Your Dog May Not Make a Good Running Partner, Consider This

jogging partner

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research shows that dogs, like humans, get a “runner’s high” from prolonged aerobic exercise
  • Some dogs are great running partners, while others prefer to fetch a ball or simply walk; also, some dogs’ bodies aren’t designed for endurance running
  • If you want to start running with your dog, the first stop should be your veterinarian’s office to be sure he’s physically fit and healthy enough for the type of runs you’re planning
  • When you go on runs with your dog, it’s important to plan ahead and bring the supplies you’ll both need

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Most dogs were born to run, and in fact, a study published in 2012 concluded that dogs even get a runner’s high just like human runners do.1

The term “runner’s high” describes the positive feelings exercise can generate. Studies show natural chemicals produced by the body called endocannabinoids are elevated after extended running and cycling. These substances can change and improve moods, and probably play a role in the “high” achieved from prolonged exercise.

Dogs and Humans Share the Ability to Achieve a ‘Reward Response’ From Prolonged Exercise

For the 2012 study conducted at the University of Arizona in Tucson, researchers set out to evaluate the endocannabinoid response to running both in animals that are known to run, and those that aren’t. The natural nonrunners they chose were ferrets (who were adopted out into the community at the conclusion of the study). The natural runners were 10 humans and eight dogs of various breeds.

The animals were trained using positive reinforcement to run on a treadmill. Then each person and animal ran on the treadmill for 30 minutes at about 70 percent of maximum heart rate. The people and dogs also walked on the treadmill for 30 minutes on another day, while the ferrets — who never quite got the hang of walking on the treadmill — sat out the session in their cages.

Blood was drawn once before the experiment began, and after each exercise session, so endocannabinoid levels could be measured. The researchers observed that both the humans and dogs had significantly elevated levels of endocannabinoids after running, but not after walking. The ferrets didn’t show an increase in endocannabinoid levels after running or resting. This indicates they received no neurobiological pleasure from running.

These study results suggest that human and canine bodies have evolved to supply a “reward response” when we engage in endurance exercise.

Would Your Dog Make a Good Running Partner?

Running with your dog can be wonderful exercise for both of you, but it’s important not to simply assume your canine companion is ready to be your jogging partner just because she’s a dog. Not all dogs are physically suited for running long distances, and even those who are may need time to work up to the pace and distance of their human workout partners.

It’s also important to realize that while some dogs love to run, others prefer brisk walks or vigorous play sessions instead, and you’ll want to accommodate your dog’s exercise preferences. In other words, don’t try to force a pet who prefers power walks or retrieving tennis balls to become a long-distance runner.

Assuming your dog enjoys it, however, the two of you can grow into a great running team. But before you start vigorously exercising with your dog, pay a visit to your veterinarian for a wellness checkup to be sure she’s a good fit for the kind of running you plan to do. Her age, breed, general health and fitness level will factor into your running program.

Many well-conditioned older dogs still enjoy running, but they may need a slower pace or a shorter route. You’ll also need to keep a close eye out for signs of stress or overexertion.

Young dogs are often ideal running partners with plenty of energy to burn, but they should only go for regular runs once they’ve reached skeletal maturity, which means their growth plates have closed and there’s less risk of injury. Generally speaking, this occurs at about 1 year of age, although it may be somewhat sooner for small dogs and later (around 18 months) for larger breeds.

Certain dog breeds, such as brachycephalic dogs (those with flat faces, including Pugs, Bulldogs and Boxers), may have more trouble breathing on runs, so take this into account as well.

Plan Ahead for Runs With Your Dog

If you’re planning to exercise with your dog, consistency is key in keeping him well-conditioned. A daily workout is ideal, because like people, dogs need consistent exercise to maintain muscle tone and cardiovascular fitness, and prevent muscle wasting. During runs, set a pace that elevates your dog’s heart rate (for about 20 minutes per session) without causing him to overexert himself.

Be sure to bring enough water along on your runs to keep both of you well-hydrated. You can use either a portable, fold-up bowl for your dog, or a special adapter that attaches to the top of most standard water bottles and allows your dog to drink from your bottle. Offer your dog water at least every 30 minutes during a trail run.

Other items you’ll need on your runs are a leash, harness and poop bags. Whenever your dog will be on leash, I recommend using either a head collar or no-pull harness. A traditional collar can pose a risk of injury to your dog’s neck or back if he pulls at all. And skip retractable leashes, which may lead to injuries, and instead choose a flat leash that is no longer than 6 feet.

The other important consideration is making sure the trail you choose allows dogs. For instance, dogs are not allowed on trails in most U.S. national parks.

Dogs are only able to sweat through their paw pads and must pant to cool down, so keep in mind that your dog runs the risk of overheating much faster than you do. Avoid running with your dog during the heat of the day or when it’s very cold outside. Snow and ice pose a risk of injury to dogs, and some breeds don’t tolerate cold weather well (including short-haired and small breed dogs).

It’s important to keep a close eye on your dog during a run and adapt your pace and route as necessary. This may include cutting it short if your dog is too tired, or skipping a rough area of terrain that could injure her paws.

She should be able to keep pace running alongside or just slightly ahead of you. If she drops behind, assume the pace is too fast for her, and commit to gradually working her up to longer runs. By observing your dog, you’ll quickly learn whether she’s suited to be your running buddy. If she eagerly anticipates your runs and easily keeps up with you, you’ll know you’ve found a running buddy.