The Dawn Dog Joggers: Safe Hot Weather Exercise

By Dr. Kasandra Garner

Perhaps you have heard of, or even read, Annie Phenix’s excellent book “The Midnight Dog Walkers.” It is a wonderful practical resource for owners of leash reactive, difficult, or aggressive dogs. It occurred to me while I was jogging with my dog in the cool of the early morning last week that there is also a society of “Dawn Dog Joggers.” We wake before the sun is up - at least, in the summer months - to vigorously exercise our high energy dogs before the temperature and humidity make it impossible to do so safely. Later, the dog walkers will emerge. But the misty light of dawn is safest for anything more than a short ramble when the daytime highs reach into the 90s.

Of course, many people choose to wait until evening twilight to walk or run with their dogs. I have always been more of a morning person, and since the air temperature doesn’t drop significantly until after dark and the asphalt temperature stays high a good while after that, I prefer the early mornings to the late night.  If you must go out in the heat of the day, pick a shady route and keep your walk short. Dogs only have a few sweat glands in their foot pads and on their nose. Their primary means of evaporative cooling is through panting, which is not very effective in high heat and humidity. Take special care if your dog has a thick coat or is a “short nose” breed such as a Boxer or Bulldog. By the time your dog shows signs of heat exhaustion, it may be too late. Your dog doesn’t know to hydrate before, during, and after a run. Thirst is not a very good indicator of hydration status. By the time your pet feels thirsty, he or she may already be dehydrated.

Early signs that the heat may be too much for you dogs are excessive panting, lying down and being reluctant to keep going, licking at grass and mud, and refusing to listen to your commands. Please don’t force your dog to keep going if he or she is obviously reluctant. It may not be disobedience, but the early stages of heat stroke that is making him appear obstinate. 

We are lucky in Asheville to live so close to trails. I find that shady trails, especially those that run near rivers, feel much cooler than running in town. My dogs are not avid swimmers, but they do like to wade up to their chests to cool off on hot days. I pause at every stream crossing to give my dogs the chance to get wet to reduce the chance of heat stroke. Please remember to keep your dog’s leptospirosis vaccination up to date if your dog drinks from streams. Additionally, if your dog is showing signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke on a trail, use any source of water available rather than let the heat stroke progress. Immediately wet your dog down with water from a stream or lake and let them drink from it as the danger from the heat stroke progressing most likely outweighs the danger of contracting disease from the stream or lake.

Even better, trails above 4000 feet can be 20 degrees cooler (and much less humid because of breezes) than in town. My dogs and I hiked an 8-mile section of the Appalachian Trail last week on a day that would have been too hot in Asheville to do much more than sit on the porch. I planned the hike in such a way that we went by the car mid-hike to refill my water reservoir with cold ice water from a cooler. I carried a collapsible bowl that I could fill for the dogs during the hike. Coming back to the car a second time, I noticed that my seven-year-old Catahoula mix was falling back a bit. I quit jogging and walked the rest of the way. When my dogs fall behind me on a trail run I know it is time for me to slow down.

If your way of exercising your dog involves you standing still and throwing a ball or frisbee for your dog to fetch, you still need to be aware of the heat. Sprinting to retrieve an object can also put your dog at risk. Some dogs are so obsessive about fetching that they will literally “fetch themselves to death.” It is your responsibility to make sure your dog doesn’t overdo it on hot days. 

Summer is a great time to be out of doors, but remember that our pets can’t tell us when they need a break. Heat stroke is a deadly condition that veterinarians see all too often in the summer. A little planning can go a long way to making sure that you and your dog enjoy the outdoors safely in the hottest months of the year.

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