With spring temperatures coming around, you might be eyeing those untouched running shoes from last summer and your dusty New Year’s Resolutions. Is it time to finally lace those up and hit the trails with your dog?
As an avid runner myself, I say absolutely!
Running with your dog is a great motivator and is a really fun way to bond and get stronger together.
When I adopted my Border Collie last year, his seemingly boundless energy re-ignited a love of running in me that I’d lost in college. Our morning jogs grew in length, and I won my age group in my first-ever marathon last September.
But how do you go from couch to long-distance running with your dog? Even if your dog never seems to sit still, she still needs a bit of preparation before joining you on long runs.
What to consider before hitting the trail
Not all dogs are ready-made running buddies, and some dogs will never make the cut.
Make sure that long distance running is the right choice for your best friend before taking the plunge. Talk to your vet at your annual physical before starting any rigorous training with your dog, but while you wait for the vet visit think about these considerations:
1. How old is your dog?
A good rule of thumb is that dogs should not do any rigorous physical activity like running until they’re at least eighteen months old (not six months like some sites say – find more info on growth and injury here).
18 months is when most dogs will have fully closed growth plates – but this varies.
Some slow-maturing breeds, like Labradors and giant breeds, might not be ready to run until they’re closer to two years old. The repetitive motion of running is damaging to joints, so don’t push it with young dogs.
It should go without saying that starting a rigorous exercise program for your senior dog isn’t the best idea, either. When you should slow down will depend on your dog.
Many agility champions are six or seven years old and show no sign of slowing down. Meanwhile, seven years old is getting “up there” in age for many giant breed dog.
Keep an eye on your dog’s movements and ask your vet at your annual checkup if you should take it easy on your aging canine companion.
2. How big is your dog?
When it comes to running buddy size, think of Goldilocks.
A dog that is too small might struggle to keep up with your pace, even if you’re more of a “Turkey Trot” sort of runner rather than the Boston Marathon type.
Giant breed dogs often struggle with genetic joint issues and may also be a poor fit for long distance running.
3. Does your dog have a short nose?
Brachycephalic (meaning short-nosed) dogs like Bulldogs, Boxers, Pugs, and Shih-Tzus are not well-suited to the sustained tough breathing that comes with long runs.
These dogs already have a tough time breathing – those smooshed faces that are oh-so-cute come at a cost. These dogs overheat and go into aerobic distress too easily to risk long distance running.
4. How energetic is your dog?
Not all dogs love running.
As someone who frequently jokes that my dog signed me up for my first marathon, that’s a hard thing for me to remember. But many dogs prefer lying on the couch or going for leisurely strolls over pounding pavement for hours.
Even if your dog has a ton of energy, she might not love running. That’s ok!
5. Does your dog have genetic problems or old injuries?
Be sure to speak to your vet before even considering long-distance running if your dog has any old injuries or genetic problems such as hip dysplasia, an ACL tear, or splayed paws.
6. Is your dog relatively outgoing?
Super-shy dogs or dogs that lunge and bark at things on leash might not be the best running buddies. If your dog has a behavioral concern such as shyness, aggression, or leash reactivity, it’s best to tackle those problems with a trainer before starting your running program.
As a matter of fact, I take on video-chat and phone-based clients around the world and would be happy to help you out! You can reach me via email – be sure to mention this article!
7. Is your dog extra fluffy?
While dogs like Huskies are totally bred to run, you have to be careful to keep your dog safe from heat if she’s long-haired.
My Border Collie has long, black fur. We did most of our runs either in extra-early morning, late evening, high in the Colorado mountains among the snow, or along rivers where he could swim to keep cool.
Since dogs only cool down by panting and sweating through their paws, you need to be extra-careful to keep long-haired dogs cool.
There’s also level of distance to consider. Some dogs might enjoy a three or four mile run but would not be safe going for 10ks. Keep this in mind before you get any ambitious ideas in your head about running ultra marathons with your dog.
If your dog is not a good candidate for long distance running, never fear – there are plenty of other ways to exercise your dog’s body and mind, keep your dog from getting bored and calm a hyperactive dog.
Preparing your dog for long-distance running
Once you’ve decided that long distance running is the right summertime hobby for your and your dog, it’s time to come up with a goal and plan.
Your exact plan will depend on your starting point. If you and your dog already go on short jogs around the neighborhood or long wilderness hikes, you’ll be able to start with longer runs than a dog-owner pair that is starting out with a lower activity level.
Step #1: Goal Setting
Setting a goal will keep you on track. I don’t just mean setting a huge goal of “running a marathon in under four hours,” although having a top-level goal is helpful.
Just like when training your dog, you’ll need to come up with a big end goal that keeps you on track. Personally, I choose to pick a race and sign up for it – that keeps my goal distance and time bound.
After you’ve got your top-level goal set, come up with a series of smaller goals that move you towards your final goal.
