Pawsitive Running Partners
This article, written by Cheryl Harris, appeared in the Spring, 1996 edition of FootNotes Magazine. It is reprinted with permission of the Road Runners Club of America. For informayion about RRCA and a club in your area, call 707-836-0558. Cheryl Harris is a veterinary oncologist practicing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Casey and Jamie are her running partners.
As a 20-year veteran of running, I have had training partners of many shapes, sizes, and skill levels. None has given me as much pleasure or stoked my enthusiasm for running as much as my dogs. As I roll reluctantly out of bed on a cold winter morning, that first blast of frigid air often sends me rushing headlong back to my warm sheets. But around the corner come Casey and Jamie, leashes in their mouths, barking, pleading with me to take them running. They always win, and out I go, half appreciative and half irritated by their enthusiasm.
Casey and I have been running together for nine years. Jamie joined us three years ago and quickly learned the ropes from her experienced older sister. As a veterinarian, I have always considered running with my dogs to be a safe and natural part of our relationship. Over the years, however, I have observed that many dog owners have reservations about running with their dogs, and I have frequently been asked for advice. In general, most dogs love to run, and in most cases, it is perfectly safe for both you and your dog. But before you take Fido out on your next run, let me fill you in on the basics.
WHERE TO START
Your dog should be examined by your veterinarian before you start training together to assure that there are not underlying health problems that would prohibit running. Heart disease does occur in dogs, as do orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasi, cruciate injuries, and even stress fractures. Also, since your dog will be in contact with other dogs, it is especially important that he or she be up to date on all vaccinations. Your veterinarian will also be able to advise whether your dog is old enough to start a training schedule. It is best to limit a puppy to short jogs of one to two miles, whereas an adult may well be able to go four miles on the first day. Since different breeds mature at different rates, your veterinarian should advise whether your dog is ready. In general, most large breed dogs (retrievers, pointers, and shepherds) reach skeletal maturity between eight months and one year, while the giant breeds (Great Danes, Newfoundlands, and wolfhounds) may take up to two years.
Usually, by the time your dog is ready to start training with you, he or she is already neutered and has had at least basic obedience lessons. Taking an unneutered dog on a run invites potential problems -- males may make frequent stops to mark territory or have a propensity to start fights, and a female in heat may attract other dogs.
Your dog should be trained to heel so the two of you can safely negotiate obstacles, such as other animals, people, and cars. Your human running partners will not appreciate it if your dog trips them. You may need to teach your dog a new command for running, one to keep him going when he gets distracted. A gentle "c'mon" or "move" usually works well; "go" sounds too much like "no" and may stop your dog from moving altogether.
Just as you would not eat a large meal before a run, neither should your dog. This is particularly important in large, deepchested dogs such as Dobermans and Great Danes, as they are at risk for bloat or gastric torsion.(The stomach swings freely in the front of the abdomen and can twist with the weight of undigested food.) After a run, allow your dog to drink small amounts frequently before letting her drink as much as she wants, and always wait 30 minutes to an hour before feeding. She should be cool and relaxed before she eats.
TRAINING WITH YOUR DOG
Most dogs can easily run three to five miles with minimal training since the typical runner trains at a pace that is a slow trot for a dog. If your pace seems to challenge your dog, slow down and let him work up to your speed. Never drag your dog at the end of a leash to get him to run. Dog mileage can be increased quickly compared to human, and it is not unusual to be able to work up to eight to 10 miles a day in three or four months.
It is easy to recognize signs of a dog's overtraining; a stiff gait or reluctance to run is a good indication that your dog needs a reduction in mileage. Dogs are not unlike runners in that they will run through pain and are almost always enthusiastic to get out, so it is up to you not to overlook the subtle signs of a problem.
Fortunately, running injuries are fairly uncommon in dogs. If you notice lameness, rest your dog for a minimum of 10 days; if it persists, take her to your veterinarian. If the lameness is severe and your dog does not want to put weight on the limb, consult the veterinarian sooner. Never give your dog any medication without first checking with your veterinarian.
Quitting on a run may signal a significant problem, especially if your dog usually pulls throughout the run. If this happens, stop and allow him to rest,then walk home (or call a friend for a ride).
Probably the biggest risk to your dog when running, and the most avoidable, is cars. I suggest you never allow your dog to run off leash. I have experienced first-hand the tragedies that owners thought never could occur after years of training and running with their dogs. But even the best-behavcd dog can get distracted by another animal and run into traffic, and even a secluded trail eventually leads to a road. It is hard to resist allowing your dog to run free occasionally, and I can only advise that you exercise extreme caution. This is not the time to be timing intervals or daydreaming. Keep a constant eye on your pet.
Some of my running partners favor a retractable leash that allows the dog to range ahead but still be reeled in if necessary. I used to prefer a nylon lead because it is lightweight and strong. (Leather is more expensive, is heavier, and will crack and break if it becomes wet frequently.) However, I recently have started running with a Hands-Away Leash Belt (800-471-DOGS) and am quite pleased with it. This leash is worn around the waist, which allows normal arm movement, and since the waist is a person's center of gravity, it allows more control over the dog.
Use a choke collar with whichever leash you choose, to allow appropriate restraint when necessary. When I began to run with two dogs, I found my younger dog required a pinch collar (also called a prong collar). Many dogs require pinch rather than choke collars because they are thick-necked and insensitive to touch, so the choke collar does not give you control. Pinch collars are completely humane -- they get the dog's attention by pulling the fur. Remember, your dog is safest when you're in control.
With my two dogs, I use a split lead with two clasps and a center ring to which I attach one leash to prevent tangling. You may want to get a reflective collar or vest for your dog if you run at night. A driver approaching an intersection may be able to see you but not your dog in the lead. Carry a plastic bag to clean up after your dog as needed.
Casey and Jamie took to running enthusiastically and continue to be my best training partners. I enjoy the companionship and protection of having them with me, and I feel free to run almost anywhere at almost any time of day. If you choose a canine running companion wisely, you will find the same is true for you.
A word about races. Leave your dog at home. Your dog could become over-excited and stressed. By running with your dog in a race, you incur the risk of injury to your dog, yourself, and other participants. A race is no place for your dog.