The “Dog Days of Summer” are now behind us, and the heat is giving us a break as we head into fall — a perfect time to start the “Dog Days of Running.” We know not every dog loves to run with their owners, but if you have one suited to a few miles on a leash, they can be a great running companion and accountability partner, to boot.
We talked to Dr. Tom Watson, a veterinary orthopedic and soft tissue surgeon at Carolina Veterinary Medical Hospital, about how to safely run with dogs. In addition to being a well-known veterinarian and a regular on many local media outlets, Dr. Watson is also an avid runner and ‘dad’ to numerous rescue pups over the years.
“Your dog will be the most loyal running partner you’ve ever had,” Dr. Watson reminds us. “It’s a good thing, promotes bonding between dog and owner, offers exercise, and it’s fun!” He shared both his professional and personal experience with us to make sure you keep your doggo safe while you get your miles in.
Too hot? Too cold? It may not be a good time to take your pup along. In summers, hot pavement can burn dogs’ pads, even though their feet are tougher than ours. If you wouldn’t consider running more than a few feet barefoot, or placing your hand on the pavement for more than a few seconds, then your dog shouldn’t either. And don’t forget the sheer misery of that fur coat they’re wearing: “Dogs can’t sweat,” says Dr. Watson. “They have to pant to dissipate heat.”
Think about it, if you couldn’t breathe fast enough to get air and stay cool, how far would you continue to run? You’d probably pull over under a tree for a few minutes, and your pup should too. “Dogs can be struggling, but they’re going to do everything they can to keep up with you,” says Dr. Watson. Don’t make them choose — they want to be with you, so run in the early mornings or on shaded trails when the sun shines brightest.
The cold weather can be a shivering experience for a dog with short hair, too. If you have a thin-skinned (or furred) dog, consider getting them a well-fitted coat. And while some breeds, like Huskies, are suited to running in snow, check their feet — ice can get compacted between their toes and cause problems. It might be worth the investment to get them booties (which are also very cute). Also be sure to rinse their paws when you get home in case there are salt or chemicals on the road.
All dogs love to play, but not all are built for running. Dogs with short legs are meant for short distances — not marathon training. Take them on your warm-up walks and finish with a short jog down the block before you go on your long run. Also, dogs with “smushed faces” — called brachycephalic — are adorable and loving pets, but not well-suited for running because of their breathing mechanism. Stick to playing fetch with these cuties like bulldogs and pugs.
So what IS a good breed?
“For the average runner, the longer-legged the dog, the better,” says Dr. Watson. Labs, Goldens, Huskies, Dalmatian, and shepherds are just a few breeds that usually make good running companions. Greyhounds, known for speedy sprints, usually do not, FYI. And note that even if the breed is one that generally makes a good running companion, dogs’ personalities can be like people’s — some would simply rather stay home and watch Netflix than bolt out the door at 5 a.m. with you. You know your dog best!
Build Up Gradually
You didn’t run marathons as a toddler, did you? (Though your mother may have stories about your sprints!) Then don’t expect a puppy to run 5 miles on his first trip out the door. Spend those first months going for walks together, building strength and endurance, and especially, WORKING ON MANNERS. A dog with bad manners will make a bad running companion if it darts for every squirrel, cat, and fellow runner on the route, or is constantly tripping you. You can throw in a block or two of running with each walk until they can follow you for more.
“Wait until they’re 6 months, at least, before you do some longer running,” says Dr. Watson. This helps their bone and muscle development as well as those all-important manners. You don’t want to create an early injury that plagues them for years, so start slow. “A smaller pup can go 5 to 10 minutes at most.” From there, add a little running at a time — walk, slow jog, moderate jog, back to a walk. If they can stop, sit, and stay on command, you can take off again. Dogs generally reach adulthood at a year, so leave serious running until then.
“When your dog starts lagging, or they stop and sit down, they’ve had too much,” says Dr. Watson. “That’s how they say I’m done. Read the room, know your pet.”
Don’t let your dog drink a gallon of water before a run, because that can cause a life-threatening condition called bloat. (This applies to food, too — don’t let them eat before running, either.) Instead, bring a water bottle so they can drink out of your hand or a collapsible cup if they start panting excessively. You can also build your route around water fountains, ( https://runcharlotte.com/water-fountain-map/ ) or stash a gallon or two of water on your route ahead of time. Dr. Watson says a run of 45 minutes or less should be fine — just make sure plenty of clean water is available when you get home.
Warm Up, Cool Down
Just like you need a stretch before you run, your dog can use one too. They may not do lunges (though that would be funny!), but a warm-up walk is a great way to stretch their legs and get them ready for something faster. There are even ways to stretch your dog’s legs and massage his muscles to get him rolling out the door more safely.
After your run, make sure you cool down adequately. That means walking until your heart rate comes down and your dog’s panting slows a little. And again, WATER! They need it and so do you. If they seem hot, pour a little over their heads to cool them, but don’t send them into a cold tub or a pool too quickly.
“If a dog seems overheated, a sudden cool down can be dangerous,” says Dr. Watson. “It can send them into shock.” Let them cool gradually as they drink water, and give them a little massage while you do your cool-down stretches.
Your leash – Don’t use the retractable kind. Dr. Watson says he’s seen more than one dog who darted into traffic and got hit by a car. Instead, use a fixed-length leash, no more than 6 feet long. For a very well-behaved dog, a nylon choker-type cord is lightweight and can be taken off and easily carried in areas where it is safe and legal, with no other people or dogs around. Remember, if you let your dog run off-leash, he has to be exceptionally trained to come when called the first time, even with distractions.
Age – We all get a little slower at a certain age, and dogs are no different. Your running buddy will always try to keep up, even when he shouldn’t. “If he’s slowing down, or has trouble going up and down stairs and in and out of cars,” says Dr. Watson, “you know he’s not the same as he used to be.” That’s a tough reality when it hits, for pets or for people. If he starts lagging behind, give him a break. And some days, like all of us, he’s just not feeling it. Time to turn around and head home.
Pee Breaks – If you don’t like stopping for them (the dog’s, not yours), make sure there’s ample opportunity to “go” before you say “go” on that run. And don’t forget to bring bags for the poops — and please dispose of them properly! No one wants to see your poop bag. If you don’t feel like carrying it, make sure you leave it where you can pick it up on the way back. Some neighborhoods and greenways even have trash cans.
Check with Your Vet – It’s always good to ask your vet if your dog is a good candidate for running. If your dog is overweight, it’s worth looking into a better diet along with exercise to get them in better shape.
All that said, enjoy your run together!