Running with your dog is an excellent way to get both you and your pooch into top shape.
But before you grab a leash and head out the door, there are some important things you want to consider. To keep your dog safe and you happy, check out this list outlining how to get started and what to do during and after your runs. This will ensure you have the most fun and the least worry while out on paths and trails together.
Start at the right age and fitness level
Before doing anything, consider if your dog is capable of running with you. Small dogs, extra large dogs, dogs with short snouts (called brachycephalic breeds), as well as older dogs and puppies might not be fit to be your running buddy. We have a list of breed types that typically make great running partners. If you think your dog is an ideal companion for athletic outings, then read on!
While puppy energy seems limitless, you definitely don't want to take a young puppy out running with you. The impact of running can harm their joint and bone development, and lead to serious medical problems later on including early arthritis or fractures. Wait until your dog's bone growth plates are closed — something that usually happens between 1-2 years old depending on the breed — before you take her on long runs. You can ask your vet when that time is for your specific dog. Once your dog is done growing, then she's ready to start strengthening up for longer runs.
In the meantime, you can socialize your pup to people, dogs and other animals and training for obedience so that transitioning to running on busy trails will be a cinch. Your dog will meet lots of new people and animals and encounter many different distractions while out with you, so getting your new puppy used to just about anything that you might come across is a great way to gear him up for outings in the parks or on the trails.
On the flip side of this coin, you don’t want to push your older dog to new limits in running. Older dogs need much more time to develop stamina, and require less exercise anyway. Overexertion could push into problems like joint pain, dysplasia, stress on their heart and vital organs, and other negative consequences. Again, talk to your vet to see what your older dog is capable of doing before you launch into a long run. Also ask about things like joint supplements to help your aging dog recover more quickly after your runs.
A great example of a dog running on a loose leash next to owner. (Photo: msgrafixx /Shutterstock)
Socialization and leash training
Whether a puppy or not, take the time to socialize your dog to anything you might encounter while running. You don’t want to run with a dog that is reactive or fear aggressive toward people or animals you meet. Dog training classes are a wonderful way to get the tools and interaction you need to get your dog ready for running on busy trails. If your dog simply isn't happy in busy places, that's okay too. Just plan on running on-leash over less popular trails and paths.
It's also important to train your dog to run on a loose leash with you. Being pulled by a dog while running is damaging for both of you and you'll spend more time being frustrated than happily running along. Getting started, your dog might be super excited that you’re running together. After all, running is play time! So take the time to train your dog to understand that running time is running time — no jumping, tugging the leash, running in front of you or other annoying and potentially dangerous behaviors. Show her how this is no different than your daily walks, you're just going faster. Taking the time to train your dog not to pull on leash no matter what smells tempt her along the path or what people, dogs or other animals you encounter, will be key to a joyful jog together. We'll cover more skills for your dog to have for running in a bit.
Starting slow, toughening up, and recovery time
We often overestimate how much dogs can run. They are made to run, after all, right? Well yes, but out of shape is out of shape no matter the species. If your dog usually only runs a mile or two a day, don’t immediately launch into a 10-15 mile runs. Dogs need to build up their endurance and muscles just like we do. So start slow and build fitness so that your dog can stay healthy for the long haul.
Begin with what your dog typically runs in a day, even if that’s just a mile. Build up from there by adding in one more mile every 3-5 runs until you’re both running the ideal distance for your team. Most dogs can run between 20-40 miles a week depending on their age and athletic ability. Watch how much time your dog needs between runs to recover. Sometimes a day is enough time but your dog might need two or even three days between runs. When your dog only needs a day or less to recover, you can feel safe bumping up your mileage.
No matter your dog's fitness level, allow some time to warm up. It's great for both of you to walk the first 10-20 minutes to get muscles limbered up for the run. This is especially important if you had to drive to the place where you're doing your run. Also, make sure your dog doesn't eat right before a run. We all know how unpleasant it is to run on a full stomach and dogs feel the same way. Their meal should happen about 90 minutes or more prior to running. If your dog is lagging behind you, slow down or even end your run. Pushing your dog too hard — just like pushing yourself too hard — too quickly can lead to injuries.
After each run, check your dog's paws for soft spots, scrapes or cuts. It can take a little while for a dog's paw pads to toughen up. If there is any sign of injury, allow time for her paws to heal before running again. Also watch for any signs of soreness or limping the day after a run. This will let you know if your dog needs more time for muscles to recover after a run. If there is limping that lasts longer than a day, it's time to head to the vet to make sure the injury isn't serious.
Your dog will let you know what her limits are — limits to distance, time, pace, heat level, recovery time and everything else — if you pay attention to her movement and energy level. Treat your dog as an individual, and not a breed statistic, and you'll find your way to the perfect balance for optimal health.
A 2012 study also shows that dogs experience "runner's high" just like humans. "Researchers theorize that neurobiological rewards are a part of the evolutionary history of animals with long legs meant for running and strong lungs—they helped keep them fit," reported Phys.org.
My dog and I love to get out to quiet trails before sunrise when the weather is cool and there are very few people out. This lets us have the smoothest run possible, plus seeing the sun come up is an added bonus for a morning run! (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Choosing the where and when
Dogs have tough feet but they aren’t impermeable. Even if you've let your dog's paws toughen up over time to be able to handle different surfaces, it's important to watch where and when you run to keep those paws happy. Avoid running on hot surfaces like asphalt at mid-day, and hard surfaces like concrete sidewalks. Whenever possible, go for shaded surfaces and dirt or grass so that your dog's feet and joints aren’t harmed. If you're running in a suburban neighborhood, you can have your dog run on grass-lined curb sides, or perhaps you can go to a local school yard and do laps around the grassy field together. Getting off the concrete as much as possible will be good for both of you.
The same consideration is needed for the weather. Running when it is too hot or too cold for your dog can make it a miserable experience for both of you. Know how your dog handles heat or cold and plan your runs accordingly. This might mean running in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the hottest part of the day, or skipping runs together when the weather is too cold for a short-coated dog.
Commands for a smooth run
Because you’re moving faster, you’ll want to add in some commands to allow you to make quicker movements. Teach your dog a command like “this way” to cue her to make a turn when you hit a corner or fork in the trail. You can get specific by training your dog “left” or “right” but you don’t have to make it that complicated. For example, when coming to an intersection, I use “this way” to cue my dog to watch my body and read which direction I’m going whether it is left, right, or straight ahead. Basically it’s a way to say, “Hey, we’re making a decision on what direction to go and I need you to watch me so we don’t run into each other.”
You’ll also want cues for distractions, especially if you’re trail running and most especially if you’re trail running where off-leash dogs are permitted. A rocket recall is a must, along with a fail-proof “leave it” command in case you encounter something dangerous like a rattlesnake or other hikers or dogs that don’t want your dog to approach. If your dog doesn’t have these commands down solid (and let’s not underestimate how difficult it is for a dog to have perfect recall and perfect leave-its when off-leash and having fun), then it is best to keep them on leash. It is smartest to assume you’ll always be running with your dog on leash since safe off-leash situations are rarities.
It is also important to solidify behaviors for courteous interactions on trails and paths — no running up to strangers, staring down or barking at other runners, dogs, horses or anything else encountered on a trail, maintaining a solid sit-stay, and even having a rock-solid down-stay are all key. In fact, keep in mind that you are representing all dog owners when you’re out with your dog, so following leash laws and having a well-behaved dog will help keep paths, trails and park areas open to dogs. Badly behaved dogs increase the risk that dog-friendly areas will stop welcoming Fido and you’ll have fewer beautiful places to enjoy a run with your four-legged companion.
Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable around dogs. You might encounter other runners who are scared of dogs, or who run up quickly and startle your dog into reacting with a bark or jump. Or perhaps you’ll encounter someone who has reactive dogs with them. Some dogs become reactive when another strange dog (yours) is running toward them. I often watch dogs become increasingly alert, reactive, aggressive or playful as my dog and I approach even though my dog is running perfectly by my side, and we have to use trees as barriers or cross streets to avoid negative interactions. Having your dog on-leash and well-behaved will help make every encounter that much more positive and keep running together fun and joyful.
It is important to make sure your dog stays hydrated. Carry enough water for both of you to have plenty to drink during your runs. (Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock)
Hydration and overheating
Two of the most important things you'll need to pay attention to during your run when it comes to your dog is her hydration level and signs of overheating.
Your dog will let you know how much water he needs during a run. It depends on everything from size of the dog, intensity of the workout, weather, and of course the individual dog. While all dogs will vary on how much water they need to take in, there is a general rule of thumb for how you allow them to drink. Provide your dog with small sips every couple miles — depending on the size of the dog and how they handle heat, this can mean anything from a couple quick laps to wet his mouth, to half a cup of water or more. For longer runs or for locations where there aren't water sources, bring a water bottle and (if needed) a little collapsible bowl. Don't force your dog to take more water if he is turning down your offer, and also be prepared to take the water away if he is gulping it down like there is no tomorrow. A little bit of water provided often will keep him hydrated without upsetting his stomach during exercise. After his run when he is cooled off, let him drink until his heart's content.
During your runs, especially on warm days, check for signs of overheating. These include heavy panting with an enlarged tongue (shaped like a spoon), foaming at the mouth, weakness, trouble standing up, wobbly or uncontrolled movement, and glazed eyes. As soon as your dog begins to look overheated, find a shady place to let him rest and cool down. Help cool him by wetting him down — especially his head, belly and paws — with water or getting him into an air-conditioned area. And if your dog begins to vomit or takes more than a few minutes to cool down, get him to a vet. Overheating can be fatal to a dog.
