DOG SPORTS AND RUNNING
I've recently signed up for a course on Mindfully Walking Your Dog because I'm exploring new ways to help clients create deeper connections with their dogs. RUNNING WITH DOGS Part of my reason for this is because I'm worried about the amount of Canine running events and other Dog Sports I've started to see advertised during the summer months. Most of you who work with me have troubled or reactive dogs and we've shared the science behind why we advise that you don't run or cycle with them. It raises adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine and intensifies an already hyped-up, reactive system. Hyped-up dogs find it hard to access the thinking part of their brain and are more likely to react to triggers.
They may not be reactive during the running activity itself (which is why running with reactive dogs can seem to "work") But exercising like this just means it's possible to take a dog out without her barking and lunging at triggers while she's running. It doesn't solve the problem, and most reactive dogs who get high levels of running exercise often respond with real intensity towards triggers when they're not being run. DOG WELFARE There are other reasons we don't advise running with dogs, though. Thinking-Dog is based on canine welfare and choice. Because both these things create happy, healthy, confident dogs.
When a dog is running on-lead, she has no choice about where she goes on her walk and has to follow the runner at his or her pace. I see so many dogs being unhappily run around town. They get jerked on the lead if they try to stop or slow down and pulled along if they try to sniff . They're generally panting. Often because they're stressed as much as because they're hot. Their gait is unbalanced because they're often leaning away from an owner who is making them feel uncomfortable. This leaning away can put
added stress on tired limbs. If a dog can't regulate her pace on a walk, she can't regulate her temperature and this is one of my biggest concerns about running with dogs on-lead. The activity and exercise is aimed at building the human element's fitness and stamina, often without much understanding of the impact this may be having on the dog. Particularly in the hottest months of the year. OVER HEATING Events go ahead, even in high temperatures, despite vet and canine welfare organisations warning about not walking dogs during the day when it's hot.
Running in heat, with a dog forced to go at a set pace on a lead is a serious compromise of the dog's welfare. How often are these events cancelled when temperatures soar?
STRESSED DOGS Added to this are the number of barking, overexcited, reactive dogs at these events who can't cope with the cocktail of hormonal chemicals surrounding them. Once running, they may be ok, because the repetitive, rhythmic movement when running can have a distracting and euphoric effect on their brains. Raised levels of dopamine and endorphins will invariably flood the brain and can displace stress and anxiety with euphoria. But dog sports and activities mean a lot more than the running itself. How do dogs feel about the start and end of events? Where too many people and dogs are often too close for comfort for an over-hyped, anxious dog? Does the joy of running outweigh the stress felt by a troubled dog, whose owner often interprets stress and anxiety as "excitement"? DOG PAIN LEVELS I know a lot of sporty, active people, and most of them have regular aches and pains.
I've been one myself and used to love running (although I ran like a chicken and had to stop. It just wasn't nice, for anyone involved...)
Some of the pains we get when we exercise are low level and mildly uncomfortable and others are more severe. That's ok, it's our choice to run, play tennis, football or whatever your thing might be. We mostly know our own bodies. We also mostly know when to rest and when to heal if we're in pain.
Dogs are far less expressive of pain than people. Studies have shown that latent (hidden) pain in dogs is a cause for reactivity. Some dogs will experience chronic pain and show it as just a bit of stiffness in their gait, particularly when they get up after resting. This can be missed by owners. We might dismiss it as our dog being "a bit stiff". Or we may think, "he'll soon run it off." Maybe he will, but we have no idea of the levels of discomfort and pain a dog may experience as a result of running. Dogs will run, despite acute pain. Betty, my staffie, is incapable of regulating herself to manage her pain. She's 11 now and has arthritis but she still does regular zoomies up and down the garden. She suffers afterwards, but her houndy brain can't make the link between crazy zoomies and the subsequent pain in her shoulder. I can give her supplements and pain relief to help her, but I wouldn't want to stop her joy when she zooms. She is a dog who may well enjoy going for the odd run with me, but I would never do it with her because it wouldn't be good for her.
I love chocolate. But more than a bar a day is going to cause a whole lot of stress to my system. Ok, so maybe even a bar a day isn't so good ...
EXCITED DOESN'T MEAN HAPPY An excited dog who is reacting to lead, harness and running kit can't control her behaviour to ease her pain when she's stimulated by her lead. She will bounce about and do "happy" because that's what she always does when she sees her lead, and that feeling will momentarily take her mind off any pain she might have. Likewise, if I see chocolate (or even hear someone else unwrapping a bar in another room) I will forget about the ongoing pain in my hip. But it doesn't stop the pain. The dog wants to go out because she loves the experience of being with her owner. She will react the same way to her lead whether or not that experience is a moochy, sniffly walk, or a run. Dogs' brains are geared up to react to stimuli: Lead = outside and being with mum = woohoo! Her reaction doesn't mean she loves running. She just loves being out with you. What she really needs is time spent with you exploring her world. A dog who is run on-lead has no sniffing opportunities and dogs need to sniff on walks - it's how they explore and experience their world. Sniffing on walks is a fundamental part of our dogs' well being.
Pounding the streets doesn't give a dog any chance to sniff and isn't good for healthy brain and emotional development. Pounding the streets every night, or even every other night during hot summer months is too much for any dog. It puts too much stress on a dog's system and isn't good for bone, tendon, cardio or muscular health. Pounding the park, hill or dale in a crowd of people and dogs in the heat is also a big ask for any dogs. They'll do it, because they love being with us, but how good is it for them? I do a lot of work with dogs who have been damaged by dog sports and activities. They either have latent pain or they feel overwhelmed by fitness regimes and spending too much time around other dogs and people.
There are many dogs who are happy with a certain level of sociability and activity, but there are also very many who aren't. Sadly, their families often don't realise until it's too late. They come to me when their dogs have started lunging, barking (and a whole lot of other reactive responses) because their systems have been overloaded with too little down time. MINDFUL TIME WITH OUR DOGS What most dogs want is time with us. Mooching about at home. Scampering about on a beach. Rambling through a wood. Meeting up with friends. During these "mum/dad and me" times, dogs all do the same thing: they sniff.
Sniffing takes dogs to their happy place. We can share that happy place mindfully. We can focus on our dogs and the world around us. It might just take us there as well.