Sunday, April 16, 2017

Racing with dogs: My experiences and some tips


I have been running and racing with Stella, my 6 year old Australian shepherd for about 4 years now.  Lucky for us, more and more dog themed races are popping up, and more and more race directors are starting to be okay with people running their races with their dogs responsibly.  Races are a great way to raise money for good causes and humane societies and shelters are great causes to raise money for, for sure!  I know in our area alone KSU vet med, the Lawrence Humane Society, the Purple Power Animal Welfare Society, Wichita Humane Society and the Topeka Humane Society all have 5 K races that directly benefit their organizations or their partner organizations.  I wanted to write a blog today about how to race with dogs, including the good and the bad, and how to respect other runners and race directors if it isn't a dog themed race. By talking about my experiences I have had with running and racing with Stella, I hope I can give you some good tips about how to run and race with your dogs and have a great time!

First of all, let me talk briefly about training.  Just like humans, every dog is different in what they can handle weekly and monthly mileage wise, weather wise, and distance wise.  Please please, talk to your vet before running with your dog, as some breeds have specific issues that might need to be addressed before they start an exercise program.  Please, please be patient with puppies and wait till their growth plates are closed before starting a regimented training program (over a year for most breeds).  Just as you wouldn't want to be pulled off the couch and asked to run a marathon, don't expect just because your dog plays fetch or likes to run in the yard, that they will be able to incorporate directly into your weekly training plan.  There are pooch to 5K programs out there or you can simply use the couch to 5 K app to help train your dog.  

When I am training for a race, pretty much any distance, my dogs go with.  I run VERY early in the morning to avoid the heat and humidity of the Kansas spring and summers.  I do this to ensure my dogs get to train with me.  It's hard to get up so early, especially with two night owls in the house, but I do it so we can all train.  Stella and Deuce have both trained for separate marathons with me, and Stella started training for a 50 K with me.  Again, I know my dogs, I watch my dogs intently, and I make sure they are of good weight and good conditioning, and I run with a phone if anything happens and they need to be picked up quickly.  I don't have a set temp that they can't go out in, more like a combination of temperature, humidity, and shade/cover/standing water availability.  I do also highly encourage anyone that is trail running or running where there is standing water with their dogs to include the Lepto vaccine in your dog's vaccination schedules.  It is a vaccine given every 6 months, so don't let it lapse!  I also prefer to train and race in Hurtta padded Y harnesses versus a collar.  I prefer a harness because the majority of the pull is not on their neck but distributed on their back.  I like a dog that comfortably pulls and runs out in front of me and the harness allows that.  The Y function also keeps the shoulders free for full extension.  For my dogs that like to run all out, this is key!   Plus I love the bright colors and I love the fact that padding prevents chaffing.  

So let's talk about racing with your dog in a non dog themed race, or a dog friendly race I should say, where the majority of the runners do not have a dog.  Most race directors (RDs) have a policy that dog and human teams should start at the back of the pack.  Being slow, I don't mind this rule at all.  As the runners thin out, I work my way forward to where my pace is comfortable, but if it is a shorter race, I always know that that might not happen.  While my dogs run out in front of me thanks to the bungee part of the stunt puppy hand's free leash I use, in a race where there are many other runners around me, I will use the traffic loop at the bottom of the stunt puppy leash to keep Stella close to my side.  It's hard because she doesn't like being held in that position and will pull like a sled dog, but I do NOT want to interfere with anyone else's goals for the day.

I always try to be VERY aware of runners coming up behind me and trying to pass.  I try if possible to stay all the way to one side, so I only have runners passing us on one side.  Stella will range from side to side if I let her, and I don't want her tripping up any runners or cutting any runners off.  It is a privilege that an RD trusts me enough to let my dog enter, even if I pay a fee for her to run, and I want to keep that privilege for all other runners who might want to run with their dog. I don't want any of the runners speaking ill of us for any of our actions. Speaking of RDs, if there is no clearly stated dog policy, I always ask before I just bring her.  Lots of races have canine pacers as an option (like the Trail Nerds group in KC), but some don't, and I like to clarify and pay if that is an option.  I also carry poop bags in my running gear or tied to my leash, so if she can't hold it or if she doesn't go pre-race, I have it covered.  I also check with the RD about rules at water stops. Some RDs prefer the dog not drink directly at the water stops, so you must bring your own water your pooch and water bowl.  Some don't care and you can grab a cup of water and share, but I try to never let her put her feet or any body part for that matter (she can be a mountain goat at times) on the water table.  I usually drink first and then give her the rest of the cup.  If there are clearly stated rules about no dogs at the aid stations, I will just bring a hand held and collapsible portable bowl (the cloth ones that are meant for food work great) that I can stash in my pack or clip on to the leash.  

I love the comments I get at non dog themed races, but be aware that not all runners are thrilled about you being there with a dog.  I have gotten comments about it not being fair (dude I am super slow, not going to win anyway or come anywhere close) and I have encountered people who just don't like dogs period.  For that reason I try and not let her go up to people and visit unless they specifically ask to pet her.  

She also likes to run next to people matching them pace for pace when she gets in the zone, so I will always ask if they are okay with her running next to them.  

Trail races, especially single track trail races can get tricky as well.  Again, I always start at the back, and I encourage people to pass me by getting as far over as I can.  I am a slow and careful trail runner for sure so again, this isn't hard for me to do.  I do not let my dog off leash, even if it is allowed if there are other runners anywhere near.  I do not want to be the reason why someone trips or has a bad race.  

Now let's talk about dog themed races or races, where most of the participants will have dogs with them.  Sometimes these races can be very challenging.  Most dogs brought to these races have not been in huge crowds of other dogs, or around huge crowds of dogs all running at the same time.  The stimulus can be too much at times and fights can break out.  My dogs are use to going to agility trials with hundred of other dogs and handlers in tight spaces, so I have conditioned them to be okay with this type of situation.  Be aware that just as every runner might not like your dog, every dog might not want your dog in their faces and may react unkindly.  This does not mean they are bad dogs or aggressive, it just means they do not like dogs or dog handlers with no manners.  

The cool part of dog themed races is that they usually have water bowls at water stops for the dogs as well as baby pools post race on hotter days.  A lot of the dog themed races give out medals for the dogs or bandanas and prizes include dog treats, frisbees, or other dog related items and will sometimes have a human placement and a dog placement.  

Most of the local dog races have events scheduled around them for not only the four legged side of the family, but also the two legged and usually include bouncy houses, face painting, photo booths, and food and sometimes even beer YUM.  The humane societies or dog shelters sometimes have adoptable dogs for viewing and one of our local races lets you take a shelter dog out for the race!  

I hope I have given you some insight to racing and running with your dogs, through my experiences. I surely enjoy it and you can too!  The great thing about four legged running buddies is that they are almost always rearing to go no matter what time, temp, or distance.  Racing, while sometimes challenging, can also be fun!  Be respectful of others, pick up after yourself including poop and trash, and be prepared to bring water for you and your dog, and enjoy that post race medal and runner's high!  If you have any specific questions, leave me a comment.  Have an aussome day!

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