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Train Your Dog for Long Distance Trail Running in 20 Steps

Posted Jan 24 2012 3:47pm

Six months ago, our dog Ginger couldn’t play for more than five minutes without getting winded and lying down for the rest of the day. Today, Ginger glides through 20-mile trail runs without a sign of fatigue. We can’t keep up.

I’m not a dog trainer. I’m an ultra runner currently training for my first 100-miler with a dog that loves trails. After searching for information on how to train my dog to follow me on my ultra-long runs, I found nothing. So I decided to become my own expert.

I started training Ginger the same way I train myself: back-to-back long runs, night running, trail running, elevation training, and hills. Below are the 20 steps I followed to transform Ginger from a couch dog to an ultra dog.

We don’t know what Ginger’s breed is, so the dog articles that discussed breeds were useless. Ginger was adopted when she was just days old. She’s a mutt. Some people say she looks part Dalmatian or part German Shorthaired Pointer. We just say she’s Mexican (she was abandoned in Tijuana), and have no interest in learning her breed.

Ginger is physically built like a running dog. Her dog-care experts say she has the traits of a hunter. She’s quick, long, lean, and sharp. She’s an amazing sprinter, and her hair is short so she doesn’t overheat easily. Her size and shape compliment distance running.

If Ginger were smaller, or if she had thick fur, she might not have been able to run as long. Keep that in mind when establishing the limits of your own dog.

Not all breeds are physically built for efficient long-distance trail running. But then again, not all humans are training for ultras. So chances are there’s a happy medium where you and your dog can run together.

It’s easy to project our own interests onto the things or people we love. I love trail running, so my dog must love it too, right? Not necessarily. It’s important to make sure this is something your dog enjoys.

Does your dog like to run? Does your dog love trails? Much like humans, you’re not likely to convince someone to train for an ultra if they hate running. Dogs are usually great at showing us what they enjoy. Get their paws on a trail and see how they react.

Sometimes when we drive Ginger home from a trail, she doesn’t want to get out of the car. She thinks the next stop might be another trail.

Trail love

It takes time to train a dog. It took us six months to get Ginger in ultra shape, but it may take much longer. On a positive note, it takes a long time to train a human as well. So patience is important for you both.

Do not ever rush the process. Dogs want so badly to please their owners, and that’s a strong motivation for them. Don’t make your dog “push” to please you, or make them feel that they’ve failed you by not running far enough.

Your dog doesn’t need to be mentally pushed the same way that you do. Dog-hearts in it 100 percent and they always give their best. They’re not stressing over speed or goals or race fears. So if your dog is showing signs of wanting to stop, take it seriously.

Ginger loves chasing her ball, but six months ago she would get winded after five minutes. I started playing with Ginger until she got tired, then I would let her recover before playing again.

At first, it took Ginger half a day to recover and we’d only get in two or three play sessions. As time passed, her recovery times got much shorter. We play-trained for 30 to 60 minutes, two days a week until Ginger was able to play for one hour without stopping. Only then did I start to run with her.

Dogs are less complicated than humans. If they’re tired, they flop on the ground. If they’re thirsty, they drink. If they want to stop running, they will show cues. They may dawdle or just walk. Being receptive to their cues is crucial. Your dog knows what it needs.

My friend Cynthia recently started running with her dog. She knows when her dog Penny is ready for a rest when she stops often to pee:

For the past month, we have gone out about three to five times a week on this little 2K stroll and we do running pickups. Sometimes we do 2.5K depending on how she feels. If I see she is stopping often to do her business, I know it’s not a good day so we take it easy.

I started Ginger with a single run around the block, letting her rest when she got tired. When she recovered, we’d go back out. As time passed, her distances got longer (more loops, less recovery).

When we got to the point where she could run steady for an hour or more without getting tired, we started taking her out to the trails.

As silly as it sounds, Ginger has a Dailymile account where I track her mileage. This helps tremendously as far as knowing what she’s capable of and how far she’s come. It helps me determine what types of distances and conditions she’s ready for, and I note her mood and energy as well.

Every once in a while, tracking her progress also helps me call out and celebrate her milestones. We celebrated her highest elevation run. Her roughest terrain. We even note which wildlife she sees and how she responds.

I record Ginger’s mileage in “Ginger-speak,” typing about the run through her eyes. Here are some examples of her entries:

“I SEEN THE DEER AND I HUNT HIM. IMA WOLF.”

“I RUNNED FAST AND THEN I STOP TO PEE.”

“I SEEN A CAT I TRY TO EAT IT.”

“TIME TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT MY TRAININ….. SQUIRREL!!!!!!”

Ginger has had “Friends” add her and encourage her on her journey. I translate their messages by patting her head. You can add Ginger as a friend here.

All the benefits you get from tracking your own workouts apply to your dog as well. I strongly suggest keeping a log.

