Tuesday, 6th December 2022
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A dog's not just for Christmas - Nikki Kimball

by Editor
Monday 14th January 2013

Running with Dogs: In this series of articles Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade will be introducing tales from dedicated runners and their four-legged friends.

In this article she talks to US ultra runner Nikki Kimball about her, now retired, canine running buddy Darby

Question Tell us a bit about your canine running buddy – what sort of dog is he or she, why did you choose them, what are their likes/dislikes/quirks?

Answer I decided to chronicle my first running dog, Darby. Though she now hangs out on the couch while I run with one or two of the other dogs in my life, she’s the one who taught me most of what I know about running with dogs.

The back story: My first canine running buddy was Darby. She lived at a pointer rescue shelter when I met her in 2001. While driving home with a friend from a run, we spotted a kennel populated with thin, fit-looking dogs. My friend, who already knew and loved the breed, wanted to stop and learn the story behind these animals. The owner of the shelter, Erin, was passionate about saving pointers as people often buy pointer pups for use hunting birds and give up on them when they realize how energetic and needy the breed can be. When Erin learned we were ultrarunners, she insisted I consider adopting Darby. Apparently three potential owners gave up on permanently adopting her within days of taking her home because she would run away, often leaving for hours, any time she was off leash. Note that I walked into the shelter with no intention of adopting a dog. And here I was, about to become the 5th owner of this crazy, sweet, bouncing mass of lungs and legs. I insisted that I would take her on a trial basis only, as I didn’t yet know I needed a dog, and the dog I apparently needed did not have a good record of keeping her owners happy.

One ten-mile run later (I didn’t know at the time that one should ease a dog into running), I knew Darby and I were friends for life. She taught me to love running with dogs. She helped me look at my familiar routes with new interest. Her excitement spurred me out the door in sub-zero weather. I did have to keep her on-leash for the first 4 years of our running partnership as, yes, she would run off whenever she got a chance, only to reappear 45 minutes to 4 hours later. At the time, my best friend ran with a very well trained husky who doubled as a lead sled dog in the winter. Acacia taught Darby her gees and haws (lefts and rights) in one run during which we hooked the pair up by a neck line. With Darby understanding commands for right, left, stop, speed up, and slow, on leash running with her worked seamlessly.

The first winter I had her, we began skijoring together. She took to the sport readily and understood that wearing her ski harness meant “pull,” while her running collar meant, “stay ahead of Mom without pulling.” I’ve never had a teammate I could read as well as Darby. In both running (dog on leash) and skijoring the human and canine need to be synchronized in their motion and intentions to avoid colliding with one another, or worse, colliding with a vehicle. Darby never failed to obey a command when we were moving fast enough to incur injury, as happens often in skijoring when flying down a hill on a trail that diverges briefly to go around a tree, for example.

Within 2 years of having Darby, I began to loose my ability to hear low-frequency noises. We frequently ran one-lane roads and trails with motorcycle and snowmobile traffic. Darby, with no special training, let me know when a vehicle approached. She subtly changed her body position upon hearing an approaching motor, thus alerting me to the driver’s presence. At times, especially when running on snowmobile trails, her warning gave me the time I needed to jump off the trail without getting hit. Though I cannot prove her actions directly averted an accident, I feel in dept to her for helping me through my hearing loss. (Thanks to a good surgeon, I now have prosthetic rods in place of stapes bones in my ears, and I no longer require Darby’s ears to locate vehicles.)

Darby is now at least 13 years old and has arthritis in joints injured in an accident during the time she was with her first owner. I no longer allow her to run. And though she seems to understand she cannot go with me, I still wince when I leave the house in running clothes with either of my two younger dogs.

A dog's not just for Christmas - Nikki Kimball

Photos: Darby now enjoys life from the sofa. Darby and Veka, the Pointer puppy that will follow in her foorsteps

Question What sort of running do you do with your dog – distance, surface, time of day, speed?

