So You Wanna Start Trail Running With Your Dog

My local Nextdoor webpage has been filled with people discussing dogs and trails. Mostly etiquette, but also lots of posts from hikers expressing concern that owners running with their dogs are hurting or distressing them. I’ve been forwarding this post an awful lot lately, so we thought it a good time to reprise it here on the homepage. – Ed.

I knew very little about dog management when I first took my dog Sora for a run in Portland’s Forest Park many years ago. I learned a few things from that run, (like why Sora should be on leash most of the time), and I knew that I had found my perfect running buddy. 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 learned quite a bit more about running with a dog. If you’re thinking of getting a running buddy yourself, start here with this guide.

When to Start Running with a Dog
Be sure to consult a veterinarian before you hit the trails with your pup. The starting age varies among breeds and sizes, and it is generally recommended that a dog not begin a strenuous activity like running until they are at least six or seven months old. For some breeds, it may fall into the one or two-year-old range. Running can cause damage to a puppy’s joints and bones if they haven’t yet fully formed.

Similarly, be gentle with older dogs who need to build up their stamina for longer distances as fast speeds. Doing too much too soon can result in injuries like hip dysplasia, joint pain, or can stress their heart.

How to Start Running with a Dog
Start out slowly. If you’re three months into marathon training, don’t take your pup out on that 20-miler just yet. Like any training, slowly build up distance over time, no more than 10 percent in gains per week. Look for a training plan that involves running and walking 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.

Essential Commands to Use When Running with a Dog
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.

“Leave It” Sora could go on a sniff fest all day if I let her. I try not to allow her to sniff during our run because it’s interruptive. Instead, I’ll let her sniff around while I get ready in the parking lot or while I’m stretching before the run and then again after we finish.

Similarly, we use “Leave it” when we’re crossing paths with other dogs or when she’s aiming for some gross water to drink.

“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.

“Heel” Have you run with a dog that loves to pull you or lag behind? It can be super frustrating. Depending on the width of the trail on which we run, I have trained Sora to run either at my side or just behind me, but never ahead of me. I want to know exactly where she is at all times in case another dog or trail user comes along.

The key to nailing this command is to stay consistent with a side. Sora always runs on my right side (unless we’re road running and there is no sidewalk, then she runs on the inside).

It’s best to be sure your dog always runs behind you. Photo: Sotolongo

Best Gear for Running with a Dog
We use a variety of gear when we run with Sora, depending on the type of terrain (trail vs. road), where we are (can she be off-leash?), and whether I need to carry a few items (keys, poop bags, etc.).

K9 Excursion Running Belt and Springback Leash
I love this belt + leash combination. When I started running with Sora, all I had was a long-running spring leash that didn’t allow me to control Sora at all. She would stretch as far as the belt limitation, which resulted in not being able to react quickly if I needed to pull her close for any reason.

The Kurgo Springback Leash and K9 Excursion Running Belt combination is fantastic. We run with the 30-inch leash, which keeps her close but still gives her some lead. If you run on more narrow singletrack, then opt for the 40-inch leash.

The belt is super comfortable and surprisingly holds a lot of items in its pockets. I’ve run up to 12 miles with it and have never experienced chafing. At times, I’ll need to carry poop bags, a phone (smaller phones will fit) or GoPro (both won’t fit at once), and keys. It also comes with a small water bottle to carry on longer runs.

My Rad Dog Release N Run Dog Leash
This short retractable leash within a collar is brilliant. It’s been a game changer when running with Sora off-leash. I was skeptical when we first tried this product. 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.

Ruffwear Slackline Leash
This is my dream leash. It is the best multi-purpose leash out there, in my opinion. It goes from a walk around your neighborhood, to your trail run, to your next backpacking trip, to the brewery. It does it ALL!

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. I used it recently to tie Sora to a tree while I packed up camp on a backpacking trip. 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.

And, one of my favorite parts is the Talon Clip that attaches to the collar. Every leash maker seems to use the trigger pull. I really dislike these. They always get stuck, they’re hard to use with gloves, and they hurt my fingers when it’s cold out. The Talon Clip pinches open with ease, gloved or bare handed. #winning

Bring an old towel from home and leave it in the car, ready for your return. During winter months, a towel is essential to clean mud off dirty paws. Your dog may want to run and cool off in a river or lake along the run, so the towel will help keep your car clean.

And don’t forget the poop bags! Also be sure to hydrate your dog after running, especially on hot days.

Always be sure you’re not tiring your dog to the point of exhaustion. Photo: Sotolongo

Hydrating Your Dog Before, After, and During a Run
If we’re going for a short run, anything under five or six miles, I don’t worry too much about the before and during part, but I always make sure there is water waiting for her in the car or at home immediately after we finish.

If we’re going for a longer run, especially if it’s a hot day, I’ll carry water and a small collapsible bowl for Sora. The collapsible Dexas travel cup is great because it can clip to a handheld water bottle, or fit into my Nathan hydration pack.

To ensure she’s had plenty of water before we head out, I’ll drown her kibble in a bit of water, a half a cup to a cup or so.

A Few Considerations to Note When Running with a Dog
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 degrees, 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 offer your dog water frequently.

If your path takes you on the 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.

Running in Cold Weather and Snow
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. If you notice them limping, that’s probably the cause. Booties can help eliminate the chance of painful ice balls.

Flora and Fauna
Learn to identify any potentially hazardous plants for your dog. The barbed seed heads of foxtails, for example, can work their way into your dog’s body and lead to serious infection or even death. Here is a full list of plants that are toxic to dogs from the ASPCA.

Depending on where you’re running and the time of year, perform a tick check on your dog after every run. They love it. It feels like a massage.

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.

Top Photo: Olgierd Rudak

See more of Jen Sotolongo’s advice on being active with dogs at Long Haul Trekkers.



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