Like a lot of runners, when Ducky Waite doesn't get his regular run, he gets restless and antsy. The 4 1/2-year-old pit bull-Doberman mix gets into the trash or rams a chew toy into his owners until he gets some exercise.
"He is a high-energy dog, and as a runner I get that," said his owner, Shauna Waite, a veterinarian at Columbia Pike Animal Hospital & Emergency Center in Annandale, Va. As a marathoner who logs up to 60 miles a week, she can relate. "When we run, we're both getting good exercise, and it keeps him in good shape."
Running delivers many of the same physical and mental benefits to dogs as it does to humans. It helps ward off obesity - a growing issue - and related health problems such as osteoarthritis and Type 2 diabetes. (Some 54 percent of dogs are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.)
A 2012 study in Journal of Experimental Biology showed that canines get the same "runner's high" after intense exercise that people experience.
"Exercise is physical and mental stimulation," said Noon Kampani, a veterinarian with AtlasVet animal hospital in Washington. "It gives them an activity and burns energy. An exercised dog is usually a better-behaved dog."
And buddying up with Fido for runs can help you reach your goals. Dog owners are 2 1/2 times as likely to get the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, according to a study published in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
But running with a dog isn't as easy as lacing up and getting out the leash. Whether you're a new runner or you're considering a canine workout companion, these guidelines will help you establish a safe, healthy, lasting routine that boosts you both.
- Talk to your vet. Before you start any new exercise routine, check with your vet - especially if your dog is older or has orthopedic issues. Not every dog was born to run. Although certain breeds, such as Weimaraners and vizslas, are known for speed and stamina, other dogs, such as pugs, are not as well suited to it and are especially prone to overheating. "Know your dog and know the breed," Kampani said.
- Get the timing right. Young dogs may seem eager to release their copious amounts of puppy energy. But if the dog hasn't celebrated its first birthday, it's probably not a good idea. Its bones have not fully developed, and its growth plates have not closed, Kampani said. Daily bouts of continuous running can lead to fractures and lasting damage. "Young dogs need active play to grow," Kampani said, "but not repetitive motion like running long distances." The minimum age will depend on the breed. So consult your vet.
- Consider the conditions. In winter, clean paws after a run, as road salt can wreak havoc with paws, causing redness, roughness and a burning sensation that can lead to infection if the dog chews on the area, Kampani said. In summer heat, take it slowly, take plenty of breaks, and ramp up your distance and speed on a gradual basis.
- Plan your route. When mapping out your route, consider your dog's temperament. Waite knows that Ducky gets nervous around approaching bikes, so she avoids popular cycling areas. Incorporate stops where your pup can get a drink. Or bring a water bottle with a bowl attached, said Bryan Barrera, founder of D.C. Dog Runner, a professional dog-running service.
- Be flexible. Just like any runner, your dog is going to have the occasional off day. Waite takes Ducky for runs when she doesn't have a strict workout planned. "Just like us, sometimes he is slow, and sometimes he wants to sprint," she said.
- Watch the leash. Run slightly behind the dog, leaving some slack in the leash, Barrera said. Avoid having the dog trail behind you, where your legs could get clipped. Running behind your dog also gives you a strong hand and arm to hold your dog in case it lunges after a squirrel, rabbit or other dog. If your dog gives way to chase, grab the leash with both hands and get low into a squat, Barrera recommends.
- Get the right gear. Waite uses a running halter that attaches at the waist because it doesn't disrupt her natural running form. A four-foot leash will help you avoid tripping over the dog or the leash, Barrera said. "The closer you can keep the dog, the more control you'll have," he added. A leash that you can hold in two places can help prevent unwanted encounters with other dogs. "It gives you two points of control so that you can keep your arms close to you rather than just one arm extended away from you," Barrera said.
- Start slowly. Watch for signs of exhaustion, such as slowing down, stopping or a change in gait. But be aware that dogs, like people, are prone to going too far, too fast, too soon. "One of the biggest mistakes is overestimating the ability of the dog or equating effort and desire to ability," Barrera said. "Some dogs will just stop running when they're tired, but others don't." Make your first run with your dog a "fartlek" workout - speeding up and slowing down as you feel ready, he advised. To start, you might run to a stoplight, then walk to a tree, sprint to another landmark, then walk. If the dog doesn't show signs of exhaustion, try a brisk, 30-minute walk. If that is successful, mix walking and running until you can build up to a 30-minute run.
- - -
Getting the right gear will make running much safer and more enjoyable for you and your pup. Here are some recommendations from Bryan Barrera, a marathoner and founder of D.C. Dog Runner, who runs 40 dogs a week.
- Water carrier: You can carry water with a regular bottle or hydration vest and bring along a collapsible bowl. But Barrera likes the Tuff Pupper PupSipper ($19.95, tuffpupper.com), a bottle with an attachable bowl. "It's silicone, so it slides over the bottle and keeps it slim so that it will fit in a normal running vest that carries fuel," he says.
- Four-foot leash: Barrera likes the Kong Reflective Traffic Dog Leash ($31.49, petsmart.com) because it provides increased control with two handles, both of which are padded so you don't get rope burn.
- Hands-free leash: Barrera recommends the Buddy System ($20-$26, buddysys.com), which allows you to tether with a static or bungee leash. Barrera prefers a static line. "When you're running near others, it helps to have a fixed distance and not an extra foot of play in the leash," he said. What's more, anything that expands also contracts, disrupting the natural rhythm of the run.