Although we train and race our dogs like sled dogs, there are several lessons that we have learned for running with your dog that apply whether your “running buddy” is a big, powerful sled dog or a 15 pound Jack Russell terrier.
#1. Stop is the most important command you can teach your dog. – We use “Whoa!” to mean stop, but you can use any term you desire. This command is more important than even coming to their name. If your dog does not know “Whoa!” (or whatever term you desire), DO NOT take your dog running, period. This could be a life or death situation. We have had several situations where we yelled “Whoa!” and had our dogs not responded immediately, serious injury could have occurred to either us or our dogs. For example, on a run at an intersection where cross traffic was supposed to stop, as we started to cross the road, a car ran the stop sign. Had our dogs not known that “Whoa!” means stop this instant, it could have been a very sad day. Instead, our dogs threw on the brakes, the car sped by, I gave the driver a dirty look, and we continued our run. Our dogs take “Whoa!” so seriously that if we are sledding with the dogs running at full speed and we give the command, we have to be careful to hit the brake on the sled HARD to not hit the dogs. Finally, your command for stop needs to be a sacred command. Never stop without giving the command and never give the command without stopping.
It was hard for us to not put Tip #2 as the first tip, but our decision to the order of Tip #1 and Tip #2 should help illustrate the importance of Tip #1.
#2. Keep it fun. – As you and your dog begin running together, this will become a very special time to your dog. They are getting to do something they love (running) with the person they love most (you). You owe it to your dog to make sure the run is fun. Due to our racing schedule, we train hard with our dogs and they do not always perform the way that we desire. Sometimes they want to trot instead of run. Sometimes they seem to ignore every turn. Sometimes they take us for a ride to chase a rabbit. The point is that no matter how terrible the run was from your point of view, it was great to your dog. Make a point to tell your dog that you are pleased with them at the end of the run. If you do not, your dog will begin to dread your runs. This is not to say never correct your dog if they do not listen to commands. On the contrary, correct them the moment they do something they should not have done. The end of the run is not the time or place to correct blown commands, chasing wildlife, etc.
#3. Watch the temperature. – Dogs do not sweat. Actually, dogs are rather inefficient at cooling themselves when compared to other animals. This should not be surprising when you consider dogs originated from wolves. Wolves live mostly in cooler climates. If you want an idea of how your dog feels running in the heat, put on your warmest running pants and shirt, then try running in 90°F weather. You will be lucky to make it a half mile. No breed of dog should ever be asked to exert maximum effort for an extended period of time in temperatures greater than 60°F. You can run with your dog in temperatures between 60 – 75°F, but go easy. Never ask your dog to run at all in temperatures warmer than 75 – 80°F. Obviously, these are general guidelines and can be adjusted a little based on individual dogs and breeds, but we have found these work well for most dogs. Also, our dogs are adapted to training in relatively warmer weather (most sled dogs train in temperatures near 0°F), and despite their thick fur, they handle warm weather better than many other dogs we have worked with. There are a few caveats for particular dogs and breeds that do need consideration. Dogs with long noses can keep themselves cooler than brachycephalic dogs (smushed-face dogs, such as bulldogs, boxers, pugs, etc.). Brachycephalic dogs need these temperature guidelines lowered. Double-coated dogs (malamutes, huskies, newfoundlands, and pretty much any other spitz breed) will actually have two sets of temperature guidelines, one for the winter and one for after the coat is “blown”. After our dogs blow their coat, 50°F weather is no problem to run in, but with their full winter coat, we have to go much easier. Running in the rain is your dog’s best friend (other than you). The rain will act as sweat for your dog, helping to cool them. If you do run in the rain with your dog, make sure you are finished before it stops raining. Humidity makes dogs overheat very quickly. Finally, watch the sun. If you have a darker colored dog, 60°F in the early morning hours is far cooler than 60°F in the middle of the afternoon. Our dogs are a great example of this principle. As the weather cools at the beginning of fall, we begin picking up training miles. More or less, at 60°F, Ruger can handle almost anything, anytime. At 60°F, Denali (who is darker than Ruger) can handle anything as long as the sun is not shining. As soon as the sun starts to shine, Denali gets hot very quickly. For Denali, the sun lowers the temperatures she can handle by 5-10°F. This might seem like a lot to watch, but it actually is rather simple - know your dog. As long as you are attentive, you will quickly learn what your dog can handle. By far the most important of all of these is to set guidelines that work for your dog and stick to them.
