Walkies Guide: How To Start Canicross With Your Dog

Marianne is a dog and fitness enthusiast in North Wales who decided to combine the two after her discovery of canicross. Now a certified Dog Fit trainer she wants to bring canicross to the masses!

Marianne has two dogs, Chewy (3 year old spaniel collie mix) and Mico (a 2 year old spaniel pointer mix rescued from a kill shelter in Spain). Chewy and Mico have kindly volunteered to be the models of Canicross in the following article.

So, the first thing to ask is:

What is canicross?

Canicross is a sport in which people run with their dog off-road, along trails and across fields. The dog is attached to the owner with a bungee lead and the dog wears a sports-specific harness. The owner wears a canicross belt that typically sits across the pelvis. The owner and the dog work together as a team with the dog running out in front, pulling the owner along and taking direction from the owner who gives the dog commands to change direction or speed. It is typically a social sport and done in small groups but you can, of course, canicross on your own if you prefer.

Chewy loving canicross
Chewy (3 year old spaniel collie mix)

Can All Dogs Do Canicross?

Canicross is a sport that can be introduced to most breeds and types of dogs. It is however important to consider a few things. Canicross is not suitable for puppies and young dogs that are still growing. Encouraging your dog to pull into a harness while the dog’s bones are still growing and the growth plates in the joints are not yet closed can cause damage to joints, tendons and ligaments (DogFit blog August 2nd  2019).  It is therefore vital to wait until your dog is 12 months of age before introducing him or her to canicross. For larger breeds, you are best to wait until 18 months as larger breeds typically take longer to mature. Once your dog is old enough to start you can slowly build up the time your dog spends in harness. Always keep an eye on your dogs movement, his feet, pads and legs especially for signs of discomfort.

Breeds with short noses (bulldogs, pugs etc) can do canicross, but these dogs generally prefer a shorter distance and slower speed. Breathing issues are more common in these breeds and if in doubt always check with your vet before changing your dog’s exercise routine.

No matter what breed you are running with, make sure it is not too warm for your dog to run. Most dogs are happiest running in temperatures below 15 degrees celsius with low humidity and it is important to bring water for your dog if there are no natural water sources on the trail you have chosen to run.

Nervous and/or reactive dogs can really benefit from canicross as it allows them to socialise in a safe controlled way with other dogs and people and enjoy being part of a pack. If your dog needs to be muzzled to be safe around other dogs, choose a muzzle that allows your dog to pant and drink freely.

Chewy and Mico in a field
Chewy and Mico running across a field during a canicross session

If your dog has a high prey drive or can not be led off the lead, canicross can help to exercise and stimulate your dog safely. As your dog is attached to you at all times there is no risk of them running off or chasing livestock.

Do I Need To Be A Runner?

You do not need to be super fit or even run regularly to start canicross. If you can walk briskly for 30 minutes you will be able to start running with your dog and build up your running together. Couch to 5k programmes are a great way to build your fitness together from just a few minutes running at a time to a 30 minute jog. Once you are able to do this you can increase your distance or start working on increasing your speed. If you prefer to stick with 30 minute jogs (4-5 k) that is of course totally fine too. Canicross is all about having fun with your dog and getting fitter together. Your dog will love running with you, no matter the distance or speed.

What Kit Do I Need?

For your dog to be comfortable running out front and pulling you along he or she will need a harness that allows the shoulders to extend freely. Harnesses that are designed to stop pulling and/or sit across the chest and shoulders are really not suitable and can damage your dog or create a dislike of the sport before you have even properly begun.

To allow for yourself to be comfortable it is important to wear a belt with leg straps that allows for the pull of your dog to be transferred through your pelvis rather than your lower back. Waist belts that sit across your lower back are not suitable, and you may experience discomfort or injury when using those, especially if you have a larger, strong pulling dog.

A bungee lead will connect you and your dog. These come in different lengths. Examples of suitable equipment can be found on www.dogfit.co.uk. The starter kits available on the site are a perfect investment for many happy years of canicrossing.

It is also recommended to buy a good pair of trail shoes with a good grip. As most of your running will be done off road a good grippy pair of trainers will help with confidence on slippier terrain. If you are running early or late a headtorch is essential too.

Why Your Dog Needs To Know Canicross Commands

It is worth spending time to teach your dog commands to go left, right, slow and stop. This is especially important on downhill sections or when crossing roads in between trails. You can teach these commands at home and when out and about too, and you do not need to wait until your dog is old enough to canicross to do this. A solid ‘with me’ (heel) command will pay off when going downhill once you start to canicross. When running in a group most dogs pick up the commands easily as they will follow the other more seasoned dogs.

How Do I Try Canicross For The First Time Or Find A Group To Run With?

Canicross is a very social sport and there are many groups spread out all over the UK. The DogFit website (www.dogfit.co.uk) has a map with trainers listed who offer introduction sessions, couch to 5k programs and group sessions, suitable for all levels. If you are starting out it is wise to book an introduction (taster) session to try out the equipment and figure out what equipment suits you and your dog best. After that, you can sign up for whichever sessions suit you and your dog best.

Be warned, canicross is an addictive sport and you and your dog will have the most amazing bond through running together.

Contact Marianne either on her website: www.yourfitnessbuddy.co.uk or on Instagram. She loves speaking about canicross and of course, Chewy and Mico.