Dogs Experience a 'Runner’s High' Too

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

run with your dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • The runner’s high sensation, which helps encourage the habit of exercising, isn’t unique to humans
  • Other species that are hard-wired for running may experience similar responses after runs
  • Levels of anandamide, an endocannabinoid neurotransmitter, increased in dogs and humans following running, but remained unchanged in ferrets, which are not natural runners
  • Considering that running has a high energy cost, the chemical reward that dogs and people receive as a result may explain why we both keep running, regardless; it helps make running fun
  • If your dog is in good health and the weather is moderate, you and your dog can hit the pavement (or trail) together and enjoy the resulting euphoria

If you’ve ever experienced the rush that often comes after a run or other intense aerobic activity, you know about the feeling of a “runner’s high.” But this sensation, which helps encourage the habit of exercising, isn’t unique to humans. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that other animals, namely dogs, also get that feel-good response after exercise, perhaps due to the production of endocannabinoids in both species.1

Greg Gerdeman with Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, who co-authored the study, told National Geographic, "Endocannabinoids are molecules that are often referred to as the body's own marijuana-like substances, because they activate similar cellular receptors."2

The researchers thought that other species hard-wired for running may experience similar responses after runs, so they looked into such effects in humans, dogs and ferrets — the last group being included because they’re not known to run.

Dogs and Humans Share the Experience of a Runner’s High

The study involved eight dogs, eight ferrets and 10 humans, who ran and walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes while researchers collected blood samples before and after. Levels of anandamide, an endocannabinoid neurotransmitter, increased in the dogs and humans following the run, but remained unchanged in the ferrets and in all the species following a walk. According to the study:3

“Humans report a wide range of neurobiological rewards following moderate and intense aerobic activity, popularly referred to as the ‘runner’s high’, which may function to encourage habitual aerobic exercise. Endocannabinoids (eCBs) are endogenous neurotransmitters that appear to play a major role in generating these rewards by activating cannabinoid receptors in brain reward regions during and after exercise.

Other species also regularly engage in endurance exercise (cursorial mammals), and as humans share many morphological traits with these taxa, it is possible that exercise-induced eCB signaling motivates habitual high-intensity locomotor behaviors in cursorial mammals.”

The human participants reported feeling happier following the activity, and their mood boost corresponded to their levels of anandamide, with greater boosts in mood associated with higher levels of the neurotransmitter.4 Considering that running has a high energy cost, the chemical reward that dogs and people receive as a result may explain why we both keep running — it helps make running fun.

“A neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors,” the researchers noted.5

Should Your Dog Be Your Workout Buddy?

Sharing a runner’s high with your best furry pal is just one more way to increase the bond you share. Further, the Journal of Physical Activity and Health published a study that found when people include their dogs in their routine exercise schedules, they’re 2.5 times more likely to reach their fitness goals.6 Not to mention, most family dogs do not get the vigorous exercise they need on a daily basis, so going for a jog together could help meet this need for you and your pet.

If your dog is a natural-born runner, you probably already know it. Hunting and sporting breed dogs often enjoy runs, including Australian cattle dogs, border collies, Weimaraners, greyhounds, dalmatians, whippets, mixed breeds and others.

On the other hand, generally speaking, brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, including the pug, English bulldog, French bulldog, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Boston terrier, Shih Tzu and Pekingese, are not good candidates for a running partner due to respiratory difficulties.

Dogs that are young (less than a year old) should avoid long runs until they’ve stopped growing, to reduce the risk of injury. Likewise, older dogs may need to slow down their runs or avoid them altogether if they have orthopedic disease or arthritis.

Enjoying Runs With Your Dog

If your dog is in good health and the weather is moderate, you and your dog can hit the pavement (or trail) together and enjoy the resulting euphoria. You’ll need to work up to longer runs slowly and pay attention to your dog’s reactions. If she drops behind you, you’re going too fast, and if she stops altogether, she’s had enough.

For active owners looking for a four-legged workout buddy, choosing a high-energy dog who enjoys running is essential, as is going out prepared. Bring water for your dog, just as you do for yourself, along with a fold-up bowl, and if the weather is too hot or cold, skip the run that day.

Be sure to use a no-pull harness for your dog. Skip retractable leashes or traditional collars that may injure your dog’s neck or back if she pulls.

Once you’ve ensured your dog is fit for a jog, do your research to find the best trails for you both — those with soft terrain and shade will be best — trails with sharp rocks or hot surfaces could injure your dog’s paws. After a few runs together, your dog will probably come to anticipate the activity, eagerly awaiting your next jog, and resulting runner’s high, together.

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