Have you ever wondered how sled dog trainers keep their dogs in shape during the snow-free “dry” season? Instead of pulling sleds, they let their dogs pull them. The trainer and dog run together with the dog out front pulling the trainer along.
This activity, sometimes called urban mushing, has grown in popularity over the years. Today, this team sport, more commonly known as “Canicross” (canine + cross country), is practiced by all kinds of people and all breeds of dog.
What Is Canicross?
The main difference between Canicross and simply running with your dog is that in Canicross, the dog is attached to the runner’s waist with a bungee leash. In this way, whenever the runner’s feet are off the ground, the dog pulls the runner forward.
Macy Hunsicker, leader of the Canicross USA, Southeast MI chapter, has been a runner for 22 years. She began training and racing in Canicross just over two years ago and loves the feeling of the sport.
“I love Canicross because it’s not only a blend of my two favorite things, running and dogs,” she says, “but also because when your dog is leaning into the harness, your feet barely touch the ground. It feels like you’re flying.”
How To Get Started In Canicross
If you’re healthy and able to run, why not give Canicross a try? All you need is a dog that’s able to run with you. Though some dogs make better running companions than others, the breed or size of dog doesn’t matter. Most breeds can keep up with or surpass the speed of a human. Hunsicker has run with a Labrador Retriever, a Mastiff mix, a Belgian Malinois, and even the much shorter Russell Terrier.
“Any breed could technically participate,” she says. “But if your dog is not physically able to run (i.e. healthy with a strong open airway) and pull at least enough to keep pressure on the line, it will be more like just walking your dog in a harness than Canicross.”
Before starting any canine exercise program, get the okay from your veterinarian that your dog is up to the challenge. Start building your dog’s endurance slowly. Begin with short bursts of running, perhaps during your daily walks, then build up to longer distances. Remember that puppies shouldn’t participate in strenuous exercise until their joints have finished growing. For most breeds, that’s at about one-and-a-half years old.
Hunsicker suggests newbies find a local Canicross USA chapter or dryland mushing club. Those experienced in the sport can help you get the right harness and other equipment. Local chapters are also a great way to find Canicross events like trail runs where you can participate with others interested in the sport.
What Do You Need For Canicross?
Although newcomers to Canicross don’t have to use special equipment, true Canicross is done with a proper harness for the dog. This is important for the dog’s safety.
“No one should attempt to Canicross without a proper Canicross harness made for pulling,” says Hunsicker. “Most dog harnesses are not shaped the correct way and will interfere with breathing, make a dog sore, or interfere with shoulder movement.”
Additionally, although you could use a regular leash that attaches around your waist, you will be better served by a six to ten-foot bungee leash attached to a Canicross waist belt. These belts sit low on the top of the runner’s hips, which prevents jarring to the back when the dog pulls.
“The human belt piece is up to you, but you will not feel the true sport if you are attempting to hold a lead with your hand,” explains Hunsicker. “You will likely be pulled off balance with just a waist leash attachment.”
Training For Canicross
To successfully participate in Canicross, your dog needs basic obedience skills and to be comfortable on a leash. Start by teaching good leash manners during your walks. Once you and your dog are walking nicely together, start picking up the pace from a jog to a run.
It’s also important to ensure your dog is comfortable walking or running past strangers. You don’t want your dog to pull you off course at every distraction. Make sure your dog has a solid base in obedience and can handle passing people and other dogs without being reactive. At the least, you should know you can control your dog in those situations.
Finally, it’s helpful to teach your dog movement cues such as to “speed up” or “slow down.” However, the words you choose for the different actions are completely up to you.
“Decide what commands you want to use for ‘forward’, ‘stop’, ‘slow’, ‘left’, and ‘right’,” says Hunsicker. “Train them the same way you train any other obedience command.”
With a little bit of training and a few pieces of equipment, you’ll be ready to give Canicross a try. And the more you practice, the more your teamwork with your dog will improve. In no time, you too will feel like you’re flying.