Why your dog is one of the best running buddies you can get

Morris and I are running on the beach together. Ears flat, tail horizontal, mouth open, he’s an aerodynamic streak of white and ginger. He turns his head to make eye contact at regular intervals – it’s a glance that says both ‘OK?’ and ‘Cor, this is fun isn’t it?’

And he’s right. There’s something very special about running with your dog. While you may not have a penchant for squeaky toys, and he may not get excited about gardening, running is an experience that the two of you can share with equal enthusiasm and, as fellow endurance beasts, a rough match of ability.

‘Running is in a dog’s DNA,’ says Jenny Lee, an experienced canicross racer and coach. ‘It makes evolutionary sense; they needed to run in order to hunt, so a psychological reward helped motivate them.’ In fact, research from the University of Arizona, US, found that dogs experience a runner’s high just as we do.

Running has certainly been Morris’s saving grace. The fox terrier-Jack Russell cross came to us via a rescue centre, when his former owners reached the end of their tether with his frequent escapes. He had energy to burn and being restricted to walkies on the lead was barely scratching the surface.

He took to running straight away
 – happy to fall into step with us and forgo the fascinating smells in the undergrowth for the excitement of running with the ‘pack’. And he loves to pull. If he caught his reflection in a shop window, I think he’d be shocked to see a pint-sized terrier looking back and not a strapping husky.

Paws for thought

Canicross was the obvious next step. ‘It’s the fastest-growing dog sport in the UK,’ says Lee. Canicross involves racing off-road while tethered to your four-legged friend. Events range from the non-competitive ‘run for fun’ end of the spectrum to national, regional and world championships.

Runners wear a belt around their hips and 
lower back – at the 
elite level, they are 
pulled along by their 
dogs to achieve race 
times they’d never
 manage without the
 assistance of canine
 power. But if my first event is anything to go by, you could find it takes twice as long as usual to cover a given distance, thanks to Rover roving off to rustle in the bushes.

And that’s where a little training comes in. ‘There’s more to canicross than just running,’ says Lee. ‘It’s about developing your dog’s focus and skills and learning how to work as a team.’ Canicross classes allow you and your dog to develop these skills and build fitness.

In Lee’s classes dogs run the gauntlet of ‘temptation alley,’ filled with distractions such as toys, balls and pushchairs, to teach them to focus. ‘Since canicross races are often in parks or woodland, there’s likely to be a wealth of distractions, from cyclists and ducks to half-eaten doughnuts,’ she explains. You also work on passing – and being passed by – other dogs, changing pace and using directional commands. (You wouldn’t believe how proud I am that Morris now knows left from right.)

Lee began running with her young labrador, Tilly, seven years ago, taking up canicross a year later. ‘The running gave me a break from a busy work and home life and gave us both exercise,’ she says. Since then, with her two kelpies, Gilby and Zula, she’s placed in the top 20 at the European canicross championships, won a handful of local races and set the local parkrun record. ‘My canicross 5K PB is around three minutes faster than when I’m running alone,’ she says.

While you can’t turbocharge every race with a canine companion, the benefits of dog running do spill over into your regular running. ‘You’ll run faster than you’ve ever run in your life, which means you’ll need to focus on your form,’ says Lee. ‘And you’ll develop a strong core, to maintain good posture while you’re being pulled forward.’ After a few trips and near misses, I can also attest that a canine-enforced crash course in learning to stop, leap or change direction suddenly is great for agility, reaction speed and nimble-footedness on mixed terrain.

Of course, your pedigree chum will benefit too. ‘Running is great for a dog’s musculoskeletal health and cardiovascular fitness as well as stimulating their brain and, often, improving behaviour,’ says Lee. That means reduced vet bills for you and a longer, healthier life for your dog.

Most dogs are ready to run at the drop of a tennis ball, but no matter how fit he seems, he’ll need time to build up to prolonged periods of running, just like a human would. The oft-quoted 10 per cent rule holds good for dogs as well as it does for humans in terms of increasing distance per week. Roads are fine for short periods, but Lee recommends sticking to trails where possible, as asphalt can be hard on their joints as well as their paw pads. ‘Increase training gradually and allow adequate rest days,’ she advises. ‘Dogs aren’t always good at letting you know that they’ve had enough, because they want to be with you – so keep an eye on them during and after runs to see how they are responding.’

Pack drill

In runner Gary Turner’s case, such monitoring is even more crucial, given that he clocks up 20-30-mile training runs – and even longer ultra-marathon races – with his two Siberian huskies, Harley (7) and Max (6 ½).

‘I constantly monitor their condition during races – their behaviour, their tongues and especially their tails – but huskies are very good at what they do: if they’re hot, they’ll slow down, if they’re thirsty, they’ll look for water.’

Gary, 46, a former kick-
boxer and mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, decided to get 
dogs to help motivate him to stay 
fit and healthy after retiring from competitive sport. ‘Huskies are the endurance athletes of the animal kingdom,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the reasons I selected the breed. I knew it would ensure I exercised every day, twice a day minimum.’