If your goal is to run a 10k in three months, you can set smaller goals of running 1k, 2k, 5k, and 8k. You could even sign up for a few 5k races between now and your 10k. You’ll get an extra burst of enthusiasm each time you reach one of these small goals, which will keep your motivation high for the “Big One!”
Ensure that your goal is realistic for you and your dog by taking into account time until completion, distance you’ll run, and time you hope to run in. For my first marathon, I didn’t have a time goal – I just wanted to finish. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Step #2: Planning
Not everyone uses training plans, but I find them indispensable when working towards a long-distance running goal.
I print out one from Hal Higdon and make edits as needed, then hang it on my fridge. I use a big permanent marker to cross off workout that I completed, making it easy to see how I’m doing that week from across the room.
Assuming you and your dog already are relatively active, you can probably start with a basic 5k, 10k, half marathon, or even marathon training plan. The slow build of a training plan that is built for couch-to-race humans will keep your dog safe, too.
However, if your dog is relatively new to running, you’ll need to make it easier at first. Start out by just jogging a few blocks towards the end of a run (when your muscles are warm) or going for jogs that are just 10 to 15 minutes long. Slowly build from that difficulty level to the baseline for your chosen training plan.
There’s no shame in going slow, and avoiding injury or overtraining is the best way to succeed in any sport. It’s worth it to take your time.
Step #3: Gear
Running requires relatively little gear on both ends. You just need some athletic clothing and decent running shoes.
If your running route will cover extra-hot or extra-rocky areas, your dog might need booties. However, I avoided running in midday heat and never used booties for my dog while training last summer.
Your dog should run wearing a back-clip harness. Any pressure on her throat while running is potentially dangerous. I use Ruffwear’s Front Range Harness for most runs, and their Omnijore setup when we’re working on canicross or skijoring.
You can also check out our list of recommended dog harnesses for running if none of those setups suit your fancy.
Aside from a back-clip harness, your dog doesn’t need much extra gear. I personally prefer to use a waist bungee leash, but you can absolutely get by with your normal leash in a pinch.
Step #4: Basic Training
If your dog already has decent leash-walking skills, you won’t need much in the way of training for long distance running. However, dogs that pull like sled dogs can be a pain to run with. Too much pressure on a handheld or waist leash might lead to cramps for you!
Teach your dog to run at a polite pace by stopping forward movement if she pulls too hard. Say “easy” in a nice, slow, drawn-out tone and stop running.
She’ll soon learn that surging ahead is counterproductive. This can take a while for habitual pullers to “get,” so plan on a few training session runs to work on this that are separate from distance-oriented runs.
You may want to teach your dog right, left, faster, slower, and stop. Many dogs will quickly pick up on these cues if you simply choose verbal cues and say them before you perform the action.
For example, I say “Hold up,” before we reach crosswalks. Barley quickly learned that “Hold up,” meant we were about to stop and wait for a second, so he now stops moving and looks at me when I say it. He learned left, right, hike, and easy the same way.
Not all dogs pick up on directional cues quickly. If you really want to work on those cues but your dog is struggling, take time to work on the cues in other situations.
You can teach right versus left using T-shaped hallways. Come up to the intersection and say “right”, then toss a treat down the right hallway.
Repeat five times, then only toss the treat after your dog has started turning right. Practice until your dog is consistent with this, then teach left the same way.
Once your dog is consistent with both directions, start to interchange them. Then take your skills on the road!
Injury prevention for Fido
I am not a veterinarian, so it’s important to speak with a vet who is experienced in canine athletes about long distance running.
As with human workouts, though, there are several basic components of injury prevention for dogs:
- Mix It Up. Don’t rely on running as your only form of exercise with your dog. Mix it up with some swimming or hiking as well. This will help prevent massive muscle imbalances.
- Take Rest Days. Just like humans, dogs shouldn’t exercise hard every single day. Give your pup a few easy rest days per week where she just gets a nice walk instead of a hard workout.
- Stretch.You can use treats to lure your dog into some basic stretches, but it’s important to work with a vet or canine rehabilitation specialist to perfect dog stretching techniques. You can learn the canine stretching basics here.
- Go Slow At First. Don’t take your dog out on a 10-mile run tomorrow if you’ve spent all winter holed up waiting for sunshine. That’s a recipe for injury for both you and your dog! Most dogs are so happy to be outside, they’ll run right through an injury or pain and you won’t know you’ve hurt your dog until it’s too late. Starting out too slow and too easy is far less dangerous than pushing too hard too fast.
- Warm Up And Cool Down. No matter how energetic your dog is, it’s still important to start and finish runs with a gentle warm up and cool down. You can start out with a brisk walk and finish at a very slow jog, or vice versa.
Pursuing long distance running with your dog is a ton of fun. You’ll both get into great shape and get to explore the trails in your hometown like never before. My Border Collie Barley made long runs more fun and nighttime runs feel safer.
Since we were already relatively active, we were able to start out with a basic marathon training plan and build together from there.
Taking running training at a pace that works for both you and your dog will keep the sport fun and safe for both of you.
What’s your favorite tip for long distance running with your dog?