Doggone It! How To Trail Run With Your Dog

How to trail run with your dog.

By on May 4, 2011 | Comments
Junebug the dog trail running.

Junebug running in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

The way its ears lay back, how its tongue falls from the side of its wide-open mouth, the fluidity of its gait: a moving dog is a happy dog. Some dog breeds are built for short walks, while others are made for lightning sprints. And, still others are built with endurance any runner would envy. At whatever the appropriate speed and distance, a dog in motion is a happy pooch.

Some of us runners like to share our prized sport with canid companions. For example, my dog, a Border Collie who could run almost forever, was my running companion for eight years. She and I shared thousands of road and trail miles. Old age is getting the best of her these days, so she’s now my favorite company for a walk around the block.

Trail running with a dog is an awesome way to spend a day. I won’t forget running with Junebug on dusty, Chihuahuan Desert roads or along elk trails crisscrossing Montana’s sagebrush plateaus. Trail running with a dog can also turn terrible. This winter, a co-worker’s dog nearly died after falling into a creek and becoming lodged underneath ice. To save the dog, its owner had to go underwater to pull the dog out. When the dog turned up not breathing, they performed doggie CPR. The dog survived, but I bet its owners wished the day had proceeded differently. And, take a look at this sad story of a man who died last weekend trying to save his dog while on a hike. [Broken link to Wend Mag (RIP) removed.]

Success while trail running or otherwise adventuring in the great outdoors with a dog requires a bit of conscious effort. It’s your job, as the dog’s owner, to make responsible decisions on behalf of the environment, other trail users, and your dog.

Caring for the Environment
Most trails are located on land that’s being conserved by someone or some agency, from private lands with conservation easements to public lands under city, county, state, or federal management. And, conserved lands typically have regulations for use developed to maintain their natural integrity.

Junebug the dog on a snowshoe trip in Montana.

Junebug on a snowshoe trip in Montana.

Some areas may have dog-use regulations in place to prevent watershed contamination via dog feces. This is common in natural areas that serve as both popular play places as well as water sources for large human populations. Dog use is also regulated in natural areas for wildlife protection. Ground-nesting birds, animals that perceive dogs as predators, and wild canids are examples of wild animals that can be negatively affected by the presence of dogs.

If a trail system permits dogs, it is still up to you to do no harm to the environment. When passing through a delicate wetland, leash your dog so that it doesn’t trample vegetation. Follow the area’s recommendations for feces cleanup. Do not allow your dog to chase wildlife. It’s my opinion that a dog can have a negligible impact on the environment through which it travels with a little help from its owner.

Caring for Other Trail Users
Some folks love dogs, and some folks don’t. I, for one, love dogs I know. But I don’t love an approaching unknown dog. That’s because a strange dog punched its canine all the way through a piece of my hand about five years ago on a trail run.

Some natural areas have enacted dog regulations to provide everyone trail access whether they are a dog lover or not. Nearby-to-me, for example, some areas have dog days and non-dog days in alternating fashion. Other natural areas have dog leash laws in place to keep dogs under control and, thus, away from the folks who don’t want to share the wilderness with canids.

Junebug the dog on a trail run in Death Valley National Park.

Junebug on a run in Death Valley National Park.

Beyond regulation, trail running dog owners should also possess the skills needed to keep their dogs to themselves. You should have the ability to recall your pooch under every dog-distracting circumstance. Can you keep your dog away from someone’s squeaky bike, a trail runner hauling arse, or another dog? The answer should be yes. Such infallible control, be it via a leash or voice, is founded in obedience training and practice long before you hit the trail.

Caring for Your Dog

Junebug the dog on a hike in southern Utah

Junebug on a hike in southern Utah.

A dog is a dog, a little creature with moderate intelligence that will do almost anything to please its owner. Some dogs know their limits. But, let’s face it, most don’t. Dog owners are, thus, more like dog governors.

When you’re planning a voyage, think about how the terrain, the trip’s length, and the area climate will affect your pooch. Will hours of repeated padding on rough terrain injure your dog’s feet? Several years ago, I took Junebug on a 20-mile run on the dirt roads of Death Valley National Park. By the end, the pads of her feet were tender and cracked. I learned the hard way the toll terrain took on my dog’s feet. If you worry about foot injuries, get a pair of dog booties and let your pooch practice wearing them around the neighborhood first.

If you’re planning a long trail run with your dog, consider its fitness level and make certain that your dog has the endurance to happily go the distance. For long trail runs or outdoor adventures, your dog needs food and water, just like you do. Sometimes your dog can drink from creeks and lakes to hydrate, while you’ll need to carry water for your dog in other areas.

Weather affects dogs. Some dogs are not made for exercise in extreme heat or cold, while other dogs don’t like stormy weather. Border Collies are notoriously sensitive to loud noises, so taking Junebug on a run in a thunderstorm would torture her. If your dog is big, black, and furry, think twice about a long run on hot day.

One last note on caring for your dog when you’re trail running: keeping your dog under leash or voice control also keeps it safe. Once, at the knife-edge top of Montana’s Bridger Mountains, about seven miles out and in rugged terrain, I encountered a couple looking for their dog. The previous day, the unleashed dog ran away from them and didn’t come back. I don’t know if that dog was ever found, but can you imagine what type of death a lost domestic dog might have in a place as wild as Montana.


A Couple Last Thoughts
The politics of dogs on trails is, in many geographic areas, contentious. Your dog deserves a lifetime of good play, and so does everyone else out there. Keep everyone happy, including your canid best friend, by following local dog regulations and making decisions in the name of your dog’s safety.

Do you run with your dog? If so, what have been your favorite experiences… and your toughest? Whether or not you have a dog, what do you see as the biggest issues with dogs on the trails?

Junebug the dog trail running in Montana

Meghan and Junebug trail running in Montana.

Meghan Hicks

Meghan Hicks is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor from 2013 through mid-2023, when she stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.