What I have learned about Canicross

Sam doing Canicross

Canicross, the sport of cross-country running with a dog, is growing in popularity around the world and in the UK. Trail runner Sam Sanderwick shares her experiences of Canicross as a relative newbie to the sport.

Canicross is a sport quickly gaining popularity in the UK. It’s basically running off-road with your dog in a running harness, attached to you by a bungee line to a waist belt. It’s great exercise for both you and your dog, and a really good way of building a strong bond with them.

Does Canicross mean you run faster?

‘But isn’t that cheating?’ I hear you ask!  The answer is, ‘It depends’. If you’re super-fast, you’ve trained your dog brilliantly and they are quick then yes, you’ll be much quicker with your dog. People have found they can be 1 min (or more) per km quicker with their dog than without.

However, for most of us, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’. You start off quickly enough – although I don’t; my dog bungees at race start as you can see from the picture above! – and to the casual observer at the start line I can understand the misunderstanding. What isn’t seen are the multiple sniffing stops, marker pee stops and poo stops. (Side note, depending on where you are/race instructions, either ‘bag and carry’ or ‘stick and flick’!).

Of course, there are moment of extreme speed. For example, when a squirrel, bird, rabbit or random leaf has been spotted. At which point you’ll find yourself either keeping up or being dragged face-first off-course after the exciting thing.

The other speed element if your dog is still learning/stubborn/badly trained is muddy downhills, when you’ll discover quite how quick your feet are! (This is the opposite of uphill where you may find you’re doing a tyre drag… but with a dog rather than a tyre. That may be just me though!).

Running with two dogs in Canicross-only events that run separate categories (age/gender of runner) will put you in the ‘extreme’ category. I wondered why until I ran with both of mine – you get double the pulling power through mud and after critters. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures!

Sam running with two dogs at Canicross

Getting started with Canicross

To start Canicross it’s advised that you wait until your dog is at least 12 months old so that their growth plates have closed. What you can do prior to running with them is start training basic commands, such as ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘steady’, ‘behind’, etc. When you’re ready to start running with them, it’s worth a check with your vet that your dog is healthy.

Then you need a proper running harness for the dog. They are designed to ensure the dog’s shoulder movement isn’t restricted and neither is their breathing (different designs suit different dogs). It’s worth Googling, as there are some good suppliers in the UK who will help you ensure you get a good fit. Brand names you’ll be looking at will include Dragrattan, Zero DC and Non-Stop, among others.

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Another way is to find your local Canicross group and go along. Many will be happy to offer advice and let you try harnesses on your dog they may have. Then, build your dog up slowly like you would with any new runner (C25K works for dogs too!). If you’ve spent ages training your dog not to pull on lead, or it’s just not that way inclined, your local group can be of use as most dogs will pull when you’re running in a group together and they’ll learn from the other dogs. It’s worth keeping the running harness just for running with them, so they associate it with running with you.

If your dog can be a bit funny around other dogs, this doesn’t preclude you. You can muzzle train if you wish – make sure you get a muzzle the dog can properly pant and drink in. It’s also worth starting your racing in dog-only events, as you can place yourself somewhere you and your dog are comfy, plus also other Canicrossers understand the challenges.

As you and your dog progress, you may want to try other mixed events. These have the advantage of having less dogs, but (depending on your dog) the disadvantage of having runners who don’t necessarily understand that it really helps if they give you a shout to let you know they are passing on a specific side and also to give you and your dog a bit of room where possible. I’ve had some great and not-so-great experiences in mixed races. One of my dogs has a tendency to herd anything moving if I run her on her own, so a runner coming past has proved challenging in the past. I don’t run her solo now at non-Canicross events, as it was no fun for me and not fair on other runners who didn’t know.

Canicross adventures

Where and when to Canicross

Like cross-country, Canicross is predominantly a winter sport. This is mainly to make sure that dogs don’t overheat running in the summer, and also because running through mud is fun!

That said, there are some runs in the summer, but the onus is on you as the owner to look after your furry friend. Check if there are streams, ponds or paddling pools on course for the dogs; carry water for them as well as yourself; and learn the signs of a dog starting to overheat. Dogs can’t sweat – they can only pant to cool themselves, and heatstroke can kill. Your dog will love to run but also to please you, so won’t necessarily stop if they’re suffering. It’s better to be cautious.

White Star Running has a number of dog-friendly races (and include a rosette for your running buddy, as well as a medal for you which is fab!). I’ve done some in the past and have some planned for this year too, so my dogs can come and join in the weekend fun. For local dog-only races, have a look on Facebook to see if there’s a local group who may arrange both social runs and races.

I’m loving learning with my dog (especially as she’s deaf so having to use sign language). There’s nothing more satisfying than a happy dog at the end of a run, and a sleepy dog when you have a beer at home afterwards! It’s also a great driver to get out and run so as not to let them down.

Sam's dogs