#4. Always offer water to your dog after a run. – Dogs are actually somewhat inefficient in using water, as a side effect of their inefficient cooling system. As such, they need to drink water often. This greatly helps their cooling process. In addition, dehydration can lead to kidney problems. Our dogs are offered water within a couple minutes after every run, even at 0°F. To ease the process of making water available, we have taught our dogs to drink from a water bottle. We all have those moments where we say “I will cut the corner just once.” We found that having a dog that will drink from a water bottle makes you less likely to cut the corner when you are running somewhere other than home, as it literally takes 15 seconds to offer your dog water. Also, some dogs will have to be trained to want to drink after a run. For some reason, Ruger initially refused to drink until 30 minutes to an hour after a run, even when he was visibly hot. We knew this was not good for him, so we worked hard to train him to drink after a run. Now, he at least wants water on warmer days. But even on cold days, all it takes is us pointing at the water bowl or holding up a water bottle and he will drink it dry. Finally, you may want to check your dog’s hydration levels from time to time. This is as easy as grabbing the scruff between your dog’s shoulders and quickly letting go. If the scruff falls back to the dog’s body quickly, he is hydrated. If the scruff falls back slowly or leaves a scruff teepee, your dog is dehydrated. We have built this check into our feeding routine.
#5. Check your dog’s paws before and after every run. – Your dog’s paws are one of the most important body parts to keep healthy for running or any other activity. Ask anybody who works dogs for any reason; mushing, hunting, farming, etc. If you want to fail to keep your dog healthy while running with him, just skip this tip and see how quickly your dog’s health deteriorates. Injured paws lead to numerous other problems, such as joint problems, ligament tears, muscle pulls, stress fractures, etc. To be honest, this is by far the easiest of the tips to comply with. It takes all of 30 seconds for our dogs to roll over and for us to run our finger between and over each pad with pressure and watch for any discomfort. No discomfort, no problem, let’s run. Even the littlest discomfort, we investigate. Watch for cracks in your dog’s paws. Generally, cracks are nothing to worry about, but can develop into problems. Cracks commonly come from dry skin. We prefer to make our own paw balm to treat cracks, but there are numerous commercially available paw balms that work well. Dogs tend to develop more cracks in the winter months, just as your skin is generally drier in the winter. Treatment for cracks is always important, but is more important in the winter, as the chemicals used to clear the roads and sidewalks of snow and ice can be painful to your dog if those chemicals get into the paw cracks.
#6. It is best to not use plain English for your running commands. – Back in Tip #1, we stated that we used “Whoa!” to mean stop. There is a reason we do not use “Stop!” If you use plain English for your commands, you can never run with another person while running with your dog (or at least both of you have to run in silence). Why? Because you WILL confuse your dog beyond belief. Think about how a dog would interpret “I am going to take a LEFT at the STOP sign, then a RIGHT at the STOP light in a block.” Your dog would not know whether to turn left, right, or stop. Generally, we have a different language that we use with our dogs. This makes it so that you can “talk” with your dog and talk to a non-canine running partner without confusing your dog.
#7. Be consistent. – This tip is rather self-explanatory. Whether it be with the commands you use, the temperatures you allow your dog to run in, or the distance you allow your dog to run, be consistent.
#8. Know your dog. – We could write a book on how we care for our dogs, but 95% of this would be of little use to anyone other than us. Why? Because most of what we do has been developed specifically for our dogs. In fact, although the care for Ruger and Denali is similar, there are differences in how we treat each dog. In addition, although every dog is an individual, keep the breed and their original intent in mind. For example, it does not matter how much an individual dog enjoys running, we would never ask a bulldog to run even 2 miles. Retrievers are especially susceptible to overrunning themselves due to their desire to please. Knowledge of your dog and his/her idiosyncrasies is far more valuable to developing a running plan with your dog than anything we can tell you.
Finally remember Tip #2.
Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions. We would be happy to help!