Have you ever seen a dog running around for what seems to appear the simple joy of it? Do you wonder what is going on in their canine brain when they run, tongue hanging out, a giant dog smile on their face? Could your furry friend be experiencing the euphoria-inducing 'runner's high'?
A new discovery, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, presents compelling evidence that dogs do experience a buzz from running, just like people. Researchers write that ‘a neurobiological reward (i.e. the euphoric buzz) for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals (such as dogs, horses and lions) habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks’.
The team of researchers came to this conclusion after studying endocannabinoids, chemicals that circulate through the body affecting the brain by sending reward signals to it. If the word endocannabinoid reminds you of cannabis you are right on track, as coincidentally, these are chemicals also found in marijuana and hemp.
In the study, people and dogs ran on a treadmill, and after working out, both species had ‘significantly increased exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling following high-intensity endurance running.
’The results are in: humans AND dogs run because it makes us feel good.
Running with your dog is an activity that can benefit both you and your canine companions, however, just as you wouldn’t drag an untrained person out for a five km run, you shouldn’t take your couch potato pooch on long or hard runs without training. Even though many dogs are born to run, you need to start slow and keep at it - as any runner knows you have to reach a certain threshold of aerobic activity before the high feeling kicks in.Here are a couple of easy steps to help get you and your dog moving:
Step 1: Wait till your dog is mature
Puppies should not go running until their bones stop growing. If you take a puppy out too soon you can cause changes in their joints that can lead to joint problems. A general minimum age is 9 month for small breeds, and 12-16 months for large and/or giant breeds. If you are unsure, check with your veterinarian.
Step 2: Get a check-up
Before you start any exercise program with your dog, it is a good idea to get your dog checked out. Your veterinarian can tell you if your dog is overweight or has other medical conditions that may interfere with running. If your dog is overweight or has spent the past year lying around on the couch, start by just walking. If you have a newly adopted pet, go slowly so assess fitness and energy levels. If you dog is older or has medical conditions, talk with your veterinarian about recommended duration and intensity of runs.
Step 3: Use a leash
This may seem intuitive, but unless you are running in the wilderness where dogs are allowed to be under voice control, use a leash. I recommend training your dog to use a gentle leader (head halter), which will keep your dog from pulling. You want your dog to be within 3 feet of you on one side to keep you from tripping. Reinforce this practice with a small treat, and be consistent about where you want your dog.
Step 4: Practice Trail Courtesy
Don’t assume that everybody out there wants to pet your dog - not everybody is a dog lover. If you come across other people on a trail or sidewalk, pull off to the side to let them pass without interacting with your dog. Also - no one wants to step on dog poop during a run. Tie a small plastic bag to your leash to bag up anything your pet leaves behind, and dispose of the bag and its contents properly. Hopefully, you’ll be moving too fast for your dog to even think about doing number 2, but if he does, have a plan!
Step 5: Don’t Push too Hard
Just like you do when you start running, you want to ramp up slowly and build daily. Start with 3 times per week for 15 to 20 minutes and go from there. If you add five minutes each week, you generally can’t go wrong. Don’t forget your 5 minute warmup - it is important for the both of you!
Step 6: Watch for Signs of Fatigue and Road Injuries
A dog will tell you when he or she has had enough. Signs of fatigue in dogs include tail down, heavy panting, dragging behind you, and flattened ears. If your dog is really lethargic after a run, she might need a couple of days off. On very hot days, hot pavement can burn sensitive pads - so save your runs for early morning or later in the evening and examine your dog’s paws after running. In the winter, boots are a good idea to prevent paws.