By Dr. John H. Sudduth, D.V.M.
Running, walking and hiking throughout Pikes Peak Country is one of the great joys for all of us outdoor enthusiasts. And doing it with our beloved dogs can be one of the more enjoyable and bonding experiences that we can do together. In fact, many of us located to this area just for these very reasons! As a fellow runner, member of Pikes Peak Road Runners, outdoor enthusiast, and a practicing veterinarian in the Pikes Peak area for over 30 years, I have seen my share of problems among our canine population .
It almost goes without saying that in addition to enjoying the outdoors, the benefits of exercise can be enormous for our dogs as well as ourselves. Over the course of several articles I plan on addressing many of these issues of running, walking and hiking with our dogs in an attempt to help make it a safe, and enjoyable activity for all.
Breed, Age and Ability
It is not uncommon to see an owner hobble into my office with their similarly limping dog after a weekend out on the trails! So, let’s start by considering whether or not your dog can handle rigorous exercise and how much is too much. Furthermore, what is the best way to prepare them for running and hiking activities?
It is very true that different dog breeds may possess physical and behavioral characteristics which make them better running partners than others. But most dogs can enjoy the outdoors commensurate within their individual abilities. One question to ask is what activities do you and your pet enjoy? What kind of runner, hiker, or outdoor enthusiast are you? Are you a walker, speedster or jogger? Do you go for the longer distances? Where do you like to run? On mountain trails with their rough and rocky surfaces? Or do you pick out the sidewalk or paved surfaces? Perhaps it is a combination of all? These factors should be considered before starting any kind of outdoor activity. Breed characteristics and environment play a big role and the intended purpose will often dictate which kind of dog is suited to be your best outdoor buddy. Considering these factors can help prevent problems.
In general, which breeds are best for running and which breeds are not?
Short snouted breeds like Bulldogs and Pugs for example, with their limited ability to move large volumes of air through their short respiratory tract (and therefore their susceptibility to heat stroke) must be watched closely and are certainly not built for hot conditions or longer distances. And to point, planning an early morning or later day walk is advisable. Small breeds with their shortened stride can have an exceedingly difficult time keeping pace and are better suited for short walks. Breeds with long backs and short legs, like Dachshunds and Bassets, furthermore, could be put at significant risk of injury if pushed beyond their limits. However, they might be great for shorter distances.
Many articles in running magazines have addressed ideal breeds for running, hiking or outdoor activity. It could be said that it is not so much the breed or mixed breed as it is the individual body structure and temperament that makes them more adept. Overall, working breeds fit the bill in most situations. For those who prefer the small end of smaller breeds, Terriers, Schipperkes, Hounds, Beagles, Spaniels, Aussies, and Pitbulls may do well. Towards the larger end of the scale Labs, Retrievers, Dalmatians, Pointers, Shepherds, Huskies and Poodles can have the needed respiratory and musculoskeletal structure suitable for running or hiking companions. And, of course, there are many mixed breeds that have all the physical and tenacious behavioral characteristics which would allow them to perform well.
An additional factor often overlooked is the type of hair coat a breed may possess. Some of the curly or longer haired breeds may have the physical, musculoskeletal characteristics and personality to run circles around us, but may require a lot more maintenance due to their longer hair coat. In breeds such as these, running and hiking is doable but keeping their hair coat shorter is advisable. Otherwise, you may spend more time combing, untangling large hair mats and removing burrs, and less time enjoying the outdoors! Along these lines, always inspect your dog from nose to tail after an outdoor activity before a small mat becomes a major project. Don’t try to cut out mats unless you really know what you are doing – I’ve sutured up a lot of scissor cuts accidentally caused by well-meaning owners!
Age of Your Dog
With the older pets, I really encourage a regular appropriate and planned activity. Many of our pets spend way too many hours lounging around the house to their ultimate ill health. Picking up the leash can have immediate benefits. But remember, in the unprepared pet, stiffness, and pain from over activity can result all too easily.
Like their older counterparts, care must also be taken in our younger dogs. Stressing them too soon before their bones and joints are fully developed could lead to long term consequences. How much is enough? What kinds of activity would be too much for the younger dog? And another common question: At what age can a dog owner begin a more rigorous running/hiking program safely? Since different breeds mature at different ages only general guidelines may be given in an article such as this. However, you can get a general sense of when your dog is ready for more rigorous activity based on the future projected adult size. In other words, take a look at their genetic makeup. What we want to see is that the growth plates of the bones have fully closed before rigorous activity is undertaken. In most smaller and mid-size breeds, the growth plates close on average around 8-12 months, whereas larger breeds (80 pounds and above) it may take a much longer time, say, 12-20 months of age. Until a dog is skeletally mature, they should not be pushed repetitively beyond their abilities. How much is too much? Walking and jogging up to 2 miles a few times a week in younger, skeletally immature dogs is a conservative safe estimate. As they mature, the distance and frequency can increase to 5 miles and I’d recommend waiting until they are skeletally mature before pushing to 5-10 miles or above. As with us, exercise frequency and distance affect our bones and joints and should be built up over time.
Following the same guidelines as we follow in a training program is also a good rough estimate. Too fast, too long, too frequent, and too intense of a running and hiking activity can result in serious long term problems. If you are unsure about what is appropriate for your individual dog, it is best to consult your veterinarian. To be absolutely sure and safe it may take an x-ray to assess this beyond a rough estimate in individual cases.
Other factors to consider involve the possibility that your dog may be so unlucky as to possess any number of developmental problems which may affect their ability to perform, even in purebreds. They are more common than what you might believe. One such problem for instance, is the failure of growth plates to permanently close, causing the joints to not develop properly. Obviously, this could have dramatic consequences in their ability to perform. Other conditions seen in dogs are painful long bones (panosteitis), cartilage problems (osteocondridis disicans) and arthritis (dysplasia). A thorough assessment, including x-rays, may be needed. The observant owner can help guide the doctor as to what’s best. Keep in mind, though, that I have seen many dogs present with serious orthopedic problems that did not show any obvious discomfort, limping or pain. They often possess, a gregarious, fun-loving temperament that masks any symptoms whatsoever. Bottom line, you really don’t know unless it is fully assessed with x-rays and a thorough exam. The cardiovascular system should also be closely looked at in both younger and older pets prior to starting any exercise activity.
I hope this article has been of some benefit to you! Next up we will consider a brief but important checklist for preparing your dog for outdoor activities with a focus on prevention of diseases I commonly see. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I would be delighted to respond to individual questions so please leave them in the comments or submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org , and I will try to address them in future articles! If you have a question or problem that you would like to have checked out in your pet, please call Northwest Animal Hospital 719-593-8582.