People who are keen to improve their fitness levels often ask me what piece of equipment I would recommend for them to use, or to buy. I suspect they are thinking of something that is high tech, probably expensive and potentially offering a quick and simple route to becoming fitter. Perhaps to their surprise, I simply suggest that the consider getting a dog. That is not to suggest that a dog is not a high tech organism, and often expensive to purchase and maintain – ask any dog owner and calculating the cost of their pet often reveals a frightening sum! But whereas a treadmill, strength or stepping machine can be left to idle and gather dust in a corner, a dog needs exercise, and that means compulsory exercise for the owner as well.
Most dogs will have two-legged companions who prefer – and are often only capable of – walking at a slow, steady pace. Those dogs unfortunate enough to own slow humans are often the ones who run around madly, racing ahead, then back and desperately trying to instil some energy into “two-legs”. However other dogs are fortunate enough to own humans who prefer something a bit quicker, and invariably a partnership develops between them both that sees them train – and sometimes even race – together.
For these dogs, the sight of “two legs” putting on his or her running shoes stimulates a Pavlovian reaction of excitement, racing around in anticipation of a lung bursting romp across fields and trails. However I do have a friend who used to be an “ultra” runner, and short runs were never park of her training plan. It soon became apparent to her dog that he was not going to be back home for tea or a sleep for some time, so at the first sign of the training shoes appearing he would find a safe place to hide until she decided to head out alone.
On a more serious note, running with a dog can add variety and companionship to a run. These are two factors that scientific studies have shown are important if running is going to be enjoyable and sustainable. Having a dog, and running with it, means that it is harder to miss a training session, and whilst I know of no scientific studies (yet) to prove this, I suspect that a “running dog” is much fitter and healthier that a more sedentary canine, and consequently has a better quality of life, and may even have lower vets bills!
Challenges of Dog Running
There is of course a responsibility for runners to ensure that their dogs do not create a nuisance or hazard for those who they may encounter on their route. Dogs off a lead need to be controllable, and avoid harassing others, and runners and dogs using a lead need to be careful that this does not present a trip hazard. For this reason, race organisers are rightly often reluctant to allow dogs to accompany their runners during races, and of course it could be argued that a dog on a lead, excitedly straining to run even faster, actually creates a physiological advantage by reducing the energy cost of running.
So running with a dog can be fun and healthy – for both the dog and the owner, and as long as sensible precautions are taken to protect others, it can be an experience that greatly enhances the enjoyment of running.
Author: Prof. John Brewer