As veterinarians, we spend many hours educating our clients on the importance of exercise, nutrition and obesity in their pets. We work hard every day to deal with conditions such as arthritis, joint injuries and metabolic diseases that could have been prevented by a nutrition and fitness program.
Even dogs who aren't overweight can exhibit behavior problems due to the lack of exercise. It is so important to maintain a well-balanced, enriched lifestyle for our pets. It excites me when I talk to pet owners who understand the importance of fitness for themselves as well as their dogs and ask me about safe exercise programs for their canine companions.
How Soon Should You Start Running with Your Dog?
The absolute first step in starting any exercise program, as with ourselves, is to have your pet's overall health assessed by your veterinarian. There are many factors to be considered when it comes to determining whether your dog can be a runner or not. For example, breed, conformation (the way the skeletal system is aligned during development), age, etc. For most dogs, regular running should not be started until they are 8-9 months old. You risk causing permanent damage to joints and bones if regular, high impact exercise is initiated too early. Large and giant breed dogs take much longer to develop their musculoskeletal system than medium and small breed dogs, so 8-9 months may even be too early for them.
What Breeds are the Best Running Partners?
No single breed is ideal for all conditions, running styles or distance. For example, brachycephalic breeds (pugs, bulldogs, boxers, shih tzus) cannot run long distances and do not tolerate warmer temperatures. Many mixed breed, medium sized dogs are great running partners. View the Runner's World Dog Chart for a visual!
Even a dog who is "designed" to go the distance, must be in good physical condition before hitting the trails. The dog must also be trained well on a leash. One could be injured quite seriously while running with a dog that is not properly leash trained. Also, when running in a group, your dog must leave other runners alone. It all comes back to training.
Training Your Dog To Run
Once you have the green light, from your veterinarian, to start running, start slowly. As with humans, a structured training program and a slow, steady increase in pace, mileage and time is important to avoid injuries. Keep your dog lean. Every extra pound of weight can significantly and negatively impact joints and muscles. If your dog is mature (over 5 years of age), ask your veterinarian about joint supplements. The proper supplement can significantly increase your dog's longevity as a comfortable, healthy, pain-free running partner.
A dog's natural gait for covering distance is a nice dog trot. This is the pace at which they should stay. Trust me, it is fast enough for most runners. Take plenty of breaks and always take water and even some snacks for your dog, especially on longer runs and on warm days. My dog wears a back pack with water and snacks for when we take breaks. It not only serves a purpose, it gives him a feeling of having a purpose.
So, whether you are a couch potato looking to get in to shape or you are an experienced marathon runner, running with your dog is a great bonding experience and will keep you both happy and healthy.
Dr. Brian Hoelscher is a veterinarian at Animal Hospital of Verona. He has extensive training and experience in the field of advanced veterinary dentistry and oral surgery. Dr. Hoelscher's medical interests also include canine behavior and oncology (cancer).