What I’ve learned from running with five different dogs during the course of their lives and mine
Let me start with the disclaimer that I am not a veterinarian, a dog trainer or a professional runner. I’ve just been running with dogs for a long time, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned along the way. Further, I’m a casual runner. I run for fitness and weight control. I do pay attention to my times, and I like to maintain a baseline level of running fitness, but I don’t stress over it, and I’m not constantly in training mode.
Mostly, I run because I enjoy it. Combine that with my lifelong love of dogs, and my morning run with a canine companion becomes the most uplifting way to start my day. My husband, Dave, and I usually run at the same time and in the same location, but we run at different paces, so we’re not running together. Running with a dog gives me a sense of safety if I’m alone. It provides company in a shared activity that we both love. It deepens the bond with my dog, and keeps us both fit.
Consult your vet.
Always consult with your vet before you begin a running program with your dog. Some breeds are not well suited for running. Three of our dogs were puppies when we got them. With each one, our vet told us that they could start running at six months, but I’ve read that some vets recommend a year. I’m sure that it depends on the size and breed of the dog. Our dogs have all been medium-sized working or herding breeds. If you adopt an adult dog, or want to start running with your dog once it is an adult, again, consult your vet to determine your dog’s health and fitness for running.
Leash train your dog.
If your dog is a puppy, you have a golden opportunity to properly leash-train him. The goal is for your dog to walk alongside you without pulling the leash. The dogs that we currently have, Steve and Olive, were rescued as adults. Steve’s age was a mystery when we got him, but we know that Olive was three. Neither one had been leash trained in any way, and we did consult a trainer for some help. She told us to stop moving when the dog started to pull and only move again once the dog stopped pulling. This helped, but we also invested in a Gentle Leader, which was the true game changer.
Train your dog to walk on your left side.
When on foot, you should always be moving against the traffic so that you can see what is coming. By keeping your dog on your left side and putting yourself between your dog and the road, you lessen the chance of the dog darting into traffic. Also, training your dog to stay on the same side all of the time helps to ensure that your dog won’t weave back and forth and entangle your legs in the leash.
To teach this, the trainer recommended a similar approach to the one used for leash training—continually move your dog to your left side and stop walking when the dog strays. Food-motivated dogs will respond to small treats held in your left hand while walking. Occasionally slip the dog a treat and praise her if she is on your left side. This worked well with our puppies. Dogs are creatures of habit, and, once trained, they will automatically move to your left side when on the leash.
Teach your dog basic voice commands and hand signals.
Dogs are unpredictable. Even on his best day, a well-trained dog might succumb to the taunting of a wily cat that saunters along the side of the road just out of reach, because, somehow, the cat knows the dog is leashed. If your dog slips away from you, you want her to listen to your commands for her safety and yours. Sit, stay, wait and come are the commands that our dogs know. Adding a hand signal for each word is useful if your dog can see you but might not be able to hear you. If he has crossed the street and there is loud traffic, for example, hand signals of sit and wait would be valuable.
You're ready to run!
Start on a familiar course.
If you and your dog know what to expect, there is less opportunity for mishaps. Once you know how your dog does while running, you can branch out. We take our dogs to new places all of the time, and they always slip into running mode.
Use the proper equipment.
Use a leash that is the proper length to allow a small amount of slack when the dog is in position on your left side. You don’t want to be dragging the dog, but you don’t want your dog to have room to wander, either. NEVER use an extendable leash while running with a dog. I like a leash with a rounded handle because it’s more comfortable in my hand. I’m 5′ 7″, and my favorite leash is 52 inches long, including the handle. We use harnesses on our dogs, not collars. This is our current favorite. Your dog is less likely to slip out of a harness, he will be easier to spot if he does get away, and I think harnesses are more comfortable for a leashed dog. If you run in the dark, it’s important to wear gear that will allow motorists to see you. I wear a headlamp and a lighted vest, and I have a lighted vest for my dog.
Pay attention to the weather.
Dogs can’t shed their outer layer like you can, so if it’s too hot, don’t make them run. On hot days, we run before the sun comes up or on a shaded trail. Even if running in the shade on a hot day, I always carry a water bottle with a cap designed for dogs to drink from. I couldn’t find a link for the one that I have, but this one looks better. I think I’m going to try it! Dogs can handle pretty cold temperatures (depending on the breed), but it can be too cold for dogs, too.
Let your dog be a dog.
What a dog wants most in life is to be with you. What she wants next is to stop and sniff every tree, mailbox post and patch of grass where another dog peed along the road or trail. We walk before and after our runs and allow the dogs to do some of the business of being a dog during these times. Once we start running, we don’t allow them to stop unless they have serious “business” to attend to. I’ve observed that dogs seem to view the run as their job for the day. We’re out to check the route, make sure nothing new has emerged and return home. As long as we’re running, they run along and really don’t even try to stray. Dogs love a trail run. If you have access to a trail, and especially one where it is legal for your dog to be off-leash, your dog will be in dog heaven. Our dogs follow the same rules when they are off-leash, but they just seem more joyful. Note: We never allow them to be off-leash when running on the road.
Know when it's time to stop
It’s a cruel fact of life that the time dogs have with us is so brief. All of our dogs have naturally and gradually slowed down as they’ve aged. Respect your dog and allow him to go at his own pace or even stop and walk as this process happens. If you are one of those runners who is training for a race, this might be tough to do. Even if you just don’t want to sacrifice your own fitness, you might have to be creative.
Our dog, Steve, is currently slowing down. We don’t know how old he is because we rescued him at the humane society where he came in as a stray. The vet who examined him at the humane society thought he was between five and six, but our vet thought he was two to four. We’ve had Steve for eight years, so he’s somewhere between 10 and 14. Just based on his behavior and how it equates to other dogs that we’ve had, we think he’s around 12, but we could be wrong. Steve has been a faithful running buddy for eight years. He clearly LOVES it, especially when we run on a trail, which we do once a week. We could never leave Steve behind. It would break his heart and ours. We have developed some strategies that might help you if your dog is slowing down.
Run close to home, drop your dog off when he is tired and complete your run.
Steve is still good for a mile or a mile and a half. Neither one of us enjoys running in circles around our neighborhood, but we have done this so that Steve is pretty tired when we drop him off. He still stands at the door and waits for us to return, but he seems to be happy for the reprieve.
Use the buddy system.
This will only work if you are running with a human partner. When Dave and I run on the trail with both dogs, Dave and Olive will run farther than Dave would normally go for an “out-and-back.” On his way back, we trade dogs so that I can complete my run with Olive. Dave finishes with a walk/run at whatever pace Steve seems comfortable, and Olive finishes my run with me. Don’t feel bad for Olive—she’s in shape for the extra miles, and she loves the activity. If she wasn’t up for double duty, Dave would just take both dogs.
Give back the love your dog has given you and walk.
I know that the day will come when Steve can’t make the one mile. It’s happened with all of our dogs. When that happens, I will still take Steve to the trail and Dave and I will just take turns walking or sitting with him. He’s spent his life running whenever we wanted to run, always adjusting his pace to ours, and staying faithfully by our sides. We’ll do the same for him.
—Train your dog to run on your left side.
—Teach your dog hand and voice commands.
—Know when it’s too hot or cold for your dog to run.
—Use the appropriate-sized leash and a secure harness.
—Wear the appropriate reflective (or lighted if you run in the dark) gear and get reflective gear for your dog.
—Read your dog’s signs and don’t force them if they seem injured, sick or are slowing down due to general aging.