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Dogs make great trail-running partners for a variety of reasons. For one, they’re always happy to join you, and even provide motivation to get out—dogs need exercise, after all! They add safety to your solo adventures in deterring unwanted encounters with wild animals (keeping them on leash is important, see below), and can help deter threatening humans. Dogs also provide quiet companionship—their unconditional love and amenability to whatever run you plan can feel like just the support and company needed.
A bonus that benefits both of you: Dogs are happier running on dirt and other natural surfaces than they are running on roads. “Hard surfaces, like concrete and asphalt, have the same kind of jarring impact on dog and human joints,” says Greeley, Colorado–based veterinarian Dr. Sarah Wooten, who adds that soft surfaces are best for dogs.
Here’s how to maximize your time on the trail with (wo)man’s best friend.
Make sure they’re trail-ready.
Veterinarians recommend waiting until a dog is a year-and-a-half or two years old before starting them running with you. The reason for the wait is that dogs’ growth plates need to close enough to make the jarring impacts of running safe on their joints. It’s also advised to have your dog seen for an overall health check, and to talk to their veterinarian about plans to run with your pup.
Choose a dog-friendly trail.
Choosing routes along creeks or to lakes allow dogs to cool off by drinking or dunking themselves in water. (It’s a good idea to check local notices about unhealthy algae in natural water sources in your area.) Especially in warm weather, choosing a trail along water, or one that’s shaded by tree cover, will also help keep your dog comfortable. Other things to consider: a rocky, steep trail that slows you, the human runner, down can create a preferable pace for certain dogs; smooth, flat terrain will have you both running faster.
Bring a poop bag.
Pick up that poo! Dog poop contains pathogens that wouldn’t normally be found in the wild (as opposed to say, deer or other wild animal poop). Plus, no other human trail user should have to see—or worse, step on—your dog’s poop.
Leash your dog.
Unless you live in an area that allows off-leash dogs, and have a dog that doesn’t jump on other people or other dogs, run with your dog on leash. Consider hands-free leashes and harnesses made for this very purpose. Another benefit of keeping your dog on leash, even if they are voice-controlled: safety. It’s much safer, especially in areas where animals like moose, bears, coyotes, and the like call home to keep your pet on leash.
Bring water for two.
If running any considerable distance, or running even the shortest distance on a warm day, bring enough water for you and your dog. Some dogs will drink water squirted from a bottle. Others will want you to pour water into a collapsible bowl, or at least, cup your hands to pool poured water.
Pack the car.
If driving to the trailhead, you might want to pack a towel to clean off a potentially dirty dog post-run. Other dog-related items to have in the car: a water bowl, extra water, and possibly a dog bed, depending on where your dog sits in the car.
Check for passengers.
If you live and run where ticks are prevalent, check your dog, and yourself, thoroughly after your trail run and remove the bloodsuckers. The American Kennel Club recommends cleaning the area with rubbing alcohol and using tweezers, making sure you remove the head.
Be a team player.
Know that running with a dog is like running with a human running partner, except that the dog can’t verbally tell you they need a break and often go beyond their comfort zones to please their human companions. If your dog is showing signs of fatigue, slow to his/her pace, or stop for a break. If your dog is new to running alongside you, treat them as you would a new runner, and start off with shorter distances and/or a run-walk method to keep them healthy and happily joining you regularly on trail running adventures.
Lisa Jhung is the author of Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running and Running That Doesn’t Suck: How to Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It). She’s also a contributing editor of our Trail Running content hub.