Want to take your dog running? Check out these 9 training tips to make Fido a happy and healthy workout companion

By Karla Bruning
January 30, 2015
Corbis Images

If you're the owner of a four-legged friend (of the canine variety, at least), you probably know that running is mutually beneficial. "Running with your dog gives you a bit more motivation, bonding time, and something you can both look forward to," says Jt Clough, professional dog trainer business coach, nine-time Ironman finisher, and author of 5K Training Guide: Running with Dogs. At the very least, "when it's raining and your dog is standing there, tail wagging, it'll motivate you to go anyway." (It sure helps these celebs stay fit: 11 Adorable Celeb Pets That Work Out.)

Plus, Rover needs the exercise: 53 percent of dogs are overweight, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. And, just like humans, that puts our canines at higher risk for a medley of maladies, including an earlier death-up to two and a half years. It can even affect their personality: "A lot of behavioral issues come from a lack of exercise," Clough warns.

As with people, pets need a healthy diet and good dose of exercise to live a longer, healthier life. But while we share this aspect, dogs do have different fitness, health, and nutrition needs than humans. Here are 9 expert tips for keeping your pooch in top shape while pounding the pavement.

Get Checked First

Just like humans, canines should see a doctor before starting any new exercise routine. Ask a veterinarian that specializes in rehabilitation medicine for a biomechanical exam, especially if you're looking to put in serious miles, suggests Jessica Waldman, veterinarian, canine rehabilitation therapist, and medical director of California Animal Rehabilitation. The vet can alert you to any pre-existing conditions that might affect your dog's ability to go the distance, as well as give you warm-ups, cool-downs, and stretches for your furry athlete. "If you're doing all of that for yourself, you need to do it for your dog too," Waldman says. (Dogs help keep us healthy! Top 15 Ways Puppies Improve Your Health.)

Age Matters

Have a puppy? "Dogs shouldn't start running until their growth plates are closed," Waldman warns. That means waiting until your pup is one to two years old, depending on the breed.

At the other end of the spectrum, middle-aged and older dogs might need to slow it down. "Dogs age really fast," Waldman says. "A year in a large breed dog is seven to 10 years in your life." Starting at age five or six, be vigilant about your dog's health and energy levels. One year could be the difference between an enthusiastic running buddy and one with arthritis or back pain.

If your aging pet isn't as quick to get up and out the door, it might be time to slow things down. "They get inflammation like we do," says Clough, who suggests glucosamine and coconut oil to reduce inflammation. "But it's important to not stop altogether-keep them moving." Make workouts shorter or switch to walking. For example, Clough's nine-year-old Weimaraner runs three to five miles at a time instead of the eight to 10 she hoofed as a younger dog.

Consider Their Breed

Some dog breeds were born to run, but some were not. Many flat-faced breeds with breathing issues, like pugs and bulldogs, are not meant to be endurance athletes, Waldman says. But boxers are great runners, Clough says-except when it's hot or humid outside. Waldman also cautions owners of long-backed, short-legged dogs like dachshunds, bassets, shih-tzus and some poodles, who could be prone to back problems. On the flip side, many medium and large-but not giant-breeds make great running companions: border collies, some terriers, vizslas, weimaraners and German pointers.

But more important than breed is your dog's temperament and fitness needs. "Every dog needs exercise," Clough says. "For most dogs, training them to walk or run up to two or three miles is perfectly acceptable." So don't let your dog's DNA become an excuse not to exercise them at all. (But try one of these 4 Ways to Get Fit with Fido that aren't running.)

Help Him Warm Up

Just like humans, a well-rounded dog does more than simply run. "Prepare their bodies for physical exertion, just as you would your own," says Waldman. "Your dog is less likely to injure itself if you take a few minutes to warm-up and stretch their muscles and joints." She suggests 10 minutes of brisk walking before running. Afterwards, cool them down with a 5- to 10-minute walk.

And don't forget strength training. "Pets should be doing strengthening in addition to cardio," says Waldman. She suggests a slow walk in deep sand or slow, controlled hike for strength training.

Build Endurance

If your dog is brand new to running, start with just five minutes, Waldman suggests, and at most 15 minutes, says Clough. "Make sure you don't take off and do seven miles with a dog with no fitness," Clough says. "People think that dogs are born fit. They're not. Their bodies have to adapt to exercise just like a person's."

