All pet parents sometimes struggle to exercise their dogs. Time, physical limitations, and the weather all can disrupt our best-laid plans to keep our dogs fit and happy. But for the lucky dogs of the Phoenix metro area, that’s where RunBuddy Mobile comes in.
RunBuddy is a portable dog gym inside a van—so your dog’s workout can come to your dog.
“I started running dogs on treadmills 21 years ago,” says owner David Lopez, who is a dog trainer. “I was doing it out of my garage, if not my living room. It was clear through my research that dogs needed a certain type of exercise, and walking alone was just not enough.”
But how exactly did this dog fitness phenomenon come to be? Lopez says it all started with a Pit Bull named Mac.
The Dog Who Started It All
“Mac was a 103 pound Pit Bull I rescued from a dog fighting situation,” says Lopez about his first treadmill dog, Mac.
As a dog trainer, Lopez knew that Mac needed exercise to stay healthy and happy—and that regular workouts would help Mac manage his reactivity and aggression. The duo began biking every morning, with Mac running alongside the bicycle. One day a cat caught Mac’s attention, and Lopez crashed his bike. He started the dog on the treadmill that night.
That first session was a challenge, Lopez tells me, noting a steep learning curve for them both. Eventually, they found a method that worked, and they got compliments on Mac’s good behavior.
“Everywhere I took this dog, people noticed how well behaved he was,” Lopez says.
When he learned about a child in California that was killed by the family’s dogs, it gave deeper meaning to his work.
“It was my aha moment,” explained Lopez. “Not just that I’m going to be a good dog trainer, but I need to help and I need to save lives.”
Before long, Lopez was exercising as many as fourteen dogs at a time, mostly Pit Bulls like Mac.
“With the mental and physical stimulation that the training we do gives, along with some structure, you’re able to communicate better with the dog and ensure to the best of your abilities that the dog is a pet and not a wild animal thinking he’s doing a job that requires him to be aggressive,” Lopez says.
RunBuddy Takes Off
Lopez began working with the local fire department’s search and rescue dogs. The dogs’ handlers were busy and didn’t have enough time to exercise them, so Lopez proposed a new idea: putting a treadmill in the back of a van that could travel to them, save everyone time, and keep the dogs fit. The world’s first mobile dog gym got its start.
RunBuddy Mobile officially launched in May 2017 and has come a long way from the early days with Mac and the search and rescue dogs. Lopez custom-designed the company’s treadmills and frequently stars in their social media posts. Lopez is energetic and engaging with his digital audience, and he’s built a following of more than 24,000 on Instagram—plus nearly 1 million on TikTok.
RunBuddy currently has six vans on the road, with one more soon to be deployed. A small team of trainers and even Lopez’s fiancée, Shaunie Loretz, who manages logistics for the company, helps Lopez keep up with demand.
Client Christina Flinders loves the service. “David and Shawnie and the entire staff really are like family to us,” says Flinders. Her dogs Gabriella, Sophia, and Isabella have been running with RunBuddy for several years. “It’s so wonderful to have people that you can really trust with the health and well-being of your dogs.”
An Afternoon in the RunBuddy Van
I recently spent a couple hours with Lopez following the unmistakable RunBuddy mobile dog gym as Bri Samples, one of the company’s trained K9 Fitness Coaches, visited clients around Phoenix. Filling the back of the van were four orange paw-powered treadmills in two sizes, allowing the team to run up to four dogs at one time. Air conditioning and window coverings shield the dogs from the heat outside—in late March, it was already nearly 90 degrees outside—and a sign in the window establishes the rules of the van:
- The dog is always right.
- If, by chance, the dog makes a mistake, please refer back to #1.
The treadmills are non-motorized so dogs, clipped in via a harness, can safely run or trot or stroll at their own pace. Each pet is different in its approach to the treadmill, and Lopez works with each dog and pet parent individually to customize training to each dog’s needs.
A Chihuahua mix named Hanna ambled along, responding only slightly to verbal encouragement. Rae, a Doberman Pinscher, raced to catch a stuffed raccoon toy held just out of reach. The last dog I saw, a chocolate Labrador Retriever named Finn, came into the van still wet from a swim and happily started his run unprompted. All varied their speed throughout the session, taking walking and water breaks as needed.
Sessions in the mobile dog gym start at $45 and last for 30 minutes. Most clients run their dogs once a week. It doesn’t seem like much, but Lopez says it’s enough to make a big difference.
Time on the treadmill offers both physical and mental stimulation, as manual treadmills require the total focus of both body and mind. While they work with dogs of all ages, breeds, and sizes, Lopez says that the service is particularly good for scared or reactive dogs, helping them to build confidence and trust in a controlled environment.
How RunBuddy Is Changing Dogs’ Lives
Danelle Gerischer called RunBuddy for help in 2018 after a major surgery forced her into six weeks of rest and she couldn’t exercise her dogs, Xena and Zak.
Xena learned to love the treadmill so much she was named a RunBuddy Fan Favorite that year. Zak, a German Shepherd rescue with a tough history, had socialization issues, running and hiding anytime anyone came to the house. After working with RunBuddy, Gerischer reports that Zak is now confident and friendly with visitors.
Thelonious is another rescue dog transformed by the mobile dog gym. Owner Travis Daza shared that Thelonious was adopted in 2016. A high-energy pup, he was returned to the shelter multiple times before finding his forever home. Travis and his wife struggled to give Thelonious the exercise and stimulation he needed. Now, he’s a regular and enthusiastic RunBuddy client—Daza says that Thelonious gets excited every time a similar van passes by.
A Service That Meets Many Needs
Over the years, RunBuddy has faced some criticism; detractors have called the mobile dog gym’s clients rich or lazy (or both). Lopez says the feedback misses the point.
“Lazy people don’t care,” says Lopez—if people didn’t care about their dogs, they wouldn’t be signing up. He also explains that many of RunBuddy’s dog owners regularly walk, hike, and take trips to the dog park with their pets. Some pets, like herding or cattle dogs, dogs with aggression issues like Mac, or high energy dogs like Thelonious, simply need more exercise than pet parents have time to give. “The people who seek us out are the people looking for extra.”
Lopez point outs other worthy customers, too: those with mobility issues who use RunBuddy to care for their pets’ well-being beyond their physical limits, as well as rescue organizations and shelters, where RunBuddy regularly gives back, helping to keep the four-legged residents active.
The RunBuddy Philosophy Is for All Dogs
As Lopez and I chat, I tell him about my own dogs. 12-year-old Miss Bennet was my running partner but now spends more time at home than out on the pavement. Logan, our 10-year-old Labrador Retriever, has ongoing back issues that affect his hind legs.
Even though RunBuddy doesn’t operate in my community—yet, Lopez assures me—he encouraged me to walk my dogs on a hill, even for just 15 minutes at a time. Too much slow walking on a flat surface causes an imbalance in muscle strength, neglecting the back legs, he says.
Over time, this neglect often leads to a loss of mobility and confidence in dogs and their owners. Lopez calls this the biggest barrier to pets’ enjoyment and quality of life. He currently has two 18-year-old clients and has seen nearly immobile dogs suddenly resume zooming around the yard.
I ask if pet owners can try their dogs on at-home treadmills, but he cautions against it, telling me that dogs can be frightened or badly injured if not managed carefully. Instead, he recommends simply changing the way dog owners walk, focusing on hills, taking their dogs for a hike, or letting dogs run—anything that works the back legs.
“I’m not asking you to do more,” he says. “I’m asking you to do it a little different.”