I run with my dog a lot.
I love the company.
I love the sound of her paws as they thud on the ground.
I love hearing the tinkle of her ID tag as she sprints from smell to smell, usually behind me, as I yell, “Bella!!!” every few minutes.
I love how she forces me to slow down and really take in my surroundings, as we hunt for squirrels together. There’s one! Oh, you missed it! She did catch one once. She was as surprised as the squirrel. She dropped it, and it immediately sprinted skywards up a tree. It will have told that story countless times to its offspring – beware of small beagle-faced terriers, the next one might not be as daft as the one that let me escape.
I love how she is ALWAYS up for a run. Sometimes she will be so excited as I’m putting my running shoes on that she will knock me over. I know how she feels; I genuinely get this excited about a trail run too. Sometimes I have to tell her no, as we have overdone it on a few occasions and I’ve had to give her a few weeks rest. A dog won’t tell you they’re feeling exhausted or overtrained, you see. That’s YOUR responsibility, and as many people ask me advice about running with a dog, I thought I’d jot down all the things I’ve learned from running with Bella over the years here in my blog.
Bella came to us as a smelly, skinny little rescue dog 10 years ago now. She endeared herself to us by chewing through walls, eating the entire contents of my handbag (blue leather gloves included – they had the interesting impact of dyeing her “output” blue), sneakilly unravelling the corners of a new rug, and being sick on the winter duvet. It was an initiation ceremony of course; we proved we were tough and immaterialistic enough to call ourselves dog owners. We weren’t really runners at the time, and we only started taking her running when she was around 4 or 5. We started her off on our local trails, just short, easy runs. I still remember the first time we took her to our local parkrun – she must have stopped to sniff every blade of grass on the route, and took her time having 3 – THREE – poos! We persevered though, and her parkrun PB is now around 23 minutes.
Together, Bella and I have developed a deep affection for trail running and a solid understanding of one another. Training a dog to run is pretty much the same as training a human: start them off gently, increase distances gradually. With dogs especially, it’s important to stick to grassy trails to avoid hurting their paws, so we choose our dog-friendly parkruns carefully. We also use a doggy running harness where she’s attached to us via a shock absorbing lead. We don’t use a waist harness with Bella like canicross runners, but our lead is still hands-free and she runs alongside us beautifully.
The best kind of dog friendly runs are those where she can run off the lead, away from traffic, at her own pace, and on soft ground. Bella is the reason why, over the years, I’ve evolved into a trail runner. Together, we have spent years exploring our local trails – woodland, farmland, lakesides, forests, hills, mountains, beaches. Bella’s company means I am never alone; I feel safe. If I’m lost, I know she can’t map read (I guess map reading isn’t really my strong point either) but at least we’re in it together.
The furthest distance Bella has run with me has been 11 miles, but normally we’ll run 4-6 miles. I know some dogs that run marathons and ultras. I know others that can barely waddle half a mile. Know your dog, and train them gently, and you’ll learn what they are capable of.
Look out for warning signs of overtraining – they might go off their food or be very tired or disinterested. Recently, due to a change in circumstances I had been taking Bella out on longer walks whilst lodging with family, as well as our usual running, and she overdid it to the extent that one morning I found her limping with a cracked pad. We immediately gave her a few days total rest, and reduced exercise for a few weeks to help her recover. Completely our responsibility at having asked too much of her – it’s important that we are responsible for our dogs’ running as they won’t necessarily tell us they are feeling tired or understand that they need to rest.
I’m grateful for all the years of running I’ve shared with Bella. She’s 10 now, so I’m very conscious of not asking her to overdo it, but as long as she wants to run, I’ll continue to share a few trail runs a week with her. Bella has taught me to enjoy the simple act of running free in the countryside and enjoying the great outdoors. And if I ever try to squeeze in any ‘proper’ training into one of our runs together – like hill reps – I get this look (she’s sensible, my dog).