One of the most important things a running partner can provide is conversation. Many runners are looking for a kind of coach, to push them to go faster or longer; others want a confidant or a gossip or someone to swap the latest tips from Runner's World with. But for some, the best running partner is one that says only one thing: woof.
Human and dog have been running for millennia. But is it always a good idea for them to run together? The answer depends on weather, fitness level and, yes, personality — of both species.
Beth Slotman, a 36-year-old health-care contracts researcher in Germantown, Md., says she runs with her dog as much for the dog's benefit as her own. "I mainly do it because it makes her so happy," says Slotman, who has taken her pit bull-Lab mix, Abbey, on runs as long as 11 miles. "She knows on Saturday mornings when we get up and I get dressed that it's a running day, and she dances around with such excitement that it's hard to say no."
The humans have their reasons, too. Megan Rave Lankenau, a 42-year-old psychologist in Silver Spring, Md., says she feels safer running with her dog, a 2-year-old Lab mix named Denver. "I love running with my dogs and have been doing it for years," says Lankenau, who takes Denver on three- to four-mile runs several times a week. "I enjoy the companionship, and I think it creates a bond between me and my pooch."
For runners who want canine companionship, there are many ways to enhance the experience, such as meet ups with other dog runners and run-with-your-dog road races. There's also an array of gear: leashes that attach to your waist (including one that's equipped with a storage pouch and holster for a water bottle), collapsible water bowls to stuff in a running belt and clip-on waste bags. You can also suit up your pet with a treat carrier pack and booties to help with traction.
Even with these accessories, however, running with your dog can pose hazards. Though running might seem like an activity that would come naturally to a high-energy animal that loves the outdoors, it isn't always a wise — or safe. (Non-dog-loving runners may also find your sniffing, wandering companion irksome, but that's another story.)
"Dogs love to run, but they don't necessarily sign up for a three-mile run," says veterinarian Gary Weitzman, former chief executive of the Washington Animal Rescue League and co-host of NPR's "Animal House." When you take your pooch out for a long-distance run, you "are asking it to do something that's unusual for a dog to do," he says.
"Dogs are sprinters, not long-distance creatures," explains Weitzman, who is now president and chief executive of the San Diego Humane Society. Running long distances with a dog can put a strain on the animal's tendons and joints, Weitzman says, especially in young dogs.
And some breeds "are not runners at all," he says. Among them: short-nosed dogs such as pugs, Boston terriers and bulldogs, as well as short-legged dogs under 15 pounds, such as Yorkies, Shih Tzus and Lhasas. Even breeds that would seem to be runners, such as greyhounds, aren't built for endurance sports, says Weitzman, a greyhound owner.
Better breeds for running are those that fall in the working and sporting dog categories, such as huskies, shepherds or Labradors (which also tend toward obesity, so running can be a good weight-management tool).
The most important thing to remember when taking your dog for a run is obvious: Pay attention to the animal. "Many runners are wrapped up in their iPods and looking at the street in front of them," he says. They need to check their dog as regularly as their watch. "If your dog's tongue is hanging out to the back of his tail or he is two blocks behind you or his eyes are glazed and he looks stressed — you have run too far."
Remember, he says, dogs don't perspire except for a small amount through their paws, so they need to stay hydrated. And be mindful of the weather: If it's in the 80s and humid, or the pavement is hot to your hand, it is too hot for your dog to run on.
Also, don't expect a dog to graduate immediately from running in the yard or park to running a long, sustained distance; you need to build to it. And although a dog might not be able to "stretch" like humans do, your pet does need to warm up, Weitzman says. He suggests starting out with a walk, when your dog can also "take care of business," which means fewer run interruptions.
Outside forces can also pose a danger to both you and your animal. Cars are an obvious hazard, but when a squirrel comes darting across a dog's path, an enthralled pup can yank its owner into an awkward fall.
Just ask Mary Foster, 57, who endured some bumps and bruises as she trained her 1-year-old Labrador, Malachi, to run on trails. "Getting knocked over as he's raced up behind me, me bumping into his side or back quarters when he stopped abruptly" — such accidents were common, says Foster, who works from a home-based business in upper Montgomery County, Md. But, she says, it was worth it. Now she and Malachi "have a good understanding of each other's style and habits as we run together."
If all this seems too daunting, you can always hire someone to take your pet for a run. For $90, one of the trainers at Pant & Wag in the District will give your dog a one-hour private "fitness adventure" session that typically includes a 30-minute run. "How far we go depends on the dog and the weather — and the number of bathroom breaks," says Sean Prichard, president and head canine fitness trainer of Pant & Wag. As for those (excuse the phrase) dog days of summer? Not to worry: The service has a treadmill.