Sometimes, as has been the case lately, life gets in the way of my desire to spend all of my time stomping around in the woods with Nala. When that happens, we get our exercise together by going running!
What better time, then, to tell you about the items and behaviors we find most useful for making jogging as much of a pleasure as possible, given that it is, well, jogging?
Nala is a big dog. I am a petite lady. As a result, a lot of these items revolve around safety–often my safety, but also Nala’s. Her dragging me around the neighborhood at top speed is potentially damaging for both of our skeletal structures! Equipment and cues work to mitigate that–some of the cues keep her from dragging me; some of them keep me from having to drag her!
- A comfy harness.
The current winner in this category, for us, is the Balance Harness. Guys, this is a great harness, particularly if you have a weirdly shaped dog. For Nala, with her deep but narrow chest and her relatively bald armpits, this harness is perfect. Plus, since the biggest size can fit a wide range of dogs, it was the perfect harness to acquire while she was losing weight.
We run with the leash attached to the back clip, so that she can pull if she needs to (but she rarely does). Since this harness has both front and back attachments, we also use the front attachment to indicate that she may not pull. Nala seems to distinguish between these setups easily.
Whatever harness you choose, make sure that the strap across the chest hits your dog above her shoulders to allow her forelegs their full range of motion. Otherwise, your dog will be running with a stilted gait, which can have long term effects on her musculature.
- A leash with some shock-absorbing bungee.
“What?” you say. “Wouldn’t that encourage her to pull, like a retractable leash?”
Weirdly, no. It doesn’t. However, it does mean that when she happens to go faster than me–and Nala is capable of running much, much faster than I am–she never hits the end of her leash with a spine-damaging crash. It also means that I am rarely, if ever, jerked ahead by her. Nala seems aware of what it feels like when she hits the bungee portion of her leash, and she usually slows down a bit so that I can match her pace. And since I’m attaching the leash to the back of a harness, I don’t need to worry that Nala is damaging her throat during those rare instances where she does pull. If I need to quickly gain more control, I can easily shorten the leash by grabbing the traffic handle by her harness (clearly visible in the picture above).
- A cue that means “slow down, please!”
Ours is “whooooaaa!” Very, very useful to indicate that the human is tired, and it is time to stop running and to walk at a reasonable, albeit boring, human pace. I don’t like to just stop moving, or slow down abruptly, without giving Nala a verbal indication that that’s what’s happening. Being able to go and sniff is usually the reinforcer for this cue–I’ll follow her to whatever she wants to sniff (usually a storm drain).
- While we’re at it, a lot of our cues are really valuable when we go for a run.
Recall out of motion: Sometimes something like a car or a reactive dog comes out of nowhere as we’re running. I like being able to call Nala and have her turn on a dime back to me. We introduced this skill at home with a fun game–toss a cookie, she runs after it, she eats the cookie, I call her and give her better cookies! Eventually you can level up to calling her before she gets to the cookie. I always reinforce recalls with things Nala really likes!
“Wait!” Nala learned this cue at the door and has generalized it well. We mostly use it before crossing streets. Reinforced with food, with running across the street at top speed, or both.
“Let’s go!” gets her moving again when she’s stopped to sniff. I reinforce it intermittently with food to keep the behavior strong.
“This way!” signals a directional change. Reinforced with more running!
My favorite, the poop pick-up down-stay: Taught using the new cue-old cue method. When I bend down to pick up poop, Nala folds back into a down and stays while I scoop. This keeps her from pulling me onto my face in a pile of poop! So, obviously, I’m a fan.
- A sense of humor, and a willingness to meet your dog halfway.
Running is probably good for you and it’s probably good for your dog, but your dog doesn’t get to put in a request for what kind of exercise she wants to do each day, you know?
I already know that Nala lives through her nose–what it tells her is always the most salient available data, as far as she’s concerned. So it’s no surprise that sometimes as we’re running, she jolts to a stop as though she’s run into an invisible glass wall, then spins around and searches, tail wagging, for whatever delightful smell she found. That means that sometimes I have to jolt to a stop, too. I probably look pretty stupid and clumsy! Fortunately, I’m usually paying close enough attention to Nala to avoid tripping and falling on my face. And it’s more important to me that Nala get the mental enrichment she needs through access to exciting new smells than that we run without stopping for however many miles. Sniffing is great physical and mental exercise for dogs, and tires most of them out even more than mindlessly running forward, ignoring everything interesting, for half an hour. You may not choose to let your dog sniff whenever she feels like it on a run, but please at least give her a nice warm up and cool down period in which she can follow her nose.
Bonus not recommended:
A waist leash!
I know that a lot of people love hands-free leashes and use them without any issues. I haven’t looked closely at a lot of models–I’m only familiar with my own, where the handle can be adjusted to be big enough to go around one’s waist.
The thing is, it doesn’t have any options for quick release in the event that your dog sees a squirrel on the ground about thirty feet ahead of you. That means that when one day, after a week or two of happy waist leash use, I saw disaster coming, I could do nothing! Nala and I were running across a street. I saw her brow draw together, her eyes sharpen, her ears pull forward. I felt her speed pick up–faster! faster! Faster than a human can run! I saw the squirrel. I saw the tree. I ran into the tree.
If I had just been using a normal leash, I would have dropped the leash. Nala would have run ahead, treed the squirrel, and stayed there. I would have picked up the leash. We would have admired the squirrel for a minute or two and gone home.
As it was, I hurt my back, tore up my hands, and spent a few humiliating minutes crawling around on the ground looking for my glasses.
So, waist leashes! I do not recommend them if your dog is nearly as big as you and thinks that chasing squirrels is hilarious. That said, if you can find one with a quick-release option, by all means, use it! But practice quickly releasing without your dog, before you get yourself slammed into a tree. Please. For me.
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