark-colored dogs because their darker coat absorbs heat faster.
Finally, if you are tempted to allow your dog to cool off in a local canal or retention pond, don’t. “Most times, the walls are so steep that the dog will jump in and not be able to get out,” Nowicki says.
Run Like the Wind
With safety top of mind, there’s no better running companion than a trusty canine. “The exhilaration of running with a dog is just a kick,” says Nowicki, who takes his dog out on the trails daily. “My dog makes me a better runner. He knows instinctively how to time his breathing, and if he’s running too fast, he’ll slow down the pace. They’re naturals, plus the companionship of a dog is instant.”