By John Andersen, DVM
This month, I’m going to combine two of my favorite topics: dogs and running! I am often asked about exercising dogs: How much? How far? How fast? What age?
These are good questions and like anything, it depends on the individual. One thing is for sure; dogs were made to run. We are fortunate to still have the ancestor of all domestic dogs alive and well in the world today, the gray wolf. Wolves will often run for 10-30 miles per day in search of food, much of this at a nice easy lope. Their anatomy and physiology is perfectly suited for this activity, from their strong rear legs to their incredible ability to burn fat as a fuel source. Or consider their very close domestic dog relatives, the arctic breeds like Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. When trained and fed right, these are the dogs of the Iditarod, racing over 100 miles a day for days on end.
So with that basic information, your dog is surely able to go for a 3-mile jog, right? Of course…it depends.
Heat: The number one problem for running with our domestic dogs is the heat. Remember that dogs cool down by panting, which is not very efficient when it’s hot outside. Also, most dogs are wearing a pretty warm winter jacket year round. So, take that Iditarod-trained dog in Alaska and plop him down on an 80-degree day with 90 percent humidity here in Virginia in early September. Big trouble. What about your Pug or English Bulldog? That extremely cute smooshed face has significantly compromised his ability to breathe and pant making him also very susceptible to heat stress. My rule on this: If it’s over 75 degrees out, you probably shouldn’t be taking your dog for a run.
Running vs. sprinting vs. play: I will not take my dogs running on a leash. First, the dogs are terrible, constantly lunging and pulling me along, then suddenly stopping for sniff breaks. Two or three miles of that is enough to drive me crazy. Second, they are just bored on the leash. After about a mile, they do settle down a bit, but then I notice they start to drag behind me as if they’re tired, even when it’s cold outside. I have found out that they are not tired, but just bored. Dogs love to run like kids like to run at play – run, sprint, stop and sniff, catch back up, sprint past, stop and sniff, run slow, sprint, etc. This is their natural play behavior, which is generally accomplished only when running on trails off leash.
This becomes tricky because not all dogs are good off leash (some may run away, some may jump on people, or get into fights with other dogs) and generally most public open places require that dogs be on a leash. I am not here to debate leashed vs. non-leashed activity, but just to share the observation that dogs love running off leash.
That being said, many dogs LOVE running on the roads leashed to their owners. Our dog-friend “Fletcher” is an amazing runner. He just runs perfectly in pace next to his owner for the entire run. My dogs, on the other hand, are terrible with their constant pulling and overflowing excitement for the world.
Fitness: Anyone guilty of weekend warrior syndrome in his or her own exercise? Too busy for regular exercise during the week, we go out on the weekend and just overdo it! What often happens? Injury, illness, implosion.
Likewise, if you aren’t regularly running your dog during the week, you probably shouldn’t bring him along for your 12-mile Saturday morning run. Like you, he needs to be adapted to perform without injury. Yes, he’s lighter and more athletic than you, but still, make it a point to get him into the regular exercise schedule if he’s joining you for longer weekend activity.
Also, overweight dogs, and those with respiratory (pugs) or orthopedic problems, need to be exercised with caution, just like people. Just as in humans, exercising alone is not going to cause any weight loss. It’s better to look at it like this: I need to get my dog to lose weight before I start running with her. Instead of this: I need to take her running to get her to lose weight.
Age: This is a big question I get when people have a new puppy. When can I take him running? My basic answer is usually around five months of age. This is when wolf pups start heading out with the pack for shorter hunts and travels. The play that occurs before this stage gives the puppy plenty of fitness and agility. People are often concerned that running will be hard on their joints—nonsense! Dogs weigh a fraction of what we weigh and have four legs to distribute the load. Running is a very low-impact activity for dogs and I always encourage walking, running, and hiking as the best exercise modalities for dogs.
Dogs’ bones grow at an incredible rate. Consider an 80-pound adult dog. He will grow from a one-pound puppy to an 80-pound dog in about 10-12 months. Now consider a human. My son is eight years old and weighs only 50 pounds. So, yes, it’s good to be concerned about those rapidly growing bones, growth plates, and joints. But running is great for their development.
Ball, Frisbee, and dog park play are what I worry about during the first year of a dog’s life. Typically, when someone plays fetch with their dog, their dog sprints to the ball and either catches it awkwardly or stops on a dime to get it, often causing a wipeout or forward roll. Jumping up for a Frisbee toss is hard to watch. And anything goes in a dog park with a puppy.
These are all high-impact exercises and are much more likely to cause a significant injury in a rapidly growing dog. I’m not saying you should never do these things, but do them very sparingly during their first year of life. Exercising your dog should not involve your standing still throwing the tennis ball with a chuckit again and again. It should involve the two of you traveling on foot somewhere together at an easy pace. As for older dogs, there is no age limit; just listen to them. If you’re forcing them to run, you probably shouldn’t take them.
“Ringo” is the dog of my friend and running teammate, Nick. Ringo is an amazing trail runner, often running over 50 miles per week with thousands of feet of elevation gain. He does not get injured, he literally wins races with Nick, and running is just a part of who he is. He is a great example of the possibilities of running with your dog if you train with them appropriately, avoid the heat, and keep it fun.
One of the best benefits of having a dog is it’s a great excuse for you both to get out and exercise. Take advantage!