As lovers of the outdoors and wildlife, it’s only natural that most trail runners are seeking a trail dog. If Instagram posts are anything to go by, more and more runners are buying puppies with thoughts of a future trail companion in mind. And by selecting a suitable breed and raising and training your new best friend correctly, there’s no reason not to end up with a happy, healthy and loyal trail running partner.
The Perfect Runner
When deciding on a breed or choosing a rescue, these are a few important aspects to consider:
Medium frame dogs are generally the most athletic and able-bodied over technical terrain.
Thick wolf-like hair is not suitable for our South African climate (they’re not called Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies for nothing…). Think short haired dogs which shed easily before summer and dry quickly.
Tan coated dogs handle sunny conditions the best. Dark brindle or black dogs are more likely to overheat while white haired dogs usually have pale skin and are susceptible to skin damage and squamous cell carcinomas. White dogs also have a higher incidence of deafness and blindness, both of which would affect safety out on the trails.
Unfortunately, years of specific breeding lines has led to a number of conditions which occur frequently in certain breeds. Before making your final choice be aware of issues your trail dog may face later on, and try to avoid breeds known to have joint challenges.
Good trail dog breeds
Most retrievers, setters, pointers and shepherds are natural runners. Terriers can also make great trail companions, namely the Jack Russell, Airedale, American Staffordshire and pit bull terriers. The Australian Cattle Dog, Dalmatian, Doberman, Standard Poodle (underrated but super-intelligent and easy to train!), Hungarian Vizsla, Weimaraner, Rhodesian Ridgeback, and Africanis complete the list of most reliable running dogs.
But don’t get too hung up over the pure-breeds – a rescue dog will always be at the top of my list! Cross-breeds are generally less susceptible to disease and inherited conditions, and probably more passionate about their second chance in life than any pedigree.
When to Start
A puppy’s bones can take between 18 months and two years to fully develop, size and breed depending. So if you’re looking for an instant trail buddy, perhaps try to rope in your next door neighbour instead! If you are patient, however, you have 18 months to train the mental and behavioural components of a great canine athlete. Proper socialisation, knowledge of basic commands and a consistent recall are all valuable in a good trail dog. Training should start from as early as eight weeks but may take months to master. Patience and positive reinforcement are key to success.
Physical exercise before six months should be limited to play only on soft grassy surfaces. From six to 12 months short hikes with regular stops and sniffs can be included. Build up from five minutes to 30 minutes over this period. Between 12 and 18 months hikes can be lengthened to 60 minutes but again, at the dog’s own pace. Any running before 18 months should be initiated by your dog and preferably only off-leash in a safe area. From 18 months onwards and with your vet’s go ahead, proper run training can finally begin!
It goes without saying that hydration, nutrition, and rest are top priority for every athlete. The same applies to your canine athlete. Try to have water available at all times during a run, feed a high quality balanced dog food twice a day, and allow your dog those lazy days of recovery.
Then, it’s important to understand and respect your dog’s physical capabilities. Just like you, your dog needs to build up fitness slowly and consistently. Sudden jumps in training will likely lead to injury. If you run one evening 10km road session with your dog per week, you cannot expect him to do a technical 40km in the heat of the day on the weekend.
If you push them too far, you may suffer along with them, explains Alfred Thorpe: “My dogs are used to technical trails and we’ve done some steep trails together.
“Steep downhills are heavy on their joints, so try to stay away from those,” warns Alfred. “I had to carry Asha for a couple of kilometres at the end of a trail (she refused to walk any further) because of joint pain.
“The next day she was all fine and happy to go again.”
Listen to them, says Vicki Fox, and all will be well. “I didn’t listen to my dogs the other day and did a long trail run. Got home with three very unhappy dogs and very sore paws. I had to rest them for two weeks as their paw cushions were cracked.
“The cracking of the paw pads were due to the distance (we did 16km), and the fact that the terrain was too hard. The repeated foot strike on the same terrain, without enough rest, caused them to crack. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Training with your trail dog
If you want your dog to run long distances with you, it’s best to include them in most of your training sessions so that you increase fitness and endurance simultaneously.
Elite K-Way trail runner AJ Calitz has two particular sessions he loves doing with his Labradors, Monty and Charlau. “Recovery runs, after a race where we just run to have fun and spend some time on the legs. These are between 60 and 90 minutes long, generally at the beach.
“The second is speed sessions,” says AJ. “Trust me, if you can outrun a dog, you are a pretty amazing runner! “They are naturally pack animals and very competitive, thus making awesome interval or speed session partners.”
“Dogs are so stoked to run, they sniff and sprint and walk and swim all the time. Their spirit is very contagious. Sometimes when I don’t feel like running at all, I take the dogs with me and their pure joy at being active rubs off on me.”
The only training sessions you might want to avoid doing with your dog are very repetitive ones, such as steps. Repetition increases risk of joint injury significantly.
Realistically, having the perfect running dog is not as simple as finding the right breed and just hitting the trail. There are many skills, both human and canine, which will make your training partnership more successful.
Prioritising your dog’s wellbeing requires that you be constantly in tune with how your pooch is feeling, both physically and mentally. If you think of your companion as an athlete, and take their training as seriously as your own, you should be able to avoid injuries. If you’re aware of their head space during a run, you should be able to avoid unpleasant incidents and adapt quickly to unforeseen situations.
The power of observation is probably your most valuable skill as a pet owner. Be sure to take a quiet moment every day to run your hands over your dog’s body, inspect their paws, and give them that well-deserved treat. You’ll be surprised at how much this reveals if there’s something amiss, or if your trail dog is happy and healthy as they should be, how many loving licks you’ll receive in return!
To find out what equipment you’ll need, and to get pointers for running with your pup in winter, read TRAIL 28. For more information about running with your trail dog in summer, basic commands, and stories from readers about their special bond, read TRAIL 29.