How to start in the world of Canicross.
Each and every day I see posts, comments or receive emails asking about how to start running with your dog. It can be quite baffling to start off with, and some people are not lucky enough to have a canicross instructor, or canicross group with people willing to help nearby. Before you start hitting the trails you need to cover some basics first, so hopefully this blog will break these down and help you understand how to get started on your journey.
Firstly take a moment to understand what canicross is. It is a team sport, between you and your dog(s), the emphasis is on TEAM here. It is not your dog dragging your as fast and as hard as it can round a route with no control, and it is not you dragging your dog around either. You work together, your build your fitness up together and you build your relationship up together, working on control, cues and bonding as you go along, team work!
Before any harnesses, lines and belts come into the picture look at your dog.
How old is your dog? How well/fit is your dog? What is your dogs history, rescue or have you known them since puppyhood? How confident is your dog, and also what breed family does your dog come from? These are just a few of the things you should be taking into consideration before you get started.
Whilst all dogs can canicross, or take part in other harness sports such as bikejor, skijor, bikejor, scooterjor, rigs etc, not all dogs are naturally inclined to enjoy the thrill of the run, so individual personalities do have to be taken into consideration. You might have a dog that actually prefers to run along side whilst you run or even free runs as they like that more! Never force your dog into these activities if your dog is telling you they aren’t enjoying it.
Your dogs physical attributes also need to be take into consideration, for example, flat faced breeds will need to be checked thoroughly by the vet first, closely monitored if ok’d to run, and only run in the coolest of weathers and only to their ability and no pushing it! As their airways are almost always compromised in someway, in order to run a dog needs to be able to breath properly.
Age is also another BIG part of it, do not run young dogs! Yes you can do lots of pre-run training to help you get ahead of the game, so helping your dog learn cues for lefts and rights (gee and haw), close, stops etc. But you should not be running young dogs in harness, let them grow and fill out first so you avoid injuries later down the line. It also means that long term you and your dog will have a much longer run life together.
Now it is aways an argument with canicross professionals as to what age is ‘right’ to start dogs under harness. But the general consensus is 12 months, and up to 18months for large breeds. Please pay attention to these guidelines, they are there for a reason, and can stop a lot of heart break later down the line! Dog started later in harness tend to have longer running lives, and many run in to their 9th, and 10th years.
Personality and personal history of the dog. Some dogs thrive from day one with canicross, some dogs take a while to get used to it and then absolutely love it! Other dogs, not so much, they find it overwhelming, or they love doing it, but it causes them to get over stimulated and has a knock on with their behaviours in other areas. If you notice any off behaviour speak with your canicross leader, and it is always worth speaking with a good behaviourist and using them in conjunction with running.
Are you picking up the hints I am dropping? Do NOT just get some cheap harness, line and waist strap, throw it on and think you are doing the right thing. Canicross is simple when you get going, but you do need to tick a few boxes first and learn some very basic thing before you run.
Before we get onto kit (that will come in the next blog) I want to cover some basic, common sense info. The environment you choose to run in, is very important, especially when you start out. If you dog has a bad experience, especially early on, it could build a negative association, which can then effect how your dog feels about running with you. Long term this could mean your dog does not feel confident running with you, or pulling into harness, running solo etc.
****Canicross is a WINTER SPORT, you will get wet, muddy, cold etc****
You need to embrace running in the bad conditions, getting wet, running though puddles, mud. Having great trail shoes really helps with this. But mostly it is just getting over the mental barriers and getting on with it.
Look at the trail surfaces you are on, a good indication is that they are natural trails. Not man-made concrete, solid stone type paths etc. Good woodland trails, dirt, puddles, grass, these are what you are looking for they are better for your dog to grip into when running, and are kinder to their joints, pads and body in general. Please avoid running your dogs on the road, especially when in harness!
Weather, most weathers are fine to run in, rain, snow, etc. Avoid warm/hot weather like the plague, many dogs have become very unwell or died from heat exhaustion, want to run on a warm day? Go without your dog.
Look at surrounding factors in your environment, is the trail super busy? Near busy roads, loud, have live stock, have clay shooting or other loud machines going off near them. Think how all these things might effect your dog, is your dog bothered by these things generally or not? Running a new dog under harness, through an area with clay pigeon shooting going on, when they are scared of loud bangs…might not be a great idea!
You want for your dog to always have a positive experience when in harness, and if that means going a different route, cutting a run short or not running at all, then that is what you have to do. The dogs welfare always come first, no PB is more important than their happiness.
This also goes for Park Runs, they can be a great place for you to run with your dog with surrounding distractions to work on training. However, a young dog, whom hasn’t had much experience might find this very very overwhelming. Lots of noise, smells, lots of people, other dogs, they might feel scared, boxed in/claustrophobic and again, build the association, that running in harness isn’t fun and can be scary. As a side note, taking reactive/fearful dogs to Parkruns is a big no no. Also if your dog is going to be lunging, snarling, growling at other dogs/people, then it is also not suitable to run in groups. (You need an accredited, qualified, experienced, force free behaviourist).
Next blog I will go into a breakdown on kit, training and getting started.