So you've never heard of Canicross? Well you aren't alone. The term is a combination of "canine" and "cross-country" as in cross country running. The dog is in harness with a line attached to the human at the waist. The dog pulls the human along adding distance to the runner's stride and assistance to the uphill bits. Canicross is cooperative running. It is fun when you are working as a team.
The sport is best known in the UK and European countries. It is just getting started in the USA. The sport is most popular among those who do other kinds of dog powered sports such as sledding and skijoring. It offers a way to keep both dogs and human fit and trained during the "dry" months lacking snow (thus the term "dryland"). The activity, however, is also becoming increasingly popular among some top runners, as well as more casual folks who just want an inexpensive fun way to spend time in the outdoors with their dogs. It can be part of a sensible fitness program for both dogs and people.
It isn't a difficult sport to learn but there is a bit more to it than the dog yanking you along. Any untrained dog can jerk you off your feet. What canicross does is turn a dog's natural desire to pull into teamwork for the both of you. A properly fitted waist harness on you allows the dog to give extra umpf to your strides without dragging you down or tipping you over. When you are working as a team the dog's pull will lengthen your stride when you are monetarily air borne. The line between your waist harness and the dog's harness is not just a length of leather or rope, it has a length of shock absorber to even out the pull and reduce or prevent uncomfortable jerking.
If you know your dog is a hard puller on your daily walks you might assume that this would be an easy start up sport. To keep your feet, however, and to have a nice enjoyable run, your dog must stop when told. Once you start the dog should continue to move continuously, smoothly and consistently without the stops and side explorations typical of the average walk. Your dog must be willing to continue past distractions.
To keep the activity fun and safe take it one step at a time and put down a good training foundation. If you are unable to get your dog to stay with you on a loose lead you can expect to be flat on your face on some downhill runs. You will need to exercise your dog even while you are still learning how to train a polite non-yanking walk. So use a management tool such as a head halter for those walks but also work on teaching a nice loose leash walk. If you have never taken a class in how to teach your dog, then take one. You will progress faster if you can get help in noticing and avoiding bad habits. Be sure to only allow your dog to pull while the harness is on, and when the line is attached to the harness not the collar or head halter. Your dog can learn to tell the difference between collar and harness and behave appropriately with each. If you are looking for how to stop your dog from pulling try the book My Dog Pulls. What Do I Do? by Turid Rugaas.
Of course is your dog is already well schooled in polite loose leash walking you may have the opposite problem. You may have a challenge getting the dog to understand that it is acceptable to pull in harness. The most common way of addressing this issue is to run with another person and an already experienced dog. The ideal is that your dog already like and want to play with the other dog, or at least the other human. They stay just ahead of you and you praise your dog for moving out in front of you, even if the pull isn't there yet. Again learning some of the basics of how to teach a dog can let you more quickly communicate what is needed to your dog. A video on "clicker training" or "operant conditioning" can open the door to creative thinking about what will work for you and your dog.
The exercise, teamwork and new teaching skills you acquire in working together will help make your dog more fun to live with in day to day life. You learn better dog communication, and to pay attention to your dog. Your dog learns that you are fun to be with and that you can share time together without scolding or unpleasant feelings. One benefit of pulling is that the development of the muscles can often reduce the risks of increased deterioration in dogs with hip dysplasia. When the muscles are well developed they provide support and cushioning. Another benefit of pulling activities is just the additional time engaged with the dog. When dogs are well exercised they are less bored and less likely to have behavior problems.
This is not a sport for the road. The dog's pull can increase the impact on feet, ankles and knees. A hard surface can make that a punishing rather than pleasurable run. The rough surface of the road can wear holes in the pads of your dog's feet. You might be tempted to make your first runs in big open area but your dog will have more focus and less opportunity to make a mistake if you instead choose a narrow dirt trail. Look for something relatively level to begin with, you want to avoid the need to yank on your dog.
Pay attention to your dog! Most dogs will want to keep running even if it is uncomfortable. Learn your dog's normal gait and movement pattern. If this changes stop. It doesn't really matter whether the problem is "doesn't want to run" or "it hurts to run" or "it is too hot to run." In all cases it is time to give the dog a break, and if the issue continues to get a careful veterinary work up. Be sure to carry water for both of you. Keep your first distances short. Don't assume that because you have been regularly jogging with your dog that you can do the same distance in harness. There are different muscle groups used and the dog is working harder. It is best to stop while the dog is still fresh and clearly wanting more, or if you have achieved a training goal. Avoid the "one more time" temptation. Stop when your dog gets it right. It takes time for a good lesson to sink in.
Joining others for trail runs can help you learn some of the essentials including encouraging your dog to pull while still having control, and becoming familiar with indications of over heating or injury. It is also just fun to be with others who share a common interest.
Other dryland harness sports include scootering, carting and bikjoring.
Canicross is just getting started in the USA but here is one USA club in Minnesota.
Canicross (canine cross country) is running with your dog attached to you by harness and line (usually shock absorbing). The home page of this site really sets the tone. Instead of showing only traditional sled dog types it shows dogs of a wide variety of breeds and sizes.
A great place to get basic information on this growing sport. The writing style is clear and perfectly designed for the "just a dog owner."
This group was created to support and promote "dryland" mushing - that is dog powered harness activities without the snow. It is a site well designed for the curious beginner.
A brief description of the activity this Maryland organization offers lessons with loaner equipment.
Article describing Canicross
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