Answer Through much of her career, Darby ran only on-leash with me. She joined me on all my road runs: distances of 3-30 miles; speed work or easy pace; any time of day; dirt, asphalt, snow, fire roads…she loved it all. During the last 4-5 years of her running life, Darby could run off leash with me without leaving my sight for more than an hour or so; um, sometimes. Twice I spent the night at a trail head in order to collect her after a run. But otherwise, she found me in a timely manner. I could run for an hour without seeing her, having made four or five trail changes, and she’d pop out on a trail ahead of me. She seemed to fly over technical terrain, dash in and out of barbed wire fences, and efficiently navigate overgrown bramble-filled stands of plant life. There is nothing more humbling for me than running all out on a clear trail only to look over at my dog who is easily keeping pace with me while off trail covering twice my distance as she veers to chase a squirrel, stops to point a bird, then rolls in something stinky before darting in front of with a speed I could not match if I were on a bike.

Question What does running with your dog mean to you and to him/her?

Answer Running with my dog fosters a strong relationship between the two of us. Every time I run with a dog, I have significant chunk of one-on-one time to connect with the animal. I repeat commands as needed, and help the dog to understand what I expect of her. The dog learns to read her person during these countless hours of interaction. She teaches me her likes and dislikes. My knowledge of her individuality grows. Running fosters an interaction with my dog that is free of the multitasking take pervades much of the rest of my life. The pet-owner bond strengthens. Darby is not simply a pet to me, she is my teammate and my friend. Our shared history of great runs, scary runs, beautiful views, and slogging through nasty weather created the closest relationship I have ever had with a pet.

A dog's not just for Christmas - Nikki Kimball

Photo: Ooops - Dogs left alone! [Should have taken them running!]

Question Do you have any stories (embarrassing or otherwise) about incidents that have occurred whilst out running with your dog?

Answer Several years ago I was running with two friends and a total of six dogs on some logging roads. At one point during the run we realized that my boy friend’s border collie was not with us. This was strange because Sushi was the dog who always stayed close to the humans. We turned back, calling her, growing increasingly worried at her absence. About 800 meters from our turn-around spot, Darby stood, locked-up on point, looking into the thick brush beside the road. We followed her point and found Sushi caught in a neck snare trap, baited to lure coyotes. We were able to release the trap (designed to suffocate its victim) without damage to the dog, as she had not pulled aggressively against the wire snare. It was a terrifying incident illustrating both a serious risk to off leash dogs running near my home town, and the amazing capacity for dogs to communicate with their people. Though she was trapped less than 2 meters from the road, Sushi was not visible from it. I am so thankful for the powerful nose of my pointer.

Question Have you got any advice for people who’d like to start running with their dogs?

Answer I think someone could write a book on this subject. Darby and I learned a lot about running with dogs through our time running together. I’ll try to come up with a few of the less intuitive things we learned:

  1. If running a dog off leash, be sure to discourage the dog from running too close to your legs. Dogs can easily trip people without meaning harm. And unfortunately, in my work as a physiotherapist, I’ve treated 3 athletes for knee injuries stemming from collisions with dogs. Most of the people I run with also have running dogs. We have a rule that any dog near a person’s feet, gets yelled at, and even kicked if they repeat. We do not wish to, or try to hurt the dog, but being tripped by a dog can cause serious injury. Avoiding human legs is something all canine running partners need to learn.
  2. Whether on-leash or off, all dogs need to be very strong on the “stop,” command. My dogs know it as, “wait,” and it simply means they need to immediately halt. As I like my on-leash dog to run ahead of me, instead of on my heel, I need to be sure I can get the dog to stop if I see a risk, such as a car turning into a driveway right in front of us. Off leash, the dog needs this command to avoid risks such as chasing wildlife or jumping into fast moving water.
  3. Be prepared for changing weather conditions. In Montana where I live, storms move in quickly and the mountains can get very cold, even with mild temperatures seen in town. A bunch of us (runners and dogs) began a trail run years ago on a mild day. By the time we hit the mountain top we’d had rain, freezing rain and snow. About 3 miles from the end, little short-haired Darby, was wobbling down the trail until she finally fell over from hypothermia. We carried her to the car and spent the next several hours at a friend’s house warming both ourselves and the dog. Not did I risk losing Darby on that day, but all four humans on the trip ended up risking hypothermia ourselves during the rescue. I now carry a light dog coat and some high calorie dog snacks when the weather appears unstable.

Part 1
Kirsty Reade
& Dingle



Part 2
Adela Salt
& Wilson


Kez & Kroi

Part 3
Sandra Bowers,
Kez & Kroi



Part 4
Nikki Kimball
& Darby


Part 5
Sophie & Jess



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