Just days after Dave and I started dating, I stole Sora and took her out for an 11-mile trail run in Portland’s Forest Park with my running group. I had always wanted a dog who could keep up on my long runs and Sora fit the bill from day one. Since that first run, we’ve logged thousands of miles over dirt together, including a 20-mile race a few years ago, and I’ve since gained a bit of knowledge on running with a dog.
Running with your dog is a great way to tire your them out on a regular basis, keep them healthy and active, and also bond with them. Before your dog starts to join you on the trails, there are some important details to consider. The guide below will help get you started on the right foot and help ensure long term health and enjoyment for both you and your dog.
What makes a good running dog?
Some dog breeds are better suited for running longer distances, while others should stick to shorter runs. Dogs like vizslas, Australian shepherds, border collies, German short haired pointers, and Rhodesian ridgebacks are a few breeds that make great long distance running partners.
Our favorite running breed is of course, the Australian Shepherd. See why we think they make the best adventure dogs.
Smaller dogs and those with short legs like corgis, terriers, bull terriers, and Papillons can still join their humans on runs, but should probably stick to shorter distances of 2-3 miles. Great Danes, because of their extra large size should generally also stick to shorter runs.
Brachycephalic, or smoosh-faced dogs like pugs and bulldogs are not the best candidates for running. Their respiratory system does not allow for long term heavy exercise and they can overheat easily.
Monitor your pup when you do head out for a run and ask yourself whether or not he truly enjoys running. Positive signals include tail wagging or other excited behaviors at the sight of the running leash, shoes, etc., ability to keep up on runs, and general enthusiasm during the exercise.
When can I start running with my dog?
It depends on the age of your dog. If you have a puppy, the general rule is to wait to start forced running (I’ll explain in a moment) until the dog’s growth plates have completed development. Depending on the size of the dog, this can be anywhere between 8 and 18 months. As an example, small dogs will be able to run earlier, whereas those with larger dogs will have to wait.
We decided to get x-rays of Laila at one year old to determine whether she was physically able to begin running longer distances with us without worry of injury (she was, yay!). Before hitting the trail, check with your veterinarian and get the green light. Starting before a dog’s bones have not finished growing can damage join and bone development and lead to serious medical problems later in life, including early arthritis, hip dysplasia, and fractures.
Ok, so what is “forced running?” It’s when you “force” your dog to go a certain distance at your speed. For example, if you’re headed out on a five-mile run with your dog, then they will also run that five miles. The difference between forced running and running at the park or sprinting back and forth off leash on trail is that your dog can stop and rest, sniff, whatever when they need a break.
Training Your Dog to Run
Before starting to run with a dog, they should first already know how to walk nicely on leash. Runs where your dog pulls most of the time are not fun. Truuuuust me.
Your first several runs should not really involve much running at all. Start out slowly and increase speed and distance over the course of several weeks. Use a command to indicate you’re about to increase your pace, like “let’s go running!” Start out by jogging around a park with few distractions. Next, head somewhere there is more temptation, like people, other dogs, and squirrels.
You eventually want to reach a point where both you and your dog feel comfortable running together without worry of distraction or reaction toward other dogs or people. The goal is to show your dog this is a version of walking, only at a faster pace.
Many dogs can safely run 20-40 miles per week. The key is building distance slowly over time, just like you would for yourself. If you’re three months into marathon training, don’t take your pup out on that 20-miler just because they have endless energy. Like any training, gradually build up distance, no more than 10% per week. Look for a training plan that involves running and walking, like Jeff Galloway’s training plans and monitor your dog’s stamina as you begin. Take note of whether they’re panting a lot, limping, or slowing down after a certain distance.
If you’re just starting out with your dog, follow a plan like a Couch to 5k. Or, if you’re already training for a half marathon or marathon, have your dog join you on your warm up or on your easy days, starting with once or twice per week.
Gear for running with a dog:
Hands-free leashes are the only way I’ll run with a dog now. Since we trail run, I like having both arms to help with balance. Sora was never 100% trustworthy off leash if other dogs were present, and Laila definitely is not yet skilled in her running obedience (#huntingdogsyndrome). This means, they stay on leash fairly often. I’ve used several in my time and here are a few of my favorites:
When I need to bring treats or want to bring my phone, I use a running belt + spring leash combination like the Kurgo Springback Leash + K9 Excursion Running Belt or the Ruffwear Trail Running System (which I also mention below). Both include water bottles, holders, and a pocket to store a phone, poop bags, keys, etc. I’ve used both combinations for longer runs without any chafing. They can easily go from Dave to me and back with an easy adjustment of the the slider belt.
I do love that the Ruffwear system has one extra mesh pocket where I keep training treats and the zippered pocket is a bit bigger, though neither seems to accommodate my phone perfectly. I prefer the leash connection carabiner on the Kurgo waist belt compared to the loop on the Ruffwear belt. Really, you can’t go wrong with either one, it’s just a matter of your necessities and comfort.
My very favorite go-to, multi-purpose leash is the Ruffwear Slackline Leash. It goes from a walk around your neighborhood, to your trail run, to your next backpacking trip, to the brewery. When I don’t need to carry anything or have my hydration pack and just want to run hands-free, this is my leash choice.
