Over the winter holidays I decided that if I was going to take our dog Sydney (pictured left) for a walk, I could metaphorically nail two birds with one stone and run with her for a short warm up, then drop her back off at home before continuing on for the rest of my run.
Not so much.
Syd is an awesome dog and heels very well. But on our inaugural running adventure, she was good for the first kilometer or so, and then her attention quickly devolved into smelling anything that would get me to stop running. This included stopping very abruptly to relieve herself in the middle of the sidewalk.
Unknowingly, I had committed one of the most common mistakes when attempting to take a dog for a run — too much, too fast. “They [people who run with dogs] make the mistake of assuming the dog will stay at their side and assume that the dog can run forever just because they seem to be able to,” says Gillian Ridgeway, Director of the Who’s Walking Who Dog Training Centre, and author of Citizen Canine.
Gillian recommends that your canine companion get a visit with their vet before starting a training program. Yup, despite the extra fur, our four-legged friends need the same things that we do before starting an exercise program: a check-in with the doctor, and a training plan to improve their fitness.
According to a New York Times article from January, you also need to take into consideration the type and breed of your dog, and whether these factors might exclude them from being a running partner. The article says, “for example, dogs with flat noses — pugs, bulldogs, some boxers — may have trouble breathing during strenuous exercise. And while hunting and herding dogs are physically built for running — like border collies and Rhodesian Ridgebacks — they may be more interested in chasing prey than staying on the sidewalk.” The NYTs also prepared a visual for this that can be seen here.
“Your dog needs to be fully developed,” adds Gillian, “and it is not recommended that you start a running program with young pups.”
With all of these considerations out of the way, starting your furry friend’s training program is nearly identical to many Learn to Run schedules I’ve seen. “Like any training program,” says Gillian, “have them build up to it. Go for short, medium-speed runs and start to build up the stamina before the speed.” In addition, she also recommends building up your dog’s endurance by teaching your dog to fetch a ball or Frisbee, saying that once he or she has mastered that, you can stand at the bottom of a hill and toss it up the hill for them to fetch. “This will ensure that the dog will give his all while going up the hill,” she says, “and build the strong muscles he will need for running.”
Not putting the proverbial cart before the horse, it’s also important to ensure that your dog has some obedience skills before training. “It is important that your dog knows to stay at your side and not pull or lag, prior to running,” says Gillian. “If they do not have this skill, then it is time to get back into school.”
Once your dog is ready to begin training, you could try a program such as this one suggested by Dogs in Canada from Canadian Running Series, or try following one of many Learn to Run programs.
In addition, the safety of your dog is very important, and you should familiarize yourself with many of the warning signs. Gillian recommends monitoring your dog for signs of stress, such as panting and cautions owners to carry enough water for both runners. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to the dog park, lugging water with me, to get there and find the rest of the dogs parched,” she says. “The owners just smile as they come and drink my supply, and this is in a park where they’re running for balls, not jogging for miles.”
Gillian recommends that runners stop and encourage their canine companions to drink frequently to avoid dehydration and to keep an eye out for overheating.
If you’re going to put your dog on a serious training program, you should speak to your vet about proper nutrition to fuel your calorie-burning pooch, as they may need a diet designed specifically for active or performance dogs. Another safety recommendation is to keep an eye on the pads of their paws and make sure that they’re protected (Gillian suggests avoiding running your dog on pavement). “Humans can purchase super-shoes to help us, so make sure the traction is good and not too hard on your dog’s joints,” she says.
An article from last year’s Dogs in Canada Magazine also recommended using a harness when running with your dog, instead of a standard collar, as the collar could cause damage to the spine and other parts of the neck. It also recommended using a standard leash and not a retractable one (which most runners know as trip wires).