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.
1. Assess your dog's physical features.
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 Short Hair. 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.
2. Establish an interest.
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.
3. Start slow.
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 are 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.
4. Build a base with play-training.
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.