Part One: Running with Dogs and Failing (Guest Post)

Mulligan, happy and covered with duckweed after hunting for frogs, an activity he prefers to running.

Mulligan, happy and covered with duckweed after hunting for frogs, an activity he prefers to running.

I have been a runner for sixteen years. When I adopted my first puppy from the humane association, I had grand, romantic visions of running side-by-side with my new best friend, a big wonderful dog. I mostly had visions of people leaving us alone to run in peace. In every place I’ve lived, I’ve been harassed while running. I’ve been cat-called, mocked, propositioned for sex, chased, groped, and had bottles thrown at me. Surely a big wonderful dog would be a buffer against such horrid behavior. I was sure the Pointer/Labrador Retriever mix I’d brought home would be that big wonderful dog and we’d run many miles in peaceful bliss. I named him Mulligan.

When he was old enough, we tried running. I naively thought that running would be easy. Dogs love to run, right? I was wrong. He’d run with me for fifty meters or so and then try to play tug with his leash or stop to sniff. Once, we made it almost a full three minutes of continuous running when Mulligan leapt in front of me to sniff something. I accidentally kneed him in the ribs as I toppled over him, skinning my hands, arms, and legs on the sidewalk. Mulligan was confused, scared, and bruised. I had gravel stuck in my palms for a week.

I’ve learned a lot since then. And, we added two more dogs to our active household. Sharing athletic endeavors with a dog can be wonderfully rewarding. But, they should be undertaken with care. Running successfully with a dog is a learned skill, for both you and your dog. I’ve witnessed people getting it wrong, sometimes even endangering themselves, their dogs, and others in the process. I’ve even been guilty of getting it wrong myself.

Is Running a Good Fit for You and Your Dog?

Make sure your dog is old enough and fit enough for rigorous physical activity. Your veterinarian can give your dog an orthopedic exam to identify any physical problems.

Know your dog’s activity preferences. Just as one form of exercise might suit you, but not your friend, one activity might suit one dog, but not another. Your dog’s preferences depend upon breed and physical characteristics, prior experiences, and your ability to manage their present experiences.

It turned out that Mulligan, a blend of two hunting breeds, much preferred scenting around the neighborhood, nose to the ground, with the occasional sprint or game of tug, than running at a steady pace. He found running to be boring. He missed out on all the things he was galloping past: the smells, the sights, and the textures.

But, it was more than that he was bored. He was also worried.

This is where I most profoundly failed my dog, Mulligan. In any activity you undertake with your dog, you must pay attention to your dog’s well-being by regularly asking these two questions:

  • Is my dog feeling safe?
  • Is my dog having fun?

Your dog may be technically safe in a situation, but what’s more important is whether your dog FEELS safe.

Mulligan was worried about all kinds of things in the environments where we ran: the trashcans that magically appeared on the curbs on Thursdays, loud traffic, parking meters, flags, and awnings. Awnings loomed over Mulligan, their fringes gently waving without reason. Once, he bolted into traffic to escape an awning, dragging me fifteen feet on the asphalt and dislocating my shoulder. Thankfully, he was not hurt.

Mulligan did not feel safe, and he certainly was NOT having fun. Here was a dog who paid meticulous attention to his environment. Everything in his world has to be methodically considered and assessed. Instead of supporting him, I’d rushed him, forcing him to go where I wanted to go, at the speed I dictated. He trusted me to keep him safe from all the bad things and I’d failed him.

Mulligan and I don’t run anymore. But our relationship has healed. We embraced a science-based, force-free training program that incorporated desensitization and counter-conditioning to help him be less worried. You can learn more about this kind of training at fearfuldogs.com. We hike, we walk, we play games, and we explore. Though we might sprint out of sheer joy every now and then, we don’t really run.

I finally found my canine running companion in the most unlikely dog: a rescued Chihuahua name Paloma. Seriously, a Chihuahua. More on that adventure in my next post.

Joan G. Forry earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Temple University in 2008. She is an independent applied ethicist who writes about feminism, sports ethics, and animal ethics. Her current work in animal ethics is concerned with how humans develop meaningful and mindful relationships with dogs. She is an amateur dog trainer who aspires to go pro someday. She documents the travels of her dog, Miles, at www.facebook.com/milesonhydrants.