Lots of runners make jogging buddies of their dogs, and it's understandable that they want to begin while the dog is young and their behavior malleable. But puppies and—for some breeds, young adults—are still developing physically, and running is a repetitive impact to the knees, ankles, and spine, usually on a hard, paved road or sidewalk. Done too early, it'll permanently injure the puppy's joints and leg bones.
“It's important to remember that dogs jogging alongside people on leash may be forced to move in an unpreferred gait pattern or speed,” says Chris Frye, an assistant clinical professor of sports medicine and rehabilitation at Cornell University’s Companion Animal Hospital. Running is going to tax the puppy's cardiovascular system and musculoskeletal system more severely than it's used to, and both systems need to be gradually conditioned to avoid injury. Puppies are vulnerable to tissue damage from the repetitive impacts of running on a hard surface such as a sidewalk.
Puppies' bones stop growing at about nine months old, and until then the bones' growth plates are ripe for injuries that can become lifelong, says Heather Loenser, a senior veterinary officer at the American Animal Hospital Association. She says to keep runs to less than a mile before the nine-month mark, while Frye recommends that you avoid running your dog on hard surfaces, such as pavement, until the bones' growth plates close. Warm up with your puppy before runs with five to ten minutes of walking, the same way a human runner primes himself or herself, and afterward take five to ten minutes of walking to cool down to lessen the chance of injury.
If you and your dog overdo it, an injury isn't just a dramatic blowout or obvious limping. It could be a string of low-intensity impacts that accumulate over time, the kind of ongoing soreness that would convince a person to take a break from the gym or change their routine—the kind a dog can't tell you about and won't always show.
Like a lot of animals, dogs tend to hide their injuries. You could run your puppy every other day and think all is well, only to see him start favoring a certain leg one day or develop hip dysplasia in adulthood. If, after a run, your puppy is stiff when standing up or walking stairs, give him the day off to rest, Loenser says. If your run together was longer or faster than usual, dial it back next time—you might be asking more from your puppy than he's able to give at this stage in his life.
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“Your dog will usually limit their activity when they've had enough,” says Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association, “but sometimes they'll go beyond their comfort zone to keep up with you. That's more of a risk when running together, versus puppies playing on their own in the backyard.”
Off-leash play lets the puppy choose when to rest, San Filippo says, and he can't do that when you're running with a leash attached. Dogs are eager to please and will tolerate small discomforts to keep up with you, he adds, so if he's lagging behind or refusing to move, then he's extremely tired and you've pushed him too far. Get the dog into shade or an air-conditioned building, spray him down with cool water from a hose, and give him cool but not icy water to drink. If he still looks in rough shape after that, head to a vet.
Puppies should build up their endurance just like human runners, and gradually acclimate to running in warm temperatures, San Filippo says. Start by running a mile at a leisurely pace, Loenser recommends, and if the dog keeps up without bugging you to stop or acting sluggish, increase your runs in half-mile increments over the next few weeks. If you run when it's hot out and later see your dog licking his feet obsessively, think about the pavement temperature. Paw pad burns are very common, Frye says. Run your puppy in the morning or evening when it's cooler to avoid pavement burns, and keep it that way all through the dog's adulthood.
“Teaching a dog to walk and run on a leash can be introduced at a very young age, 8 to 12 weeks,” Loenser says, as long as you're keeping up with the puppy's vaccinations. You're going to be in and out of the vet's office a lot in the first 20 weeks of the puppy's life anyway, so talk to the vet the next time you visit for a routine checkup or vaccination. All the animal health specialists we spoke with say an owner should bring up that they want to make a running companion out of their puppy, and the vet will assess how the dog is developing to determine how soon and how far he can run.
Because dogs vary so much from breed to breed, they mature at different rates. Certain breeds' bone plates stay open longer, and shorter-snout breeds are worse at managing their body temperature when it's hot out. Sledding dogs, like Malamutes and Huskies, and herding dogs, like Collies and Australian Shepherds, will take to long runs more naturally than a Pug or a Boxer, Loenser says. Even within a particular breed, one individual dog will be more or less suited than another, based on recent health history, weight, and size, she adds.
Another challenge that puppies face when running with their owners is ensuring they get enough calories, San Filippo says. Every time you run with your puppy, he'll be burning off a lot of the food energy he needs to grow. Adjust for that, because feeding him the same amount as a non-runner could stunt his growth, he adds, while too much food is no good either. People are bad at judging how much their dogs should eat so, again, ask the vet about nutrition advice for a running puppy, and keep asking as the puppy ages into adulthood and you ramp up the miles.
Running with your puppy is a great way to bond with him, wile away his boredom, and keep you both healthy. Too many dogs are left frustrated and under-exercised, so good on you for giving your dog an outlet for his energy. Dogs are built to run—some breeds more than others—so don't think the only way to avoid injury is not to take them jogging at all. Just ease into it, and take advantage of vets' consultations. Watch your dog during and after runs to see how he's handling the new job, Loenser says. If you do all that, you'll end up with a healthy dog and running companion for the better part of the next decade.
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