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The What, Why & How to Get Started in Canicross | The Beginners Guide

All medical claims reviewed by Dr Pippa Elliott. BVMS, MRCVS.

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lady and dog doing canicross running hero image

Looking for an activity that welcomes active, exuberant dogs… think Canicross!

  1. Do you want to get fit AND have fun with your dog?
  2. Do you want an outlet for your dog’s boundless energy?
  3. Is the dog’s poor recall a problem?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above then Canicross could be the solution you’ve been searching for.

What is Canicross?

Canicross is cross-country running with a canine companion.

It is a wonderful work out for active dogs, especially from working breeds. You control the dog using verbal commands, telling them to turn left or right, speed up or slow down. So not only is it a physical work out but it gets the dog thinking as well.

Canicross is a bit like orienteering with dogs, except you aren’t lost and don’t have to navigate with a compass. If your dog has more bounce in his bungee than Gromit cleaning windows, you need to know about Canicross.

The great news is: RECALL ISN’T ESSENTIAL, because Canicross equipment means the dog is comfortably tethered to your waist. So for the runaway Husky who would disappear over the horizon off-leash, then running as part of a Canicross team is a great solution.

To find out if Canicross is the perfect activity for the pair of you, think about the following:

  • Do you love to jog or run?
  • Is keeping fit important to you?
  • Do you want to have fun with your dog?
  • Does your dog have boundless energy?
  • How much do you like being outdoors?

This is most definitely a participation sport. It’s best suited to active pet parents and their dogs, who love off-road running with dogs.

How to Start Canicross

Anyone with a pair of trainers and a dog can start the sport. To get started the basic Canicross equipment is a suitable dog harness, an impact cushioning lead, a waist strap to tether the lead, trainers, and a dog.

Canicross is basically cross-country running with a dog. Give the dog a trial run by visiting a local wood. But in the long run (see what we did there) Canicross with others is the way ahead.

Search online for a Canicross group near you, or ask around at dog agility or obedience classes. Anywhere that dogs visit, such as a grooming parlour or doggie daycare, may well have a list of local organizations.

You can also contact organizations such as Canicross Trailrunners (affiliated to the Kennel Club) who are a hub for enthusiasts and organize competitive regional events

How to Train for Canicross

You and the dog need a certain basic level of fitness. So just like taking up any new activity, it’s essential to get your dog checked out by a vet. Once the dog’s heart and joints have been given the go ahead, you’re good to go.

You wouldn’t run the London Marathon without training for it first would you? Take the same approach to Canicross with your dog. If they’re already active, great. But if they’re starting a new regime then be aware, they may run out of puff initially.

Dog panting gif

A good plan is to gradually build up the time and distance, increasing 10-minutes or so each week. Other good way to condition the dog include hill work, so instead of taking a flat walk, take the long way by that hill you’ve been avoiding.

Work with your dog’s existing fitness and build on it. If your dog naturally goes everywhere at a run then great. If not, you may need to walk them longer distances first (to build muscle and cardiovascular health) interspersed with games of ball to get them running.

Also, vary where you run so that the surface under paw is different. Too much running on one type of ground, such as tarmac or sand, can lead to worn out pads or sprains. But with the variety of soft, medium, and firm going, this helps dodge injury and keep you both running smoothly.

How to Learn Canicross

Running with a dog: What’s there to learn?

Actually, if you’ve ever been towed along by a strong dog who wants to go in a different direction, you’ll appreciate the problem. Steering.

Canicross equipment tethers the dog to your waist, allowing you to run hand’s free. So how do you steer the dog? With your voice!

One of the unique things about the sport, is that you control the dog using voice commands for left and right. With a dog having a fantastic time, they learn to listen to your cues as a way of making the fun carry on. This builds the dog’s confidence and strengthens the bond between you.

You can practice commands at home or in the yard. Use reward-based training methods to make sure things remain fun. For example, to teach the dog to bear left, decide on a verbal command. Canicross officiandos use “Go Gee” for right, and “Go Haw” for left, but ultimately the choice is yours.

To teach the command:

Step 1) have your dog stand facing away from you as if about to run.

Step 2) With a tasty treat, lure your dog to one side.

Step 3) As your dog turns toward the treat say your cue word, “Left”.

Step 4) Lead the dog a short distance and then reward him.

You can practice this on walks, simply by saying “Left” or “Right” when you turn.

What Canicross Equipment Do I Need?

It’s important, for the dog’s safety and you’re well-being, to have the correct equipment.

Debut Canicross runners are sometimes allowed to use a flat collar and handheld leash, but only for a tryout. Instead, it’s important to get the right equipment.

Indeed certain items are definitely NOT allowed, and these include choke chains and slip collars. Neither should the runner where metal spikes on their trainers or anything that could harm a dog.
Also, headphones are not allowed, as this impedes the runner’s ability to hear instructions from other runners or stewards.
OK, enough of what not to use. What do you need as a Canicross starter kit?

  • Canicross harness: It’s essential the dog’s shoulders are free to move, so avoid harnesses with webbing that cross the shoulder joint. Also, look for one with an lead attachment over the high up, closer to the shoulders than the belly.
  • Canicross belt: This is a harness worn by the runner, to which the dog’s leash is attached. This enables the runner to keep both arms free for a smooth running motion.
  • Canicross bungee lead: A Canicross lead needs to be around 2 metres long: shorter than this and you’ll run into the dog, longer and you’ll get tangled up. A Canicross lead must also have an elastic or bungee portion, as a buffer against suddenly stops or acceleration.
  • Canicross starter kit: Note you could do all the relevant research on each individual item and purchase to suit or could go with an all-in-one Canicross starter kit. These are great for beginners and bundled together from manufacturers to enable you and pooch to get going as soon as possible. This is something we would highly recommend for a beginner.
    In time an upgrade will come, but then you will understand the finer elements of the sport, the equipment and what you’re looking for in each piece of kit.

Choosing Correct Equipment

Your dog’s welfare is everything. Knowing which Canicross harness to choose is essential to keep him comfortable and safe.

Look for the following points:

  • Style: Avoid a harness that has webbing or straps directly over the shoulder joint. This can restrict the dog’s stride length and lead to injury. Instead, look for a harness that loops around the neck and chest, without impeding the forelegs.
  • Fit: The harness should be neither too small nor too big, as both can cause chaffing or breathing difficulties. Make sure you can fit two fingers comfortably between the strapping and the dog.
  • Leash Attachment: The leash should attach via a sturdy connection that sits well forward on the harness. A D-ring situated over the mid to lower back could cause the dog’s hindquarters to drag or be elevated if you don’t keep pace.
  • Comfort: A breathable washable fabric is ideal. This helps keep the dog cool and avoids mud or sand causing skin infections.


Join a Canicross Club

Feeling inspired?

Canicross could be just the thing to turn a runaway Husky into a running superstar. So if Canicross is the sport for you, then why not join a club?

There are Canicross clubs countrywide. They hold friendly meetups as well as competitive events.

So for an active sport that positively welcomes active, exuberant dogs… catch up with Canicross.

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