The dog-master relationship is precious and your dog will often be bonded to you more strongly than what you imagine. Communicate with them about running, and you’ll be surprised at how much they actually understand and can share in your passion.

Tell your dog they’re going for a run. They’ll probably know exactly what you mean. This is my friend Cynthia’s experience:

I tell Penny the night before that we are going for a run in the morning and she knows what it means. Since (my husband) wakes up before me, she knows she still has some sleeping time until I wake up and we go.

When I get out of the bedroom, I ask her: ‘Are you ready for your run?’ and she gets so excited! Funny thing is she actually stretches before we leave. She does Downward Dog.

The book How to Talk to Your Animals describes how one dog owner started speaking English to his dog, and was shocked to find that his dog understood what he was saying.

“He speaks English!” he exclaimed to his wife. She looked at him in disgust, “Of course he speaks English! What’s he going to speak, German?!”

The author goes on to describe how many words dogs have been known to retain, and tells stories of dogs in Mexico who understand Spanish. According to this book, it’s easier for dogs to understand our language than for us to understand theirs.

Talk to your dog about running. This can keep you accountable as well. If you promised your dog a morning run the night before, you have to get up and do it.

We started with a group trail run of 6 miles, then slowly incorporated other mid-week runs when we could no longer tire her out. Trail running adds a different dynamic to your dog’s experience, so it’s important to monitor this transition.

For Ginger, running in a group was a huge distraction. She hated to be in last place, and would often lunge forward to cut people off. It took some time for her to understand this was not acceptable.

There are also cyclists and wildlife to deal with. There’s a lot of stimulation for a dog. Take your time on this transition until your dog is comfortable with trails.

I found it helped Ginger to have some time off-leash (where possible) to sniff her new surroundings and explore a little. This prevented her from stopping dead in the middle of a single track trail to sniff some poop while tripping the person behind her.

We are still trying to perfect Ginger’s trail manners, especially when it comes to running with strangers and spotting other animals. She recently tried to take down an entire herd of deer by herself. Hunter, much? It’s an on-going process with her.

Some basic obedience training could go a long way here as far as following basic commands. Ginger is learning:

  • “Slow down”
  • “Stop”
  • “Walking”
  • “Come on”
  • “Let’s go”
  • “This way”

Ginger and I on the trails

Ultra trail runners are well known for pooping on the side of the trail. In fact, I’ve heard people say that you’re not a true trail runner until you’ve pooped in the woods. I know that not all runners do this, but when you’re training to run 100 miles, any bush looks like a toilet.

The doggie bags I carry for Ginger are attached to her leash. On one trail run, it dawned on me: Why the hell and I shitting in the woods yet carefully carrying my dog’s poop around? I picked a side: the Non-Doggie Bag Side.

Depending on your distance and your trails, you may pick the Doggie Bag Side. Maybe wood-pooping isn’t something you or your dog want to get into right now. It’s your call.

I always make sure Ginger goes off-trail and if she doesn’t, I’ll move it somewhere I’d poop myself, or slide it over the side of a cliff. She usually tries to bury it herself.

Trail dangers include things like wildlife and rattlesnakes. We will be putting Ginger through a snake training class where she will learn to recognize and avoid snakes.

It’s best to do this at the beginning of the year, to coincide with rattlesnake season. It’s also best to refresh this training every once in a while. This is an important point to follow. One of our trail running friends lost her dog when it was bitten by a rattlesnake.

Dogs and humans both appreciate variety. On our shorter runs, I like to shake things up with Ginger. Sometimes we run “people pace”, and sometimes we run “Ginger pace”.

Ginger pace is where she gets a turn to lead. Instead of following me, I follow her. My pace is always steady and slow, but at Ginger pace we’re either running a mad dash, or stopping dead so she can sniff some pee-mail. This puts some fun into our routine, and keeps both of us engaged and smiling (yes, she smiles).

Does it get much more fun than this? Hellz no. 

The leash that works well for road running with Ginger doesn’t work on trails. Most of the trails we’re running are single track, which means that if Ginger is leashed, she can’t run right beside me—she has be in front or behind. She needs a longer extension.

Also, technical trails can have sudden drops or rocks we have to scale. A shorter leash will start to choke her and severely limits her movement. If she has to leap off a rock and I’m still on it, a short leash is a disaster waiting to happen.

We have opted to let Ginger go off-leash as much as possible, and we often choose our trails based on their seclusion so she doesn’t bother anyone. Ginger is actually much better behaved and obedient when she’s off-leash than when I have her leashed.

If there’s a biker up ahead or another dog that might be aggressive, we’ll hold her until the threat has passed. If we spot other people on the trail, we’ll leash her until we pass them.

Letting your dog off-leash can be scary, but in some ways in comes down to trusting your dog. I knew that Ginger’s nature was very submissive, and she wasn’t one to run away. When we decided to trust her off-leash, we found that she became more protective of us and careful.

