Let’s say it upfront: I’m not a runner. If you see me running, it’s most likely because something scary is chasing me. But one of the reasons I love having dogs is that they are an incentive to get outdoors and go for long walks or hikes every day.
And if you are a runner or jogger, there’s no better partner than a dog. This is one running buddy who’ll always push you to keep going. Most important, running will help keep your dog fit both physically and mentally.
Like any athlete, though, dogs need gradual conditioning. You can’t just start them out on a 3-mile run. They’ll be tired and achy and run the risk of injury. I talked to some canine sports experts to get the skinny on the best dogs for runners and how to prepare them for the activity.
▪ What kind of dog? With some exceptions – short-faced dogs, dogs with crooked legs and tiny dogs – most dogs can make good running companions. The best dogs are attentive and obedient. They don’t veer off to chase a squirrel or run in front of you and trip you. Hunting breeds, hounds and working-dog breeds generally make good running companions, said Michael Davis, DVM, who studies sled dogs and exercise physiology at Oklahoma State University. Other good choices include herding breeds and certain non-sporting breeds such as Dalmatians and standard poodles.
▪ When to start? We always hear that the best time for dogs to start running is when they reach skeletal maturity, but what does that mean? It varies by breed and may also depend on whether the dog has been spayed or neutered. Large breeds generally reach skeletal maturity at a later age – usually 18 months to 2 years – than smaller dogs. Growth plates close at 14 months for intact (unaltered) dogs and 20 months for dogs who are spayed or neutered, said Chris Zink, DVM, a canine sports medicine and rehabilitation specialist. Have your veterinarian give your dog the once-over before you start running with him.
Davis believes that brief periods of running before skeletal maturity can help “train” a dog’s skeletal system for the types of forces encountered during running, but said that to avoid injury, it’s important not to overdo.
▪ How far? It’s not a hard and fast rule, but if you plan to run more than 3 miles at a time, it’s best if your dog is taller than 16 inches at the withers, Zink said. Shorter dogs have to work harder than taller dogs at the same speed. Start with distances of no more than 1 mile. Increase gradually so that distances of more than 3 miles are not reached until the dog is at least 2 years old.
▪ Keep him hydrated. Dogs are highly athletic, but one area where humans outpace them is thermoregulation. Dogs lose large amounts of water as their bodies attempt to stay cool. “In moderate conditions, less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I recommend stopping at least hourly to let the dog drink. In warmer conditions, every 30 minutes, at least,” Davis said. Avoid running on hot or humid days.
▪ Zink recommended limiting runs to three or four times a week.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com. Dr. Becker can also be found at facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.