Unless you’re a fitness junkie who consistently achieves that endorphin high, there are times when going for a run can feel more like a chore than fun. Need motivation to stay on track? Enter the best personal trainer you might ever find – your dog! Think about it: no need to make polite conversation and no one to ask, “Do these shorts make my butt look fat?” And best of all, your dog is probably a cheery incentive consistently loitering at your front door. But before you lace up your shoes and reach for the leash, here are a few things to consider.
Is your dog really up for it?
Retrievers, Viszlas, German Shepherds, Dalmatians and terriers can make for great exercise partners. Toy breeds like a Chihuahua, short-faced dogs like Pugs, or a giant breed like a Mastiff, may be more suited to a brisk walk than a run. Make sure your dog’s skeleton is fully mature, which means at least a year of age (preferably 18 months for bigger breeds). If you’re unsure whether your dog is ready and able to run, get a health check with your vet. And don’t forget to be current on all shots.
Synchronicity, not yank and pee!
It’s unlikely that you and your dog will synch at a perfect pace from the get-go. If your dog prefers to bungee jump off the end of a leash or sniff and pee on everything, all while dislocating your shoulder as he or she yanks you to a complete stop, don’t worry. Be patient. Ideally get your dog leash-trained and well socialised with other dogs, people and cars. When you’re learning to run together, avoid a taut leash. It should be long enough to hang loose but not trip you up. Three feet from you is about right. It can be a hands-free style (good options can be found at Cardio Canine or The Buddy System) that ties at your waist. Retractable options are not a good idea because they can tangle, allow your dog to run too far away from you, or let them bolt if something attracts their attention. I like to use a gentle leader headcollar, but a harness can also work well.
Even if you’re raring to do a half-marathon straight out of the gates, it’s best to assume your new partner needs to get in shape. Dogs relish regular exercise, not the life of a weekend warrior. Build from easy strolls (everyone needs a warm-up) and shoot for fifteen minutes, three times a week. If your dog completes the run without getting out of breath or needing to sit down, try adding five more minutes every week. And remember to cool down as well.
The stuff Fido always forgets
If you’re going to dehydrate on your run, chances are your dog will too. Fido always forgets to bring water and might quench his thirst in the nearest dirty puddle (potentially a swamp for bacteria and toxic waste). Bring enough water for two and, if possible, carry a portable dog bowl or travel bottle. A supply of dog treats can be an invaluable reward for good behaviour and as a distraction from possums and unfriendly rivals. Always have a mobile phone handy and never, never forgot poop bags. Ideally, get the bathroom visit over before you get going. No one likes to run with a bag of steaming poop swinging from one hand.
Where to run
Start simple. Pick a route that is familiar and doesn’t pit you against guard dogs or heavy traffic. Hot bitumen and broken glass can injure sensitive footpads. Remember, running on a beach might be scenic and invigorating, but muscles and tendons have to work extra hard in soft, deep sand. Slowly build up distance, pace, and the challenge of the terrain. This is exercise, not playtime. Always obey local leash laws and, for consistency and safety, keep your dog on a leash.
The downside of no chit-chat!
Though you might enjoy your pup’s quiet companionship, your dog can’t verbally tell you when they’re tired. Be aware of your new partner’s tolerance for exercise. During the run, watch out for signs of excessive panting – air hunger, lips peeled back, breathing not coming back to normal when you stop. Monitor for signs of lameness or stiffness during or after you get home. And be sure to check and clean paws to remove excessive hair, mud, dirt or road grit.
Running with your dog offers a unique and rewarding bonding opportunity. So why not take it in! Ditch the iPod, witness the pleasure, and savour the rhythm of footfalls and paws.
Nick Trout is a runner and veterinary specialist with over 25 years of experience. Trout has written New York Times best-selling books. His latest, Dog Gone, Back Soon, is available now.