Instead of charging ahead like she tends to do on her leash, she would run close to the side of the person who was leading. Then she’d keep looking back to check that the other person wasn’t being left behind.

When we put enough distance between us that we could no longer see the next runner on the trails, Ginger would run back and forth to check on both runners. At one point, I stopped to take off my sweater and adjust my pack. Ginger sat beside me and nudged for me to catch up.

Last weekend Shacky hid behind a bush to see what she’d do if she lost one of us. She ran up and down the trail in search of him until he came out of hiding. She refused to leave him behind.

Miss Ginger checking over her shoulder for Shacky

Your dog needs water just as much as you do. Encourage drinking at the end of every run and make it a routine. As your runs get longer, you should encourage your dog to drink mid-run.

We have Ginger drink every 6 to 8 miles, but some dogs may need to drink more frequently. When we’re on the trail, Ginger is great at drinking from creeks or streams when she needs it.

We keep an eye out for good water sources for Ginger and if there’s nothing appropriate, we pull out her collapsible doggie dish that hooks onto my own hydration pack. If we’re travelling long, she carries her own doggie pack with her own water dish.

Ginger has never gotten sick from stream or creek water, although if the water source doesn’t look clean, we give her water from our own hydration packs.

When we first started running trails, Ginger was so excited that it was difficult for her to settle down and drink. Now she is better at understanding when we want her to hydrate.

Night (especially trail) running adds a different dimension. You may find that your dog behaves strangely under the moon. I have a small doggie light that I attach to Ginger’s collar when we run trails at night, more for my benefit than for hers. It doesn’t do much to light her way, but it ensures that I can spot her easily.

Running in the dark with a leash could take some practice as well. Your dog probably has better vision than you do, and it may take them some time to adjust to your more cautious form and speed. Humans should always wear headlamps.

This is the same process as introducing trails. Monitor the transition closely, and listen to your dog’s body (bet you never heard that one before). Stop if your dog needs to stop. Chances are your dog will probably adjust faster than you can.

I used the same endurance-focused technique to build Ginger’s mileage. Speed didn’t matter, only time on her feet. When she got tired, we recovered and continued. We did this until she was comfortable running 20-mile distances without stopping.

If you’re going to be on the trail long enough, your dog may need to eat. We are still experimenting with different foods for Ginger, but we try to give her some mix of carbs and protein. I have read of dogs eating anything and everything on a trail, from Cheezits to beef jerkey.

For the most part, we let Ginger tell us what she likes and doesn’t like. Interestingly, she loves pizza (hard to carry on a trail) but will also eat whatever we’re eating, from sandwiches to burritos.

On our last long run, I shared a bean and rice burrito with Ginger. At home, we feed her raw meat as well as high-quality, grain-free dog food. Sometimes Ginger’s diet is healthier than our own.

Mexicans love burritos. 

Back-to-back long runs were key for my own ultra training, so that’s where we headed with Ginger. Her recovery is impressive, and she has now caught up to my own training. We start to break down at about the same mileage, and we recover at around the same time. I’ve created the perfect running partner.

1. BFF-status

Your dog can become your most loyal running buddy and bring out the fiercest loyalty in you. You’ll look out for each other and understand each other’s needs. I’ve passed up races because I didn’t want to put Ginger up in a doggie-hotel. Sometimes I’d rather bust out a long run with her.

2. Safety

Any run that I do with Ginger is safer. She’s not an aggressive dog, but I know that if danger calls, she’d step up and defend me. I also know that her mere presence is a deterrent.

I am never approached when Ginger is with me, whereas when I run alone I sometimes get comments, cars slowing down, or some lingering. Recently I was running in the dark with Ginger and I saw a man cross to the other side of the road to avoid us.

3. Fun and Enjoyment

Dogs know how to appreciate trails. They frolic. They sprint. They stand out over a lookout and gaze. Watching them teaches you to appreciate the trails. It reminds you where you are and why you’re here.

On roads, Ginger can be clumsy and careless (she once ran into a brick wall), but on the trails she moves with grace while I stumble along.

Here’s an exerpt from the book How to Talk to Your Animals, which outlines the similarities between wolves and dogs as far as movement and behavior in a natural setting:

In the woods I need not ask him to sit when we come to the top of the hill in view of the glorious Hudson. He glances at me, then the vista, sits down, and, like myself, gazes across the river valley. Only a few weeks ago we were on a new trail that opened up over a lake. Qimmiq lanced back at me, ran to the ridge, and sat down.

‘You’re right, it is beautiful,’ I said. He wagged is tail.

His wild kin, the wolves of Mount McKinley, dig their dens high on hills in view of gray-green valleys and snow-covered peaks. And they, like Qimmiq and me, sit and enjoy the magnificence.

At such moments the glance from either of us will say a volume, and the abyss between species is crossed from both sides.

If you’re thinking about getting a dog, please consider adoption


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