Turner, from North Hampshire, runs Harley and Max on leads, canicross-style, owing to their ‘immense prey drive, selective hearing and the ability to cover great distances very quickly. They’re always really excited before we go, and quickly get ‘on task’, working as a single unit.’
Each autumn, the trio builds up to running 100-120 miles a week together in preparation for winter and spring ultra marathons (before it gets too hot for the dogs). ‘They love ultra marathons,’ says Turner. ‘The mental stimulation racing offers matches the physical stimulation. Our favourite is the 44.5-mile Might Contain Nuts Winter Brecon race – we’ve had snow, ice and 120mph headwinds but nothing stops them – the worse the conditions, the more they seem to enjoy it.’

‘Sometimes I get shouts of “that’s cheating!” in ultra marathons but, hey, I’m never going to win, even with their help. I run for fun and to have adventures with my dogs. Running is ‘our time’ – it helps us bond. We’re a team and a family.’

Angela Mudge does win races – in fact she’s a five-time winner of the British Fell Running Championships along with numerous other mountain races – but her Jack Russell terriers, Canna (10) and Tegan (5), are training buddies rather than race mates. The dogs don’t accompany her when she’s running on flat trails because they can barely keep up with their speedy owner, but the Scottish hills are the perfect playground for them.

‘As a breed, Jack Russells have lots of stamina so they are in their element running in the hills,’ says Mudge. ‘They set off with boundless energy and can easily manage three hours.’ There are no waistbelts, harnesses or directional commands here: Canna and Tegan run off lead unless there is livestock around, and come back (in their own time, says Mudge) on the whistle.

Like their owner, the dogs prefer climbing to descending. ‘If it’s stony underfoot they are slower downhill than me!’ she says. They even join in on hill reps, sort of: ‘the more intelligent dog sits in the middle, watching, while the other one legs it up and down.’

Mudge says that running with her dogs has strengthened the bond between them. ‘If we’re tackling some difficult terrain, they can sense my nervousness and know they need to be a bit more cautious too,’ she explains.

She also believes that most of us two-legged runners could learn a thing or two from our canine companions. ‘Dogs just get on with it,’ she says. ‘They don’t complain about the weather or the conditions underfoot or worry about running below par; they live for the moment and just pick themselves up after a small injury. I think we should all run and appreciate the smells and experiences along the way rather than worrying so much about our performance on the run.’

A friend in lead

Learning to run – and enjoy it – is a journey that Tanya Ennis and her Staffie, Dexter, went on together. ‘Three years ago I was heavily overweight and suffering with depression and social anxiety,’ says Tanya, 41, from Manchester. ‘I decided to get a dog to help ensure that I got out of the house each day for something other than work.’

Tanya took on the partially blind Dexter from a rescue centre. ‘He needed a minimum of two long walks a day, and I soon began to lose weight from all the walking. Then one day, he bolted after a squirrel while still on his lead, taking me with him. I was amazed I could actually run a little, and decided to give it a proper go.’ The next day at the crack of dawn, they ran between two trees, rested, ran again, rested – and gradually built from there.

Nowadays, Dexter greets Tanya at 5:30am every morning, spinning in excited circles as he sees her pull
 on her running gear. ‘We run 5km three or four times a week, 10km on Sundays, and regularly do the local parkrun,’ she says.

Tanya made a smart decision. Research clearly shows that having a dog is good for us. Dog owners are 34 per cent more likely to reach the recommended physical-activity guidelines, according to a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, while research from Michigan State University shows that even aside from walking, dog owners are more active, engaging in more cycling and running. Dog owners also tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol and suffer fewer ailments and medical conditions than (whisper it!) cat owners, according to a study from Queen’s University Belfast.

Four-legged friends also benefit from having active owners. There’s no doubt that Tanya and Dexter, for example, have both gained hugely from teaming up. ‘Dexter had behavioural issues when I got him and did not like other dogs, but since he has started running it no longer worries him,’ says Tanya. ‘At his recent vet check, I was told he was in excellent shape for a dog of his age.’

He’s not the only one. Through running and healthier eating, Tanya has lost five stone, and recently completed her first half marathon. ‘I’ve also expanded my social life, becoming part of the running community, getting involved with various running groups on social media and meeting people at our weekly parkruns,’ she says.

Having a dog can benefit health and wellbeing in less expected ways, too. A study from Yale University, US, found that even a brief interaction with a dog could lower anxiety and boost mood. ‘Running – with Dexter as my running buddy – has helped me massively with my depression,’ says Tanya. ‘Better than any medication ever could.’ And, perhaps, better than a human running mate: research conducted by the University of Missouri, US, suggests that canine exercise pals can be a more reliable bet than human ones – the study (on walkers) found that people often talk each other out of exercise. It’s a rare dog that’ll say ‘A run? No thanks – maybe tomorrow...’

Tanya says the bond between her and Dexter has grown immensely through running. It’s something many of us who run with our furry friends can attest to. Running definitely played a role in cementing my relationship with Morris, and establishing trust. For almost a year, we abided by the ‘don’t let him off the lead’ warnings... then one day, as he bounded along next to me on the trail towards the beach, on an impulse, I reached down and set him free. He was still at my calf when we reached the end of the run. And he’s been there ever since.