My dog Milly is my best friend, my companion, and my faithful running partner. I love heading out into the countryside, just the two of us, and running together. For me, running is a form of escape from the constant stresses of day-to-day life. I wont pretend I always find running easy, often I find it pretty hard (and occasionally downright awful!), but for that period of time I don’t have to think about anything else except putting one foot in front of the other, and I always arrive home feeling like a different person. It’s very special to me to share that time with Milly, particularly knowing that it has had a positive impact for both of us. Running with dogs has a particular resonance for me as I am training to complete two marathons in order to raise money for the incredible Guide Dogs Association, so its very close to my heart.
As a veterinary surgeon and an avid runner, I’m often asked for my advice on starting to run with your dog. So I thought it would be helpful to write a little guide, with the usual disclaimer that this is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinary surgeon, and you should always consult with them before making any major change in your dogs routine. So here are my top ten things to think about before kitting your dog out with a pair (or two!) of running shoes:
It is usually recommended to wait until your dog is skeletally mature before running with them, as it can place extra strain on their growing bones. This age varies a little breed to breed, but usually around one year old is safe. That being said, dogs are natural runners, and particularly those that are able to exercise off-lead will already be incorporating running into their walks. So I would say from around 6 months of age it is safe to incorporate very short periods of jogging (30 seconds initially) in order to begin training your dog to run safely with you, but do be very careful. This is particularly important for large breed dogs as they tend to grow more slowly and are more likely to suffer with joint problems so I would wait until at least a year in these guys.
There’s no reason why older dogs can’t run if they are otherwise healthy, but be even more careful assessing their current fitness levels and getting them checked for any health conditions first. Milly is ten years old, and I’ve reduced her runs from 10km to 5km as I noticed she tires a little more quickly.
All dogs are bred to run. There should be no breed that isn’t able to run with you, IF the individual dog is healthy. So the complicating factor is that some breeds are naturally ‘healthier’ than others. The breeds to be particularly careful with before increasing their exercise are:
- Giant breeds eg. Great Danes: these dogs mature slower, grow rapidly, and are more likely to suffer with musculoskeletal problems
- Flat-nosed breeds eg. Pugs or French Bulldogs: over 80% of these dogs suffer from a syndrome called Brachycephalic Obstructive airway Syndrome as a result of a combination of factors (including flat noses, narrow nostrils, and long soft palettes, amongst others). This can cause marked breathing problems that are worsened by stress, excitement and exercise. You should be extremely cautious altering the exercise regime in these dogs. However, obesity and lack of fitness are also big factors in breathing issues, and so increasing their exercise can be hugely beneficial. So don’t rule it out, but I would always consult your vet first for an assessment of their breathing before making any changes to their normal exercise.
As I’ve said already, dogs are designed to run, and most dogs (unless they are only walked on the lead) will already spend a high proportion of their usual exercise running. So if your dog is healthy, has regular check-ups and no signs of any issues then it isn’t necessary to consult your vet first. If your dog already has a known health problem it is probably worth checking with your vet. Examples of conditions that may require extra care include: musculoskeletal problems including arthritis, heart conditions, diabetes, or any breathing difficulties.Do make sure your parasite control is up to date and includes ticks if you are planning on running in the countryside.
Your or the dog?! In many cases the dog is fitter than their four-legged companion. If your dog runs off-lead already they are probably fit enough to begin running with you, just be prepared- they are probably much faster than you! When I first started running with Milly the lead I thought it would be excellent exercise – in reality she finds it hard to trot slowly enough at my pace and seemed to find the whole thing quite slow and boring! If you only walk your dog on the lead you should probably introduce short intervals of running, and increase these slowly.
If you walk your dog off-lead for at least 30 minutes twice daily, the chances are they are already quite fit. Next time you walk them, try to take note of how they exercise naturally. Most dogs will intersperse slow running with occasional bursts of speed, but also frequent stops to walk, sniff, or roll in something disgusting.