After a week at five to 15 minutes, add another five to 10 minutes, Clough says. But always let your pooch be your guide. "After 20 minutes of running, does your pet have the same speed and energy?" Waldman asks. If the answer is yes, you can safely keep going. If not, time to walk and take them home.

During Your Run

Dogs can't tell us when they're tired, sore, or in real pain, so you have to be vigilant for them. But (wo)man's best friends will push themselves beyond their limits to please us. "There are some dogs who will keep on going way past the point that they should," Clough says. "Many people have a hard time seeing that their dog is struggling."

During exercise, closely watch your pup's pace, tail position, breathing, and gait. "The most important and easiest thing to monitor is pace," Waldman says. "Your pet should be next to you or in front of you without coaxing from beginning to end." If he starts lagging behind, it's time to stop. How do you know when it's exhaustion and not subbornness? Your dog's tail position and breathing should be the same from start to finish. "If the tail drops or if their panting is louder or more labored, that's a sign they're working too hard," Waldman says. Heavy or accelerated panting signals that their heart rate is too high, Clough says. And if your pal starts foaming at the mouth, stop immediately, get them water, and cool them off. (Try these Top 7 Ways to Stay Hydrated on Long-Distance Runs.)

Finally, a major change in gait is warning sign of fatigue, weakness or injury. Depending on speed, most dogs will run at a trot, canter, or gallop-much like a horse. But dogs in distress run with a gait known as a "pace." "Pets that have pain or a problem will run with one whole side of their body moving together," Waldman says. If your dog is moving their right front and hind legs forward together while balancing wholly on their left side, then alternating, it's time to stop and walk.

Pay Attention to Paws and Weather

"We wear shoes, but they don't," Clough says. (Need new ones yourself? Try one of these 14 Shoes to Make You Fitter, Faster, and Slimmer.) Be as obsessive about your dog's paws as you are about your own running running shoes. "Check their paw for sore spots," Clough says. In hot weather, be especially mindful of burning ground surfaces. "Sometimes people don't realize how hot the pavement is," says Clough, who lives in Maui. She suggests checking the ground with the palm of your hand before leashing up Fido. And in frigid temps, don't make it a long run for your furry friend. "If they're out too long in the cold, they can get frostbite," Clough cautions.

Pay special attention to the heat: "Humidity is one of the worst things for dogs, because they don't have sweat glands," says Clough. "What would it feel like if the only place you could sweat was your tongue, the bottoms of feet, and palms of your hands?" she asks. So be especially mindful of warning signs on soupy days.

Watch For Lingering Soreness

Just like us, animal athletes get injured. And just like us, running-induced aches and pains might not crop up until the next day. "If your pet doesn't tolerate running, you don't always see signs during the run," Waldman says. "They might be low energy, lethargic, or tired the next day." Waldman encourages runners to check-in with their pup the day after a run. "The dog should be unfazed," she says, adding that a tired dog could be an injured one, especially if they're normally enthusiastic.

The most common ailments in dog runners are tears of the ACL ligament and back pain, says Waldman. Watch for subtle signs of limping while walking or leaning to one side when standing. And note your dog's behavior: "Any behavior change is a sign that something is wrong," Waldman says. "If your pet is laying down more instead of following you around the house, or normally runs to the door but seems reluctant, they're likely in pain." (Don't forget your own stretching! The Best Ways to Avoid Injury While Training for a Marathon.)

Meet Their Nutritional Needs

When it comes to sports nutrition, dogs are slightly different: Protein is still key, but they burn fat instead of carbohydrates to fuel activity. "Any canine athlete needs more protein and also antioxidants in their diet," says Waldman, who advocates feeding your dog real food. Yams, sweet potato, and cooked broccoli are options she likes to mix in with chicken, fish, and other proteins. "Wait at least an hour after they've eaten to take them for a run," Clough says. And don't let them gulp down a bowl of water just before either. "It can cause bloat," she warns.

Offer your dog water every 15 to 20 minutes while on the run, Waldman says. Even though they don't sweat, they need just as much water as we do. But don't share your sports drink or gel with Spot. Dogs don't need carbs for performance and sports drinks can cause canine gastrointestinal distress, according to research in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. Now, leash up and get out there-it'll pay off for both of you!