Collars might not be the best option when running with your dog, especially not corrective devices like choke chains, prong collars, martingale collars, or even gentle leaders. These can be potentially harmful to your dog by restricting breathing, providing harsh unintended corrections (if you trip, or you both misread cues and go in different directions while at full speed), or restricting head or neck movement. And definitely ditch any retractable leashes. A flat collar with a 6-foot leash is perfectly fine if your dog is obedient on leash and great at reading your cues for speed and direction. But if your dog is already having trouble with leash commands and you add in speed, a correctional device can spell trouble and an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. Seek advice from a knowledgeable and experienced trainer if you need help training your dog to run obediently by your side.
The best combination for running is an obedient dog, a slightly loose-fitting flat collar and a 6-foot leash that preferably loops around your waist so you can run hands-free. However, this isn’t the case for everyone — including me! My dog is usually excellent on leash but there are times where we aren’t on the same page. He might want to run after an off-leash dog chasing a ball in the park, and don’t even get me started on squirrels that bolt across the path. I don’t want to give him sudden yanks to the neck which could be very damaging, and likewise I don’t want to be suddenly yanked to one side. So we switch up our gear: flat collar and canvas leash for running in our neighborhood with few distractions, and a harness and canvass leash for running on park paths and trails where there are more chances for sudden distractions.
For trail running, we use the Ruffwear Webmaster harness and the Roamer leash. This is a harness made for all-day wear, and the Roamer leash loops around your waist so you can run hands-free. It is also stretchy so there is a bit of give to it, which I find particularly helpful for trail running. If a hare darts across the trail in front of us or a deer bolts from behind a bush, my dog is likely to want to chase after it. The little bit of give allows me half a second to react with a “heel!” command and stop him without either of us getting harshly yanked by the other. However, this leash would be a disaster on busy park paths, where a short leash that allows you to keep your dog at your side is the most helpful.
For trail runs, especially where there is trough terrain, a well-made harness works great to take any pressure from a leash off a dog's neck as you navigate the trail. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Depending on your dog’s fitness level, he can wear a pack to carry his own water. This shouldn’t be done until after your dog has been running with you for awhile and is in great shape already. If at that point you feel your dog has a tough enough stature to manage a weighted pack, then you can look into options. We use the Ruffwear Singletrak pack that has two collapsible water bladders and space for a cloth bowl and other small essentials. Just make sure that your dog is fit enough to carry a weighted pack and never allow the pack to exceed 10-20 percent of the dog’s body weight. Start with just the pack, then very light loads, until your dog has built up the strength to carry his own water.
Depending on the terrain you’re running on and the weather, you may want to consider boots for your dog. These aren’t for every dog, and you want to make extra sure your dog actually needs them before using them. But if you’re running on rough terrain with lots of sharp rocks, or in the snow where there is sharp ice or de-icing chemicals, then boots will help protect your dog’s feet from potential cuts, scrapes, bruises and sore spots. After all, if you’re on a 20-mile run in the mountains, the last thing you want to do is carry your dog for 10 miles because he cut his foot.
You also need to clean up after your dog. If you’re on a trail or path without trash cans, you might be tempted to just leave behind your dog’s waste since it’s kind of gross to carry it with you potentially for miles until you find a trash can. But the fact is, if you leave your dog’s waste behind, not only are you leaving behind something that could spread diseases to wildlife but you’re also leaving behind an argument to close off a trail or path to dogs. So be sure to bring along dog waste bags.
If you’re training your dog to run by your side and ignore distractions, you may want to carry a treat pouch with you. You can use one that clips to the leash, or hooks around your waste.
And finally, have a simple first aid kit for dogs ready to go. You can keep it in the car on shorter runs, or carry it with you on longer runs. The kit can include antiseptic and bandages for cleaning cut paws, tweezers for removing foxtails or splinters, eye wash and other medications or supplies you think you might need.
Maintaining a healthy diet and weight
It's important not to let your dog become overweight, since the added weight stresses their muscles and joints and can cause them to fatigue early. It is something that can happen even when running miles a day with you, especially among breeds like Labradors that tend to be heavy-set. So watch your dog's cookie intake as closely as you watch your own. That said, if you're increasing exercise, you might want to increase food intake as well.
Check with your vet about your dog's ideal weight. As you start your running routine, if she dips below that, increase how much food you give her to keep her at her ideal weight. Of course, if you're trying to help your dog lose a few extra pounds to get down to an ideal weight, then talk with your vet about the best strategy for balancing increased exercise with the right amount of daily food intake.
Be ready to admit it if your dog isn’t the best running partner
Let's be realistic: some dogs aren't meant to be running partners. A huge Newfoundland, an older Labrador, a teensy Pomeranian... they probably aren't going to cut it as a running buddy unless you're jogging slowly once around the block (and if you are, then great! Keep moving!). But if you are trying to get in 5 or 10 miles a day, or hitting mountain trails on the weekends, or perhaps there's the summer heat or winter chill to contend with, you'll want to be prepared to admit that maybe your best friend needs to wait for you at home.
Our trail running gear includes a hydration pack for me and my trail shoes, and for my dog, a pack with two water bladders, a collapsible bowl, and a leash that clips around my waist. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)