Q: I’ve been looking around for suggestions that might help me and my 4yo whippet. She’s been with me just 6 months and is healthy and active and great on the lead. We’ve been working up to running 5km together (I’m a slow half-marathon runner, my 5km time is 25-30 mins). She runs beautifully for the first half of the run then lags horribly, at full stretch of the lead, behind me, most of the way back. It doesn’t matter what the distance is – she will run 4km in one direction, but lag after 2km if we turn around. I’ve tried running circuitous loops but I can’t fool her. I’ve also varied the time of day, our routine when we get home, the pee-breaks we stop for, whether I give her lots of verbal encouragement or not. Nothing seems to make any difference. She does not do the same thing on walks, or when running beside my husband on his bike.
Also, last weekend I did a 5km fun run with her and she was perfect the whole way! I guess being around other runners motivated her?!
Any ideas gratefully received! She has other exercise options, including short sprints in the park which obviously is the natural thing for a whippet, but I’d love to work through the running thing with her if we can.
Also, fyi, the run we did was a parkrun. I would guess you already know about www.parkrun.com.au? We did the Southbank run, which is dogfriendly – you have to check on the event you want to attend if you want to run with a dog.
A: Hi there! Just a couple of brief background points before we get to what I think is the most likely problem.
Are her nails in good condition? Our kids’ Whippets don’t wear their nails down as well as our working dogs do. After a decent trot their long nails can cause discomfort and a disinclination to continue. Depending on the surface, this happens at different distances. We have to check and trim their nails more frequently than those of the other dogs. This doesn’t sound like the problem in this instance.
The surface your dog is running on can also vary in its comfort for the dog. We find that the softer the surface, the more our dogs like it. So sand is better than grass is better than dirt is better than bitumen or concrete. Again, this doesn’t sound like the problem.
I think that maybe the issue is that the end of the run is the end of the game, and your dog doesn’t like that. She is reacting to the less enjoyable “end of the game” by trying to avoid it or put it off. The dog has learned that the end of the rewarding experience (the run) comes at home. Is there some other event that occurs at the end of your run together that the dog finds un-enjoyable? Is it given all of its needs, such as a cool place to lie down, a treat or two, water, a bit of praise for a nice run, company, or time alone?
The trick to overcoming this may be to introduce another activity that the dog will find enjoyable as a reward for finishing the run. Does your whippet like to chase toys, romp with you, snack, chill out, meet other dogs? Finding her pleasure buttons at the end of a run could be the key to keeping her motivated to finish with you rather than behind you.
For instance, if she’s a bit of a foodie, you can get her most special treat and pop it at the front door. Make sure she sees it as you’re leaving. Go for a very short run and then reward her when you get home. Praise her effusively with a phrase such as “Good run” so that she associates her favourite treat with the words.
If she likes canine company, take her to a dog park. Pop her on a lead and go for a kilometre from the park, and then the kilometre back. Take her inside the dog park and slip her lead, praising her for a good run. If she finds dog parks and canine company rewarding, she will zoom off and have a great time. It is important to associate a cue such as “Good run!” with the reward, so you can use it again to indicate a reward is coming.
If you associate a high value reward, delivered at the end of a run, with a verbal cue, you can use that cue to indicate to the dog that the reward is coming. In clicker training the cue is called a bridge and is used to indicate to the dog when the desired behaviour is being performed. So when she’s running well you can use the phrase “Good run!” to indicate that her little reward is being prepared for her. There is no need to reinforce it immediately – in fact you don’t want to do this at all.
Here’s the tricky and hard part: you have to withhold the cue and the treat when the desired behaviour is not forthcoming, once the behaviour has been established. So if you can get her to jog up and down the road happily for a piece of barbecued chicken skin (say) then that is the benchmark to expect. If she doesn’t deliver, neither do you. This won’t break the desired behaviour pattern, it will reinforce it. Once she’s happy to do this, and has come to expect it, you can lengthen the run gradually (there is only so much power in a piece of chicken skin / play with the neighbour’s dog / chase of a Frisbee) until it’s back at the distance you’re hoping to do. As well as increasing the distance, once she’s happily looking forward to the end of the run, you have to start dropping the treat from the scene altogether – begin to resume your normal routine. Surprise her with a treat now and then, but don’t make yourself a rod for your own back because your dog expects triple smoked pastrami or a bubble bath at the end of every run.
We like Parkrun, and have participated with our kids and dogs. Unfortunately, the run we were going to started to get a little too busy to have a dog on lead weaving in and around other runners. We will look for a less busy venue with nice wide paths and also wait until the weather gets cooler again before we take the dogs to another Parkrun event.