It’s a piece of wisdom heard by every runner who has ever considered signing up for a 5K: Find a training partner to hold you accountable when it’s raining outside and you’re tired and sore from yesterday’s workout, and you’ll have a reason to stick with your regimen.
And what better workout partner than a four-legged one scratching at your front door?
“Dogs will go forever if they have to, or they could run around the block and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m cool with that,'” says Jt Clough, a Hawaii-based dog trainer who runs Maui Dog Remedies and wrote the Kindle book 5K Training Guide: Running With Dogs.
Clough grew up on a ranch in Montana and has been working with dogs in a professional capacity since 1999. She’s the proud mother to Carmella, a seven-year-old Weimaraner, and Emmy, a five-year-old yellow Lab. She is also a triathlete who has completed nine Ironmans, the endurance races in which competitors swim, bike, and run a combined 140.6 miles to the finish line.
“I’ve kind of incorporated [running] into most of what I do with dogs,” Clough says.
Clough began developing running programs for dogs within the last six years, with clients becoming intrigued about the practice for the typical reasons: to return their dog back to a healthy body weight and shed a few pounds of their own at the same time, find an endorphin release, and take a psychological break from from the clamor of everyday life.
But there’s another reason to make your dog a running partner: Dogs show us the benefits of exercise even when we can’t see them. “When [owners] see the results in their dog, even if they’re not feeling the results in themselves or seeing them in the mirror, it actually provides the motivation to keep going,” Clough says. Over time, as a result of running with their dogs, Clough has watched couch potatoes become pavement pounders who compete in half marathons every month.
But how do you get started? Clough offered up a few tips and pieces of practical wisdom to get started.
1. First determine if your dog is born to run
Many breeds of dog have the potential to run some distance, Clough says, from Greyhounds to Huskies to Labradoodles. (Find out how specific breeds do at running here.) If you’re unsure if your dog is born to run, check with your vet.
However, some dogs just aren’t suited to the rigors of running, namely brachycephalic breeds like Bulldogs and Pugs, whose short, stubby noses make it hard to breathe and cool down efficiently. If you’re coming home with a new puppy, don’t consider running with them until they reach 18 months, after their growth plates fuse. And don’t ever force older dogs afflicted with hip dysplasia and arthritis to gallop through the pain.
2. Start small
Small amounts of exercise can produce dramatic results, especially for beginners. “Literally, you can form a good habit with 10 minutes [of running] a day,” Clough says. “If you haven’t been doing anything at all, that will feel like a long time.” On a weekly basis, increase the length of your daily routine by five-minute increments: Run 15 minutes each day for one week, run 20 minutes a day the week after, and so forth. Stick to modest, realistic goals.
“If your dog has been sitting on the couch for the last five years, don’t take off and try to do a five-mile run on the first day,” Clough says. “You’re not gonna feel good, and your dog’s not gonna feel good either.”
3. Focus on the basics
Before you start running, work on the basics of training and leash etiquette. Teach your dog to sit and stay and walk on a leash without yanking you down the street or tripping others in the process. While you’re running, use a leash that is less than six feet long to ensure control. If your dog constantly stops to smell the roses — or that crusty thing in the bushes — just keep moving and don’t let your dog break stride.
“That doesn’t mean never let your dogs sniff, but most dogs have plenty of other time for sniffing,” Clough says. “When they figure out that the behavior isn’t allowed, they’ll keep moving with you.”
4. Plan your route
The endless combinations of scenery and terrain are part of why running has such broad appeal. But when you’re bringing your dog along, how should you select a route?
“Dogs, as well as people, should really have between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise a day,” Clough says. “You can kinda pick your route according to that guideline.”
Clough recommends new runners follow a path that starts and ends at their homes. Clough’s favorite five-miler goes from her house to a beach on the north side of Maui — where she and her dogs can dip into the water — and traces back.
If you run on pavement, be careful when the temperature climbs: Dogs can risk burning their paws, because they typically don’t wear sneakers. And while running on pavement isn’t forbidden, the impact of trotting over a dirt or grass surface is easier on bones and ligaments — both yours and your dog’s. “If you have a choice between trail or pavement, pick the trail,” Clough says.
5. How much is too much?
The answer, Clough says, depends on the individual dog, not just the breed. “I know of a lot of Labs who could run 50 miles a week with no problem and still have energy,” Clough says. “My own Lab would not do well. But my Weimaraner would be like, is that all you’ve got?” Honestly gauge your dog’s fitness level before setting out on a long run, and be mindful of signs of fatigue, like heavier-than-normal panting or a dragging tail.
6. Travel light
There is no shortage of shoes, clothing, gels, recovery drinks, and accessories on the market for the avid runner. But running with your dog requires almost no equipment: just a leash and a poop bag or two.
Bringing water, however, is essential for long runs in warm weather. But don’t allow your dog to drink it by the bowlful before or during exercise, since too much water can cause bloating or vomiting. “Think about yourself: You don’t gulp down water — you sip water,” Clough says.
And while it might sound obvious, it’s worth repeating: If you’re aiming to help your dog shed pounds, running three miles isn’t a license to add an extra scoop of food to his dinner.
Read more on exercising with your dog: