Running With Dogs

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There’s a tip on Foursquare that often comes up when I check in at the Big Dam Bridge for a run: “Don’t forget your dog!”

I’ve been remembering my dogs since I started running. In fact, I took my then 6-year-old collie Sharka on the first run I ever went on, a mile-long, out-and-back run-walk. She did not “get” the idea of jogging for exercise and kept trying to herd me back to the house with all her shepherding might. That was the last time she accompanied me.

But when we adopted her nephew, Atticus, in 2006, I had my eye on that guy from the beginning to be my running buddy, and he learned enough in puppy kindergarten to suppress his breed tendencies. Soon he was gliding along next to me at my left hip.

Atticus RunnerI discovered over years of running with Atticus how much of a difference it makes to have a sentient, loving being along for a challenging outing. He can’t talk, or give me coaching advice like the Runkeeper app – “You are behind your target pace by 12 seconds per mile” – and sometimes he was what I called “a lazy git,” deciding he wasn’t going to run the 4-miler I had in mind or turn down a lane that took us farther from home.

But even when he was troublesome, he was a companion. I noticed how he would turn his head to check on me during the times I would let out his lead a foot or two when we had the trail to ourselves. And he reacted so observantly to the world he saw, heard and smelled around him; so I, too, noticed deer, herons and all kinds of beauty I may not have seen without him.

And of course, I could so easily persuade him to stop for a moment on the banks of the Arkansas River, to sit in the shady grass, and snuggle up for a moment. He is 125 pounds of live-in-the-moment love. It would be wrong not to stop and smell the roses with him from time to time.

The “little guy,” as we call him, was so good at something I rely on running to do for me, but which I sometimes struggle to achieve: He got me out of my head, pulled my focus to his curious, and intelligent eyes, his strong gait, his blazing white mane, his blond frame floating along so effortlessly. Attending to him stopped me from overthinking my own progress and performance on the path.

During his running career, Atticus worked up to 8-mile distances on cool days (collies aren’t hot-weather dogs). But in 2011, we realized his running had to stop when he developed arthritis in his spine. It’s not yet severe, but it hampers his movement, and the last time I tried to go for a jog with him, he was limping within half a mile of home. Walking back, I let out his lead, and he moved ahead of me, then checked to make sure I was still there behind him, holding on, doing fine.

Now I await our family’s next runner, a Borzoi puppy who will come home with us at the end of December. Borzoi, or Russian wolfhounds, were bred by the Russian aristocracy to course wolves in pairs. Lithe and athletic, they are made to cover ground. Gwenhyfar (pronounced “Guinevere”) will have to wait until she’s 16 months old to go for real runs with me, but we’ll be walking regularly during her puppyhood, looking forward to all the miles we’ll cover together in the future.

Stacey Margaret Jones, M.S., APR, (@sharkushka) is a market research consultant and a member of the inaugural class of the Arkansas Writers MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. She lives in Conway with her Chaucerian husband. Jones, a South Dakota native, does not play team sports, unless you consider cocktailing a competitive event.