Run, Forrest, run!
During one of my group classes last week, a question came up about how to safely run with your dog. This is a great question, with lots of different components to consider!
First thing's first - talk to your veterinarian about your goal for your pooch. Discuss what "running" means to you -- a 30 minute easy jog is very different than training for a marathon. The average dog is most comfortable at a 2-5 mile distance, but there are some individuals who may enjoy longer runs. Your vet will be able to help you determine if your pup is physically healthy enough to reach that goal. Running is a high-impact activity, so you will be taking many things into account when deciding if running is a good option: including your dog's age, weight, and other health issues (such as the presence of arthritis, hip dysplasia, or luxating patellas). Brachycephalic dogs (those with pushed-in noses, like Pugs or Bulldogs) may have difficulty getting in enough air to safely run. Dogs with long backs or short legs, like Dachshunds or Basset Hounds, aren't built for running either. Think about what your dog was bred for, and whether he will even enjoy the stress of running!
Personality and socialization.
Is your pup comfortable around other people and animals? You will likely encounter other walkers, joggers, runners, bikes, skateboards, roller blades, dogs (leashed or not), etc. If your dog is reactive to any of these, you will want to work through those issues at a walking pace first.
Is he confident enough to recover from a startle? If a bicycle comes up behind you quietly, and passes into your dog's field of vision suddenly, will he bolt? What if a car honks or backfires? Sudden visual or auditory stimulation can be a safety issue that you should be prepared for. It is normal for a dog to startle, but if your dog is fearful of these things, then the run is no longer fun for him - it's torture.
Does your dog walk nicely on leash? A dog who pulls on leash is not a safe running partner. Not only is it reinforcing bad habits for your dog, but it also could lead to injury. Additionally, as a runner, it's tough enough to maintain good form without being pulled or jerked around! Beginning with walking also allows you to create some safe habits with your dog before going full-throttle!
Building eye contact as part of your loose leash walking will be vital to the safety of your future runs, so use your walk training to build that eye contact as strong as possible. I don't believe a strict "heel" is necessary, but your dog should certainly be aware of where you are, and be respectful on leash.
To help build awareness of where you are, you can begin adding some training games into your walks. "Do the Opposite" (a game where you go the opposite direction from where your dog is heading) can be a great option to help the dog who is absolutey sure he knows where he is going learn to pay better attention to you. Changing speed (fast, slow, medium, etc.) also will help him pay attention. Training walks are also a good place to begin introducing some verbal cues you can use to help later in your runs. I use "let's go" to get us moving, "easy" just before I slow down, and "whoa" before I stop. Consistently using the cues will help you communicate with your dog, and reduce the chance of injury from a sudden stop. Also consider adding a cue before you turn - "right" and "left" work well for me to warn my pup I am changing direction so that I don't run him over.
You have to walk before you can run. Just as you have a training plan to increase your endurance and speed, your dog will also need a graduated training plan to help him build the capacity to keep up with you. Increase distance slowly, just as you do for your own training.
Proper gear is essential for running comfortably and safely, and this is also true for your running partner! Consider rotating between a flat collar and a no-pull harness, just as you would rotate your shoes. The no-pull harnesses are a great tool, but over time they can rub and cause discomfort. Additionally, if your dog isn't keeping a loose leash, that tension on the harness can actually shift his running stride, causing him to become imbalanced. Alternating between different harnesses and his flat collar, along with ensuring you have a loose leash, will help prevent this.
If you intend to run on hot pavement in the summer, or on salted surfaces in the winter, you might consider looking for protective footwear for your pooch. Booties do take some getting used to, though!
A hands-free leash can also be very helpful for running, but do be careful in the type you select. It should be long enough for there to be slack in the leash when your dog is next to you, but not so long that it becomes a tripping hazard. Something with a little give (like a bungee) is nice for those moments when your pup forgets that he is attached to you. Look for a clip that isn't too heavy or bulky, as it will bounce around while running and could become uncomfortable for your dog. Lastly, avoid any leash that creates constant tension (such as a retractable leash). Constant tension creates pulling, effectively undoing all the walk training you had worked so hard on! Additionally, a dog who is generally comfortable around other dogs and people may become more reactive when he feels that tension.
Lastly, don't forget clean-up bags! Making sure your dog has had the opportunity to take a potty break before your run can help avoid unpleasant "accidents" along the way, but be prepared anyway. Better safe than sorry!
Consider the course and conditions.
Pavement is hard on runners, and dogs are no exception. In fact, without the benefit of shoes, they feel it even more that we do. Add the summer heat or winter's salt and ice, and there are lots of hazards that we expose our dogs' feet to. Grass or dirt are much more comfortable for our pooches. Sun and heat are significant issues as well, since dogs only are able to release heat through panting and only sweat on the pads of their feet. Early morning or late evening runs may be more comfortable for all involved, or consider trail running through the woods.
Water breaks will be necessary for your pooch, but be careful not to let her overdo it! Drinking lots of water in one sitting may make your pup prone to bloat, so frequent smaller water breaks are generally safer. Dogs can be taught to drink from a water bottle fairly easily, so lugging a water bowl around is not a necessity.
As you are out on your run, it is important to be in tune with how your dog is handling the exercise that day. Just at we humans have good and bad days, so do our dogs, and since they can't tell us how they feel, it is up to us to be aware. Watch your pup's body language for signs that he needs a break:
Lagging behind you
Limping or any sort of altered gait
Normally pink tongue turning blue-ish
If your dog appears to no longer be enjoying the run, believe him! Give him a few minutes rest in the shade, and a little water, and finish with a few minutes of walking. If the symptoms persist, contact your veterinarian immediately.