The handle has an easy sliding adjustment and a clip, so you can attach it to your waist, a table, your backpack, you name it. Further, there is another sliding adjustment toward the end that clips to the collar, so you can adjust the length of the leash to your preference. It’s lightweight and has a reflective band down the center, so it’s great for early morning winter runs in the dark.
For more on why we love this leash, see our review here.
For those who want something in between hands-free and off-leash running the Release N Run collar from My Rad Dog is the perfect choice. This short retractable leash within a collar is brilliant. It’s been a game changer for us running with Sora off-leash. I was skeptical when we first tried this product. See it’s, designed for the “mostly off-leash dog.” And Sora, well, she’s a mostly on-leash dog. She’s unpredictable with new people and other dogs, so we keep her on leash most of the time.
However, when we’re running with her on a low-traffic trail that we know well or one that allows off-leash dogs, this is our go to collar and leash combination. She runs in between Dave and me, so we always know where she is and can react quickly if we see someone ahead. The Release N Run has a handy loop that we can grab on to in a jiffy if need be. The retractable leash is short, so she can’t get too far, even if she pulls.
Treats are an essential part of running with a dog. We take every opportunity to work with our dogs and that includes during runs. Our go to dog treats are Zuke’s Mini Naturals. They are small and so you can fit a ton into a small pocket to ensure you have plenty to last the run.
What about a harness? We don’t use harnesses much with running. They tend to teach our dogs to pull and we have less control over them, so we just don’t use them. If you are keen to try one, we’d recommend those that have a front clip, which forces your dog to turn with you. The Ruffwear Front Range Harness is a great choice.
Essential Commands for Off-Leash Running
Of course, before you start any of this, make sure that your dog has good leash etiquette. I’ve run with dogs who have no idea how to walk on a leash or are not trained to ignore other people and dogs and it’s not fun. Aside from leash etiquette, there are a few basic commands your dog should know that will keep the peace on the trails for everyone.
Whether your dog is motivated by food or toys, don’t leave them behind. We use every walk, run, and hike as a training opportunity. If Sora knows our hands are empty, she goes into full Ignore Mode. And Laila, well, she just usually ignores us.
Recall. This is an essential command to master before giving full freedom. This will keep your pup within sight, away from other people and dogs, and avoid any potential altercations on the trail.
“Leave It” Just as important as recall is ensuring your dog will keep away from a dangerous hazard when you tell her to. Depending on the location, dogs may encounter rattlesnakes and other wildlife, non-potable water, or other dogs and people.
“Look” Look is our #1 essential most important command. We say it before anything. “Sora, look. Sora, sit.” “Sora, look. Sora, come.” You get the picture. The “look” command gets her attention to focus solely on you. This is especially crucial when we have her off-leash.
“Follow Me” Like heel, this command trains your dog to run behind you. It’s great for getting started with off leash training, running on single track trails or bridges, or when you need to run single file to avoid a group of people.
These commands all transfer to hiking as well. If you like to hike with your dog off-leash, then you need to read the Hiking with Dogs Trail Etiquette Manifesto. Please, for the sake of all users.
Running in Hot Weather
In hotter months, we only run in the mornings or evenings, when the temperatures are cooler. If it’s over 75°, then Sora stays at home and we take her to a river or lake to cool off. Watch for signs of overheating like excessive panting and malaise when it’s hot and take frequent water breaks to ensure they stay hydrated.
If your path takes you on pavement, check the heat of the ground by holding the back of your hand to the road for at least 5 seconds. If it’s too hot for you, then it’s too hot for your pup.
Gear to include during hot weather runs:
A cooling vest helps keep your dog cool on warmer days. Simply soak the vest in cool water, ring it out, and put it on your dog. We have used both the Kurgo Core Cooling Vest and the Ruffwear Swamp Cooler and like them equally.
Don’t forget a water bottle for yourself and your dog. I mentioned earlier that I love belt systems like the Ruffwear Trail Runner System that includes a water bottle and holder.
For longer runs, I bring my Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta (which is specifically designed for women. They have models for dudes, as well!). The vest comes with two 0.5L water bottles and also has space for a water reservoir. The vest enables me to bring enough water for the both of us.
Alternatively, I’ll try to plan a run with access to water sources. If your dog doesn’t know how to drink from your water reservoir straw, bring along a foldable dog bowl like the Ruffwear quencher that packs down into a tiny square.
For more on keeping your safe in hot weather, read:
At the other extreme, winter cold can affect your dog as well. Dogs with short coats may require a jacket. When running in the snow, check for ice balls accumulated in your dog’s paws or snow balls on their fur. If you notice them limping, that’s probably the cause.
There are a couple of ways to protect your pup’s paws from the winter elements. The first option is a boot, like the Ruffwear Polar Trex booties. The Vibram sole provides traction, and the insulated softshell fabric offers breathable, weatherproof protection in cold and inclement weather.
If you don’t want to go with booties, a wax-based paw balm like Musher’s Secret protects the paws from ice, snow, salt, and chemicals used on pavement during the winter months. Several brands make safe paw balms for dogs, or you can make your own with an easy recipe like this one from Every Day Dog Mom.
Know Your Dog
Different dogs are better suited for running longer distances, while others are great for shorter runs. I know Sora loves running because she wags her tail when I get out her running leash. She wants to continue running long after we’ve completed our 15-mile training run. Not all dogs are this gung ho about the sport. Monitor your pup and ask yourself whether or not he truly enjoys running.