It's the 5:30 a.m. reminder that it's time to get up and run. I leave the warmth of my bed to pull on my running clothes and check my phone to see who is still on for this morning’s run. Sure enough, somehow or another both my running partners have found something else to do this morning, and I am on my own. The temptation to crawl back into my warm bed is so great I almost give in except for one thing; on the other side of the bedroom door are my pups, tails wagging, oblivious to the cold outside. They know what the alarm clock means and, come rain or shine, cold or hot, they are always ready to go. They never have early morning meetings to make, sick kids to tend, or late nights that turn into even later nights. There truly is no better running partner than a running “pawtner”!
I’ve been running with dogs for over 15 years. I have trained for numerous marathons, running long runs, short runs, and speed work, with dogs at my side. I have fostered for numerous organizations around Austin. I have always found the best way to socialize dogs, give them confidence, and wear them down, all at the same time, is to get them out running.
If you are interested in running with your dog, there are a few things you should consider. First, some breeds are just not equipped to run. I hesitate to say this because most breeds, purebred or mutts, are completely capable of running with their people, as your average runner will not run more than three to five miles at a time. My very first running buddy was a West Highland terrier. His short little legs had no trouble keeping up with me for my two- to three-mile jog. One of my current running “pawtners” is a Lab/whippet mix. She had a broken leg at some point in her life, is almost blind, and was so overweight when I adopted her she had rolls. The first time she ran was at a 5K, where my boyfriend was instructed to run with her until she seemed tired, and then walk her in. She ran the whole way, no problem, and took fourth place overall. That said, there are some dogs, like bulldogs and boxers—the snub nose dogs as I call them—that cannot pant properly (one of the main ways dogs cool themselves) and I recommend should not run at all. Also, larger breed dogs, like mastiffs and Great Danes, are prone to knee injuries, and the threat of an ACL tear is only heightened if you run with them.
Second, you need to consider the age of your dog. You should not run your dog before it is at least a year old. Before then, their joints are not formed and are more prone to knee or other injuries. If you have any questions about whether or not your dog should run with you, consult your veterinarian.
If you've got the right breed and the right age, you are ready to run!
Start slow and short. When you began to run, you didn't take off for a five-mile run on your first day. Start with a slow, ten-minute jog. From there, build like you would build yourself—no more than 15 percent over each week. Of course, your dog will not want to start out slow. Dogs are like children; they’d rather take off running full-throttle, risking exhaustion too early.
You have to be in control. One of the most common excuses I hear people give for not running or giving up on running with dogs is that they can’t control them. When I start a new dog running, I like to start, either really early (pre-7 a.m.) when there are fewer dogs and people on the trail or on a portion that is less travelled. Your neighborhood should be fine unless it has a high population of dogs who bark at you from their side of the fence. As I start, if my new running “pawtner” tries to greet another dog, I tug firmly on his leash and say “leave it” while moving forward. I either run up on him (be ready for this so you don’t trip) or run past him, never stopping, while he gets pulled along. Eventually he learns that when we are running, we are all about the business of running and not meet and greet. Only once have I ever had a dog who would always stop to bark at every passing dog. The answer ended up being a gentle leader, which is basically a head halter for dogs. I could control his head and so could control who he looked at or tried to bark at. The key is patience. Be ready to spend the first month of running teaching “leave it,” deciding which halter works best for your dog, and getting it used to the different sights and sounds of the roads and trails. My first month of running with my German short-haired pointer (GSP), Bella, she shied at every single car and bike and was terrified of buses. Now, she hardly blinks, even when a loud truck or bus whooshes past us. If you are still uncertain if you can control your dog out on the trail, you should seek help from a dog trainer.
Another item to consider is the running surface. If you are on asphalt, make sure to watch your dog's pads. If they start to crack or bleed, stop. Try to run some on the greenbelt or Lady Bird Lake and some on asphalt. Their pads will normally toughen over time. Another thing you can try, especially in the summer when the asphalt is hot and more likely to tear your dog's pads, is Musher's Secret. It's a waxy cream that mushers in Alaska originally used to protect their dogs' pads from the sharp ice. Works just as well on the hot, sharp asphalt.
Speaking of “hot” in the summer, you have to be extra careful about keeping your dog hydrated and cool on your runs. Let them drink a little before they go out and then let them drink a small amount when they get home but not too much all at once or else they are likely to get sick and throw it all back up. After they have cooled off, they should be fine to drink as much as they like. In the summer, I like to run at Lady Bird Lake where Austin has been kind enough to provide dog fountains for our doggies to drink from and where I can let my dogs hop into the water to cool themselves. Unlike us, dogs do not sweat, so they are not as efficient at cooling themselves as we are.
In the winter, my dogs can run 12-to-18 miles. However, in the summer, when the temperatures are soaring into the upper 90s, I rarely take anyone over five miles, and that is with frequent water and dips in the lake.
I always say a tired dog is a happy dog and a happy dog is a dog who has just gone on a run. Some of the behavioral issues your dog has will work themselves out once you begin running with it. The chewing, digging, and barking at nothing will go away once you have a happy, tired pooch. Dogs that are nervous when getting out of the house will become more confident with other dogs, people, and places. Maybe you have that dog that goes ballistic every time another dog passes. Run on the trail, and your dog will grow accustomed to numerous dogs passing by it. I foster for Texas GSP Rescue and have brought home dogs who have a history of escaping by digging out or jumping the fence. I start running with them, and I’ve seen that behavior completely disappear. Why leave home? They might miss out on a fun run.
Right now, it is cool and a great time to get started running with your four-legged buddy. So, get out the leash, strap on the running shoes, and hit the trail/road. You will never find a more excited, appreciative running partner than your own dog.