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Ensuring the Health of Running Guide Dogs

By Dr. Beth Brenninkmeyer, DVM, Guiding Eyes Chief Veterinary Officer

Dr. Beth Brenninkmeyer, DVM, Guiding Eyes Chief Veterinary Officer

While our Guiding Eyes Running Guide Dog Teams are out training in local parks, we often hear the same questions: How far are you going?  (Usually between three and five miles.)  Where did you get those great boots?  (From our partner Ruffwear.)  And most importantly, is that safe for the dog?  At Guiding Eyes, maintaining the health and wellbeing of these world-class canines is our primary concern from the day our litters are born – for it is the health of the dog that ensures the safety of the graduate they will one day guide and protect.

Running Prevents Canine Obesity

When addressing the issue of running safely with dogs, we begin with the health benefits.  One of the biggest health concerns our canine companions face is obesity, with body weight at least 15% above ideal.  Global clinical surveys from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention indicate that greater than 50% of the canine population is considered overweight or obese.  Obesity is a major contributor to long-term health issues; it can significantly shorten a dog’s life span and reduce quality of life as secondary medical conditions develop in the face of excessive stress on organ systems and joints.

Fortunately, obesity is largely preventable through proper diet and exercise.  It is essential for all dogs – particularly working dogs – to participate in regular activity in order to maintain physical and mental acuity.  This health benefit to our Running Guide Dogs is one half of the equation of running as a team with their graduate, as the graduate also reaps the rewards of regular exercise.

Monitoring Dogs for Safe Running

We’ve all seen the disclaimer directed at humans, “Before starting an exercise program, consult with your doctor.”  At Guiding Eyes, we follow that advice for our canines as well.  To ensure that our dogs are physically sound for guide work as well as running, we evaluate radiographs of all of our dogs’ hips, knees and elbows at approximately 16 months, before they begin to run.

Guide dogs that participate in the Running Guides Program are chosen for their overall stamina, focus and desire to run.  In the program, dogs learn to avoid obstacles and navigate a route at a comfortable pace.  Our graduates also receive training on how to recognize injury in dogs.  Dogs can be stoic, and may continue to run through subtle injuries, so we advise graduates on recognizing subtle changes in pace or hesitation.

Our Running Guides program follows the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for Safe Running:

Guiding Eyes vet monitors running guide dog Gus

To keep you and your pet safe when running, follow these simple rules:

  1. Consult your veterinarian before starting your dog on any exercise program. Make sure your pet is healthy enough and ready to run.
  2. If your dog is overweight, running isn’t the best way to start – talk to your veterinarian about a diet and gradual exercise program that begins with walks and gradually works up to running.
  3. Do not begin running with your dog until you are confident that your dog has good leash manners.
  4. Plan your route. Know where you’re going, as well as places to take a break if you or your dog needs to cool off.
  5. Start with shorter distances and gradually build up.
  6. Take enough water for you and your dog.
  7. Do not run during the warm hours of the day during the warm seasons, and avoid the coldest times of day during winter unless your dog tolerates the weather extremes. During extreme weather, you should probably leave your pet at home (and also consider your own safety when deciding whether or not to run outdoors in extreme weather conditions).
  8. If your dog must wear a jacket/coat while running in cool/cold weather, make sure the jacket fits well, doesn’t have hanging straps that could tangle in your dog’s legs, and doesn’t interfere with your dog’s leg movements, breathing, sight, hearing or ability to open his/her mouth.
  9. Watch for signs of a problem while running, such as: lameness, sudden stopping, change in attitude, reddened gums, labored breathing or excessive panting. If you notice any of these signs, stop running immediately and seek veterinary help.
  10. Check your dog’s paw pads and legs after each running session for skin damage, swelling or pain.
  11. If you run in ice or snow, rinse your dog’s feet (including the spaces between the toes and paw pads) thoroughly after each running session to make sure you’ve washed off the salt (and ice melter), and consider using paw protectors.
  12. Do you stretch before and/or after a run? Your dog might also benefit from his. Consider learning how to appropriately stretch your dog’s legs.

As our New York City Half Marathon Running Guide Dogs relay through the 13.1 mile race on March 17, our team of Guiding Eyes volunteers and veterinarians will be on hand to provide check-ups and ensure the team’s hydration, health and safety.  Whether you are running with your dog in a world-class race or just taking a quick jog around the park, following the AVMA guidelines for safe running will help ensure that your dog stays healthy for years to come.