Running like a dog (2014)

(Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2014)

Forget complicated training regimes. Richard Askwith gets all the exercise he wants in the company of his pet Fauve, Nutmeg

Nutmeg after a run

You can’t go far these days without seeing an advertisement or shopfront display urging you to spend money on running: £150 trainers, state-of-the-art clothing, specialist sports drinks. It’s odd. Running itself hasn’t become any more expensive, yet somehow we’re always being urged to throw more cash at it.

Odder still, in my view, is the fact that this barrage of marketing never mentions the best luxury running aid of all: the dog.

OK, so “luxury” might not be the first word that came to mind if you met my dog, Nutmeg. She’s short and dumpy, with a broad backside and chaotically shaggy fur. Imagine a much-miniaturised Highland cow, with extra-short legs and no handlebar horns, and you’ll be visualising Nutmeg. She’s allegedly pedigree (a Fauve), but it’s impossible to imagine her at Crufts without a security guard in hot pursuit.

She isn’t cheap, what with vets’ bills, food and chewed furniture. She is, however, a brilliant way of keeping fit.

Most dog owners know the value of a dog as a way of getting you out of the house daily. It’s the dog that demands it, come rain or shine, but you get the benefit too. That’s just the start of it, though, for a recreational runner who lives in the countryside. When you run together, preferably off-road, two ostensibly separate things, owning a dog and being a runner, merge. After a dozen years of running with a canine companion (Nutmeg’s predecessor has retired), I feel as frustrated as the dog does if we’re deprived of our morning excursion – and almost naked if I’m ever forced to run dogless.

It’s not just that you miss the background whiffle of doggy breathing, or the reassuring clink of name-tag on collar: running without a dog deprives you of whole layers of interaction with the world around you.

Here I am, for example, on a typical morning run, shuffling out of the village at dawn and into the frosty fields. Nutmeg, attached to an extender lead, swerves wildly through the grass, swooping like a hairy porpoise. Immediately, her ecstasy at the clarity of the previous night’s scents begins to thaw my somnolent grumpiness. The inward-looking preoccupations of the sleeping human give way to the outward-looking focus of an animal. Never mind what I’m feeling – look, listen, smell.

The farther we run, the more I find myself thinking in canine terms. What’s out there? Who’s been here? What else lies just out of sight? Nutmeg’s body language acts as an extra sense for me. After half a mile, we’re through the last sheep field, and I’m ready to unleash her. She tugs before I can do so, sprinting suddenly ahead with involuntary half-yelps. I’ve no choice but to follow and, eventually, I spot the cause of her excitement: a dark fox 100 metres ahead that I would have missed entirely had I been alone.

I’m relieved when it darts through a hedge and Nutmeg is forced to abandon the chase. I’m too old to enjoy sprinting flat-out at the beginning of a run. But it’s good to be warmed up and, now that I’ve a chance to unclip the lead, we can settle into a more relaxed rhythm, me keeping an even pace and a straightish line while Nutmeg starts, stops, strays and returns.

These are my favourite moments as we explore our surroundings, each in our own way. We may not encounter anything dramatic, but there’s rarely a morning when I don’t feel my soul refreshed by my sensory perceptions of the endlessly complex Northamptonshire countryside. I’m certain Nutmeg must feel something similar.

We don’t chat – obviously – as one might to a human co-runner; but then chatting isn’t always desirable if you want to get the most from nature. There is, however, enough companionship for me to feel that our experiences are shared. We’re buffeted by the same winds, scratched by the same thistles, excited by the same wildlife, splashed by the same mud – and hosed down at the same tap afterwards.

Sometimes the partnership breaks down: for example, when Nutmeg discovers a scent so compelling that a quiet word is insufficient to bring her back to my side. Such transgressions (usually involving hares) have been known to result in me sprinting through field after field, shouting and spluttering, desperate to keep her within sight.

Most of the time, though, she’ll stay within about 10 metres of me, or, if she doesn’t, will hurry back within that radius as soon as she’s finished what she’s doing. I’ve noticed over the years that other dogs tend to do this too. I’ve often taken other people’s dogs on runs and even those I hardly know seem to sense that same invisible boundary. I think of it as the “pack” zone.

And, just as dogs find it reassuring to run within it, so do I. We feel like a team, each acting as a source of information for the other. I can spot the best way to weave our way through a field of knee-high thistles, or work out that bullocks two fields away necessitate a detour. Nutmeg can not only smell a million times more effectively than me but can sense in advance that one patch of turf is boggier than another, or where the snow is thinnest. We can’t use words to share this information, but our body language is a pretty good substitute.

It’s probably best that we do most of our running in fields where no one can see us. Nutmeg looks so unathletic that it doesn’t reflect well on me that we’re evenly matched. I can usually beat her in a flat-out sprint: her forte is stamina, like a beagle. But years of shared running have caused our fitness levels to converge, as have our attitudes. Sometimes we’ll come to a particularly inviting field, and she’ll glance up at me. The silent message is unmistakable: race you to the far side. Victory for the human is by no means assured.

Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to live within easy access of fields, paths and woods where they can run freely with an unleashed dog. Yet any form of running with a dog – even on a tight leash on the edge of a busy road – seems to build a special bond between dog and owner. Perhaps that’s why the concept of sharing your running habit with a dog – or, indeed, doing any sort of sport with a dog – seems to be enjoying a surge in popularity. You may have noticed a canine theme in this year’s Sport Relief. There’s a booming world of CaniX races too: dog-friendly running events linked to a range of specialist products such as harnesses that attach to the human waist. And there are plenty of products to be bought from other manufacturers, from Toughtek bootees (for the dog) and a Fitbark digital device (the canine equivalent of a Nike+ FuelBand) to a fully-fledged Fit Fur Life canine treadmill.

Each to his own; but, for me, this misses the point. The real rewards of running with a dog come not from encouraging the dog to enjoy exercising in a more human way, but from learning to enjoy one’s own exercise in a more canine way.

I’ve been a runner for more than 30 years and cannot remember taking as much pleasure from my running as I do now. I attribute this to being infected with Nutmeg’s simplistic, optimistic world-view. Never mind times, targets, distances or statistics. Just focus on the here and now and let the inexhaustible mysteries of the English countryside fill your mind with wonder.

If nothing else, it’s enjoyable. And enjoying your training is the surest route to fitness of all.

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