Therefore beginning with interval training is a great idea as this mimics their usual exercise pattern. Although on a normal off-lead walk Milly will run much faster than I can, she has regular breaks at her own convenience, and therefore running continuously with me (whilst much slower) is still quite a challenge for her. You can build up these intervals gradually in the same way that you would for yourself until they are comfortable running continuously.
5. Basic Training
If you are planning on running with your dog on the lead, you will need to train them to run nicely at your side, either on their lead, or with a running harness, either is fine. I find Milly is better behaved on the lead running as it’s a more interesting pace. Treats work well to focus their attention on you, and reward good behaviour.
If you are planning on allowing your dog to roam off-lead whilst you are running (which is what I usually do) they must already have good recall and be properly socialised with runners, other dogs, cyclists etc. in a safe environment. I never listen to music if I’m running with Milly as it is important to be aware of her all the time. Obviously, make sure you follow all the usual etiquette for both runners and dog walkers combined.
It is always important to have access to water, but I usually follow the rule of if I need water, Milly needs water, if I’m fine, she’s probably fine too. On an hours off-lead walk she does significant amounts of running and I don’t carry a doggy water bottle. But on hot days, or longer runs there are plenty of portable dog water bowls that fold up and your can offer them water from your own bottle. This one is great and folds up with a hook attachment. I also try to plan routes that have a natural water source such as a river which she can go to if she likes.
7. Warning Signs
This is relatively individual to your dog. On our regular walks Milly is always in front of me and when we run together she likes to be ahead; whether on-lead or off. So for her one of the first signs of tiredness is that she starts to lag behind, which is very out of character for her. However this obviously varies dog-to-dog. General warning signs are lagging behind, excessive panting, breaking to walk, or the development of any stiffness or lameness in which case you should stop Straight away. Always carry a mobile phone in case of any emergencies.
It goes without saying you should pick safe routes to run with your dog. If you are running on the lead you can run on pavements, but take care with pedestrians and always ensure they are on a short leash. If you are running off-lead make sure it is enclosed, they have good re-call and you are paying plenty of attention to where they are and what they are doing. On hot days either avoid it all together, or pick routes with plenty of shades, and avoid hot tarmac which can scald paws.
9. Poo Bags
Once I start running I prefer not to stop, because it ruins my average pace (yes, I am a slave to my Garmin)! So I walk Milly for around ten minutes first which is a great warm-up for me, and means she has usually gone to the toilet already. Please be a responsible dog owner when you’re running and carry plenty of poo bags (and don’t be that person that hangs them on a bush, stick em in a bin). As an aside, I find un-used poo bags really useful to carry things like jelly babies while I’m running, which can attract some odd looks from passers by when I’m tucking in!
10. Have Fun!
I always feel dead proud of myself when I come back from a run: I’ve taken time out of my day to do something really positive for both my physical and mental health. So to know you’ve provided that for your dog too is even better. Plus you don’t have to walk the dog when you get back from the run!
If you are new to running, start with your dog from the beginning is an excellent way to build both of your fitness together, and it can be a great motivator. When I don’t feel like running but I know I need to walk the dog I make myself head out in my running gear and nine times out of ten I just start running. Check out my top ten tips for (humans) starting and sticking with running here.
If you’re already a regular runner then running with your dog is a really lovely way of keeping your training fun and varied; why not take your dog to your next Parkrun. Just be careful to start off slowly and build your dog up. Oh and Garmin slaves like me: be prepared to be flexible- your average pace will be affected by toilet/sniffing breaks, and you may need to adjust your pace or distance to suit your companion. But both of these are the same as running with a two legged friend!
So what are you waiting for?! Let me know you get on by commenting below, or sending me a photo of you and your dog on one of my social media pages.
Heres a photo of Milly and I on a particularly lovely run a few weeks ago
Disclaimer: All of the view expressed above are my own, they do not reflect those of my employer, and are NOT intended to replace the advice your veterinary surgeon. This is intended to be general advice for enjoying running safely with your dog.