After moving from England to Missouri three years ago, James began an exhaustive search for the right running partner, one who could hit the wooded trails in the morning with him and then snuggle up with his wife at home for the rest of the day.
Finding such a giving, accommodating running partner was a difficult task — until, that is, he met Dani. The 8-month-old German Shorthaired Pointer had originally been rescued by James’ sister-in-law, but she could no longer care for the energetic pup. Without hesitation, James and his wife accepted the offer to take Dani in, and a beautiful new relationship was born. “Pointers are the best buddies for running and friendship,” the 30-year-old tells me. “So Dani was perfect.”
Three years later, James and Dani’s athletic partnership has been so successful that the two of them even have a gold medal to their name. “It was our first human-dog race together, and we came in first overall, clocking in a sub-20-minute 5k time,” he says. “The best part is that she pooped twice, so I had to stop and clean up twice, but we still finished way ahead of everyone else!”
Dani’s distance-running prowess, however, didn’t develop overnight. Training your dog to run with you for three miles requires several vet visits, patience, and above all else, great communication. It should also be noted that while “working breeds” like Dani have been bred over centuries to withstand long periods of herding, hunting and pulling sleds, other breeds just aren’t cut out for distance running. Not to mention, whatever the breed, your dog may suffer from respiratory issues, have physical problems that puts them at risk of injury or simply not enjoy running for sustained lengths of time.
To that end, James, who recently welcomed an 11-month-old English Setter named Benji to the pack, says some mornings his dogs are clear about skipping the daily run to sleep in. “Dani makes it obvious she’s not up for a run by refusing to get out of bed and staying snuggled up with my wife,” he explains. “Benji tells me he doesn’t want to run by immediately ‘setting’ into a point outside and not moving unless it’s obvious I will only walk.”
Clearly, James has taken the time to learn how his dogs communicate: “There’s a lot of training involved, and there are a few baseline commands that are extremely important for anyone who wants to run with their dog — leave it, stop, slow down, faster, left, right and straight-on should all be known by both the dog and human before venturing out on longer runs.”
Not only does this make runs go smoother, but it safeguards against your dogs excitedly wanting to greet other runners on the trail, which might not end well. As James puts it, energetic dog breeds can be so excited to be out on a run in the woods that “they just can’t contain themselves.” “The first run, in all honesty, will be a hot mess, but also hilarious,” he says. “So training is tough at that point, but it’s memorable just for how adorably happy and excited they are.”
After making sure his dogs were cleared health-wise — veterinarians recommend that anyone wanting to run long distances with their dogs get them a full physical exam beforehand — James took to the subreddit r/runningwithdogs, where the human halves of dog-human running pairs seek guidance, preach caution and celebrate their good bois.
These days, James, Benji and Dani are a well-oiled team. After letting both dogs out at 4 a.m., James hits the road with Benji at 4:30 “for anywhere between three to six miles.” He then switches dogs, “and does another three to six miles with the second pup. Since both are high-energy breeds, this morning run makes it easier to leave them home alone.”
With sufficient behavioral training, human runners should work to find the pace and distance their dog is comfortable running. As veterinarian Marty Becker writes, “A dog’s natural gait for covering distance is an efficient dog trot, and that’s the pace they should stay with — no sprinting or fast-paced running.”
James has a “specific harness for running, so they know it’s business time and not fun walking time,” and carries water, snacks and safety gear for himself and his running buddies. He also tracks their vitals and health goals with Fitbark, which is basically Fitbit for dogs. All the while, he also pays close attention to how Benji or Dani are behaving. “Both of my pups cannot handle anything over 75 degrees very well, but they’ll go for miles in anything below 30 degrees,” he says. “Seriously, Dani once ran 15 miles with me in sub-30 degree weather.”
“Pace can be tricky, too,” James continues. “Sometimes you’re perfectly in sync and it’s the most amazing run ever. Sometimes one of you wants to go faster or slower than the other.”
Ultimately, though, running with Dani and Benji isn’t about breaking personal times or qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It’s about James and his pups, and he cherishes every minute of every run with them, even if Benji is always having to shit in the woods. “It’s best to accept that you shouldn’t have a pace goal when running with dogs,” he says. “Every run is different, and that’s what makes it fun.”