Running with Your Dog

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Some people need motivation to exercise so they team up with friends who urge them to drop the remote control and go for a run. Unfortunately, the friend is not always available so the TV gets turned back on. If you need a dependable exercise partner, take a look at your best friend…your dog.

Dogs are great exercise partners. They are always available, they have energy to burn, and they are not in a bad mood from a stressful day at work. Plus, approximately 50% of American dogs are overweight and need to work off a few calories. So, get off the couch and run with your dog!

Would my dog make an appropriate running buddy?

Dogs need daily exercise to stay healthy, but inappropriate workouts can do more harm than good. Before jogging with your dog, assess his physical attributes. Is he physically fit? Does he have long enough legs to keep pace with you (think Golden Retriever vs. Dachshund)? Does he have a long nose that facilitates good respiration, or a short nose that may cause difficulty breathing (think Collie vs. Pug)? Use common sense to determine if your dog will be a good running partner.

Next, consider your dog’s age. Young pups have developing joints that can sustain injury when overworked, so it is best to wait until growth plates have started to close before embarking on a strenuous exercise program. Dogs reach skeletal maturity between 7 and 20 months, with small breeds maturing faster than giant breeds. On the other end of the spectrum, older dogs have joint problems like arthritis that may make running painful. Regardless of age, have your dog examined by a veterinarian who can outline a safe exercise routine.

Tips for Running with Your Dog

1. Start with low impact. Doing too much too soon is a recipe for disaster and will increase your dog’s risk of injury. Start out alternating walking and jogging for short distances. Gradually build endurance before you increase speed and distance.

2. Walk before you run. Like humans, dogs need to warm up their muscles before running. Let your dog nose around and explore for a bit. Besides warming him up, this will give him time to go to the bathroom. Better to eliminate now than on the trail. Remember to bring along plastic bags in case he needs to “go” while you are running.

3. Find a good path. Scout jogging trails in your area or survey your neighborhood streets. Look for well lit, low traffic areas with surfaces that allow good traction. Running on dirt trails or grass will be easier on your dog’s joints than concrete. Your dog will enjoy a nature trail that presents him with a variety of sights and smells, but neighborhood jogs are good, too. Just monitor traffic and distractions like kids on bikes or neighborhood dogs.

4. Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Both nature trails and neighborhood sidewalks can be laden with ticks and fleas that love to take a jog with you and your dog. When in a wooded area, check your dog after the run for hitchhiking fleas and ticks. Look around the ears, between the toes and over the tail. To prevent these pests, ask your veterinarian to recommend an appropriate preventative medication. Your veterinarian knows which parasites live in your area and can prescribe the best product.

5. Leash your dog. Use a 4- to 6-foot leash that will allow enough freedom of movement for your dog and enough control for you. Your dog should stay by your side as you run, with his nose even with your knees. Your arm should be straight down, not stretched out in front.

6. Train your dog with voice commands. One benefit of running with your dog is exposing him to new things, but you must be in complete control at all times, even if your dog is off-leash. Basic obedience training is important; your dog should sit and stay on request. This is really crucial when running on paths where he will encounter other people and pets. Another good command is “leave it.” This comes in handy when your pooch approaches icky stuff like garbage or mud puddles.

7. Stay hydrated but don’t over-hydrate. Running will make you and your dog thirsty, so be prepared to offer him water – but only water. Your sports drink is not formulated for your dog’s electrolyte needs. Carry a collapsible water bowl or a bottle with a special spout so your dog can drink easily. Do not let him gulp water. Over-indulging can make your pooch sick, so offer small, frequent sips.

8. Beware of overheating. Dogs overheat more easily than humans since they wear heavy fur coats and they do not perspire. They dissipate heat through respiration and via their foot pads, but neither function is as good as plain old sweating. So, it is important for you to monitor your dog’s heat tolerance. Watch for early signs of heat stroke, like excessive panting, and seek immediate medical attention if your dog becomes weak, vomits, or has diarrhea. Better yet, run in the morning and evening to avoid midday sun, and look for shaded jogging paths.

9. Protect the tootsies. Avoid running on really hot surfaces like asphalt, concrete or even sandy beaches. To determine if the temperature of your jogging path is safe for your dog’s feet, simply put your hand or bare foot on it for 10 seconds. If it’s too hot for you, it is too hot for your dog. Beware of cold surfaces, too, as ice and snow can cause frostbite. Avoid roads that have been treated with salt which can sting sensitive paws and upset your dog’s stomach if he licks it off. Canine booties are available if you can not avoid extremely hot or cold surfaces. Check your dog’s paws after exercising and note any cuts or bruises.

10. Cool down slowly. Just like warming up, cooling down is important. After a vigorous run, walk the last measure to cool down tired muscles. Give your dog time to explore and go to the bathroom before bringing him back inside.

These tips aren’t that complicated, which makes your dog a very low-maintenance exercise partner. So, have fun and run!

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