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Four-Legged Fun: A Guide to Running With Your Dog

Having a canine running partner reaps big rewards for both human and pup. Here's how to do it right.

Dogs make great running partners. They’re almost always game for whatever route you have in mind. They never have scheduling conflicts. And they’re extremely happy while running, their joy undeniably rubbing off on you. Plus, knowing your dog needs exercise provides a motivational bonus for you, getting you both out the door.

But how do you know if your dog is fit to run? Or needs a recovery day? And where are the best places to take your dog running with you? Follow our guide to ensure both you and pup make the most of running together.

Puppy? Be Patient

Most vets recommend waiting until a puppy is 1 to 2 years old, depending on the breed, before taking them running with you. “You want to wait until they’re fully skeletally mature, when their growth plates are done closing,” says Dr. Elisabeth Jobe of Advanced Animal Care of Colorado. “When the bones are developing, and you’re putting stress on them, you can cause premature closure of the growth plates which increases the risk of arthritis and other issues.”

Smaller breeds mature sooner than larger breeds, and can be ready to run when they’re a year to a year and a half. Larger breeds can take 18 to 24 months. Check with your vet for more specific guidance.

Dogs Need Training, Too

Like people, dogs shouldn’t go from off-the-couch to running 5 miles without training. “It’s important to build endurance in dogs gradually, just as you would in humans,” says Dr. Lynne Hapel of Eastown Veterinary Clinic in Grand Rapids, Mich. Gradually building up to longer distances is key to getting a dog’s whole body toned evenly, which helps prevent injury from doing too much, too soon.

“Simulate what they’re going to be doing,” Jobe says. “Do that same type of activity in small amounts initially, and increase by 10 to 15 percent every 14 days or so.

Hiking and run-walking can ease a dog into running shape, and hiking is an ideal start for dogs and owners who will be trail running together.

With the right dog and a gradual buildup of training, you may be surprised at how long your dog can go. Joelle Vaught, an ultrarunner from Boise, Idaho, has been running with her German Shorthair pups for years. “We’ve done 50Ks together!” she says.

RELATED: An Ultrarunning Trail Fiend of a Dog

Where To Run

Soft surfaces like dirt and grass are better for paws than pavement and concrete. “Running on gravel or rock can be painful to a dog,” says Judy Morgan, holistic veterinarian in Clayton, N.J. “And pea gravel can get between pads and cause irritation.” Remember: You’re wearing protective shoes; they aren’t.

If you head to a trail, know the leash laws in your area. Some trails have voice control laws that allow your dog off-leash if they’ve undergone proper training and wear a certain tag to prove it. While some vets recommend always having a dog on leash (but not a retractable leash, which can extend too long) for the safety of the owner, the dog, and those around them, others say it depends on the dog. Having a leash handy (even if a dog is running off-leash) can help quell unexpected confrontations with other dogs or trail users (especially at a trailhead), as well as the instinct to chase wildlife.

Running on dirt surfaces in tree-covered areas is ideal, as the shade keeps the trail cool in hot months. And running on hilly terrain that slows you down can be good for your dog, as they’re better able to keep up. Just make sure to go easy on them and train them for the hills as you would yourself.

If you do run on concrete through urban areas, plan wisely. Jobe says she runs on sidewalks while letting her dogs run on the grass alongside. And Hapel recommends planning routes where you know fresh water is available.

Check For Ticks

Post-run, it’s important to check your pup’s fur and skin for burrs, and their pads for any tears. But if you live somewhere that has ticks of any sort, be sure to scan your dog for those, too.

Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian in Orange County, Calif., recommends getting preventive tick medicine from your vet. But if you do find a tick on your pup, she suggests using tweezers, needle-nose pliers or roach clips instead of your fingers. “You don’t need to twist it. Just grab as close to the skin as possible and pull straight up. The bump left over isn’t a head—it’s just a reaction. Clean the area with a little alcohol.”

It’s best to remove a tick within 24 hours of latching on, so get in the habit of checking both your dog and yourself post-run.

“If your pet develops any symptoms—anything that just seems off for a day or two, if they’re weak, vomiting, diarrhea, stiff in the joints, have a fever—have them looked at,” Cruz says.

Health and Safety

Running on a trail near a water source can give your dog a place to cool down by wallowing in a creek or cooling their belly in a lake. There, however, you run the risk of your dog lapping up water that might have giardia or other intestinal threats. If you know your dog will run into any water it sees, keep it on a leash and bring ample water for both of you.

Know that dogs don’t sweat, but rather pant to cool off. To keep them cool in summer months, exercise with them in the early morning or late evening. And if you live somewhere with a snowy, icy winter, consider putting them in a jacket or sweater made for dogs (if they’ll let you). And check their paws frequently during the run for snow and ice balls, clearing the space between their toes from built-up snow.

Most importantly, be sure to listen to your dog and look closely for any changes in its gait as you run.

“Limping means pain,” Jobe says. Your pup could have stepped on something like a cactus spine, or have a minor cut on one of their pads, but a limp could also suggest something more serious.

How Much Is Too Much?

Since your dog wants to please you, it might run with you beyond its limit. “If you stop for a break and your dog lies down right away, that’s a good sign that they’ve had enough,” Jobe says.

She also advises that if your dog seems tired for more than four to six hours after exercising, then it was too much. And if your dogs wakes that afternoon or evening and seems stiff, taking longer than usual to get up or down, then it’s time to back off on the running a bit.

And, if your dog kicks one leg out all the time, they might be shifting away from that leg for a reason. “It’s something to think about,” Jobe says.