Dogs can be a trail runner’s best friend, but grooming the perfect trail companion takes some know-how.
Hitting the trail with your dog by your side is not only fun, but the shared experience of moving in the wilderness together will strengthen the bond between you. Many breeds of dogs are natural athletes and enjoy long distance running just as much as we do. But, just as we humans need to care for our bodies in order to avoid being sidelined, it is equally important to care for our dogs.
Some dogs are bred to handle longer distances better than others.
Breeds considered to be good running partners include Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Weimaraners, Vizslas, and herding dogs like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Cattle Dogs. Mutts can also make fantastic trail running companions, depending on their breed mix.
Alaskan Huskies are a prime example of this. These mutts are composed of various breeds to craft the ideal sled dog with desirable traits like drive, endurance, speed, and appetite.
Professional sled dog racers and twins, Kristy and Anna Berington from Knik, Alaska have competed multiple Iditarods, among dozens of other mid-distance races ranging from 50 to 1000 miles with their team of Alaskan Huskies.
“Ninety-nine percent of the field are these racing mutts,” said Anna. “They’re really athletic looking, they’re every color, and range in size from 45-75 lbs. You don’t need a purebred dog to go out and have a good time.”
“Comparatively, there are certain breeds who are not built for long distance work,” said Dalton Webb, a veterinarian at East Bend Animal Hospital in Bend, Oregon.
Those with giant breed dogs or brachycephalic (short-snouted) dogs should take caution with endurance sports. Giant breeds are genetically predisposed to orthopedic problems and dogs with short snouts cannot efficiently pant enough to cool down and risk overheating.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule in regard to what breeds make good endurance partners. Just look at Catra Corbett, whose nine-pound Dachshund TruMan logs 40-mile weeks. However, it’s important to ensure that your dog enjoys the sport as much as you do. Dr. Webb says that as long as your dog is keeping up with you and not immobile the following day, then it’s probably ok.
Although many dogs have seemingly endless amounts of energy, it’s best to gradually increase their mileage.
“Start your dog on a training program with you,” said Kristy. “Just because they have a ton of energy doesn’t mean that they should jump into running 10-20 miles straight away.”
The gradual increase will also allow dogs to develop calluses on their paw pads to prevent painful tears.
For puppies who are not yet skeletally mature, Dr. Webb said his motto is “let them set their own pace.” Forcing too-young dogs or dogs new to running to go a certain distance or speed can put them at risk of injury.
“The dogs that come in with issues are those who have done endurance events without training,” said Dr. Webb.
The Beringtons feed their dogs a snack every two to three hours when they run, essentially the equivalent of a gel, and receive a full meal every six hours. Of course, these are racing dogs who are pulling a sled and averaging eight to 10 miles per hour.
“The average dog running 20 miles for four hours will be fine with the meal they get each morning and night,” said Anna.
Owners can add calories to their dog’s regular meals to make up for the loss during exercise.
“Dogs as a breed are so resilient to fasting, so calorically they’re going to do pretty well covering long distances,” said Dr. Webb. “If you go out for longer than 20 miles, it wouldn’t hurt to bring along an easy to digest, high calorie/high carb lightweight single-ingredient treat.”
The sisters suggested feeding your dog foods with higher fat and protein content. Adding fish oil and a joint supplement with glucosamine and chondroitin from a young age will also help keep your dog on the trails longer. Consult with your veterinarian for a proper diet.
More than caloric intake, Dr. Webb said that dog owners should be most concerned about proper hydration.
Bring along water specifically for your dog on long runs and plan routes with plenty of water stops along the way.
During the summer, start long runs before sunrise and near frequent access to water. If you live somewhere especially hot, then it may be best to leave your dog at home until the weather cools down.
In general, allowing your dog to drink from a natural water source is ok. Avoid stagnant water like puddles when possible. Water-borne diseases like giardia are not uncommon and some, like leptospirosis and blue algae poisoning, vary by region.
The Beringtons do give their dogs electrolytes. Rather than share your mix with them, consider bringing Petralyte, which is made specifically for dogs and designed by a veterinarian.
Knowing the signs of health issues in your dog can prevent conditions from worsening. Signs of malaise include:
Excessive drooling and panting
Rapid heart rate
Both hyperthermia and hypothermia are common conditions on the trail. Heat exhaustion is especially common and can happen quickly. Seek immediate medical care when necessary.
Anna suggested taking a pet first-aid course and carrying a basic first aid kit. Adventure Medical Kits makes a small one for dogs that fits easily into a running vest.
Dr. Webb added that Benadryl (1mg per pound of weight for dogs), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, and bandages are must-have items to carry on any outing with your dog. Additional essentials include a styptic powder to stop bleeding and a mesh muzzle in case of injury.
If you’re considering running with your dog or looking for a partner to join you on the trails, understanding their needs and capabilities will help ensure many years of fun adventures ahead.