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Canicross: The New "Secret Sauce" of Agility Training? Part 2

More info on this new, exciting sport! By Barbara Scanlan. Photos by Canadog.


This is part two in a series about a new sport that focuses on canine and human fitness. Part one can be seen here.


Canicross precautions.

You're the coach. Know how to run safely.

For humans:

Ann Margaret McKillop, owner of My Fitness Recovery (myfitnessrecovery.com/index.html) of Ludlow, Vermont, has been a runner for 40 years and a ChiRunning® (chirunning.com) instructor since 2006. When asked about the benefits and risks of Canicross, she first listed the many cardio-vascular and stress-relief benefits that come with running.

A Canicross runner will gain a longer stride and faster speed, but it does come with some potential risks. McKillop encourages all runners, whether doing Canicross or not, to develop an efficient and safe running style. She notes that, as a Canicrosser, unless you are as fast as your dog, you can actually increase your risk of injury. Over striding can be hard on knees and hips. Also some runners may experience lower back strain from pulling and braking against the dog. High impact injuries can also increase. Heel strike runners carry the highest risk of injury, according to McKillop.

To avoid injury, she suggests practicing good form without the dog pulling you until you are comfortable with the new running style. She recommends, "leaning from the ankles with the shoulders and hips ahead of the feet so that you are going with the forward motion the dog generates rather than braking against it. This will reduce stress on the lower back."

For racers, McKillop says to "Master the start. A dog, especially the kind that is great at Canicross, gets up to speed much more quickly than his human partner. When the dog gets to the end of his lead, the runner will be jolted in what is essentially a whiplash motion of the lower back. The runner should hold the harness of the dog until, together, they are at their preferred speed, and then let the dog run the lead out." She adds that holding and gradually feeding out the lead at the start will also help the racer avoid crashes with other teams who might be crossing line and lead.

Equipment fit is also important. McKillop says "For the human, the length of the line and the angle at which it connects to the dog are important in protecting the runner's lower back. If the dog is much smaller than the runner, there is a tendency for the runner to bend at the waist."

Ramsay adds that a good pair of running shoes is also important.

For dogs:

First and foremost, McKillop says to be sure both you and your dog are wearing properly fitted equipment. She shares, "If your dog is wearing a sled dog harness, it must be the right size or the dog will not be able to breathe properly. Also, the harness must settle properly on the area the dog is meant to pull with or you risk injuring your dog." Canadog has online videos to help with fitting (youtube.com/watch?v=GjxpbArect0&feature=player_embedded) and Ramsay says she and her staff are available to help potential Canicrossers determine the right fit.

Ramsay urges, "Make sure your dog is age-appropriate for the distance you want to train. Dogs are generally fitter than people, but check with your vet before beginning." When running, she recommends watching the feet of the dog, especially when running on pavement or taking on further distances. Before, during and after running, check the pads for fissures and redness. Check for broken nails when running on pavement.

Injury prevention also includes being alert for signs that a dog is tired. Ramsay says one of the signs they watch for is "sloppy running. When a dog is losing control of its movement, that's when injuries happen.

Hydration is critical in Canicross.

Both Ramsay and McKillop stress the importance of hydration for handler and dog. McKillop says, "Learn to run with a water supply. I actually do prefer a waist system as I tend to have tight shoulders. But I'm used to it. Practice with a few systems."

Ramsay recommends a hydration routine they use for their sled dog teams. "An hour before the run, give the dogs baited water to encourage them to drink." Baiting means mixing water with some beef broth, or her favorite, juice from a tuna can. She cautions, "You don't want it to be like stew." Giving the water in advance gives the dog chance to process the fluid before hitting the trail and gives the dog time to void.

Just before running, she offers another sip of water. "We've found this makes an incredible difference in the stamina of our dogs and safety in managing water before the run." She adds that dogs the size of her sled dogs will process about a half cup per hour.

McKillop recommends teaching your dog to drink from a collapsible water bowl that clips to the Canicross belt. Also, make sure that your dog will drink from it whenever you ask and in any location.

On top of good hydration, Ramsay says its critical to understand and monitor for the signs of heat exhaustion (austindogzone.com/all_things_dog/know-the-signs-of-heat-exhaustion-in-dogs/).

Is there a best breed for Canicross?

According to Ramsay, serious Canicrossers in Europe favor sleek-coated, fast sporting breeds and crosses. The king of Canicross among elite runners is the German Shorthaired Pointer. Weimaraners, Vizslas, Pit Bulls, Labrador Retrievers, and Jack Russell Terriers are also determined and trainable runners. A favorite of elite Canicross runners is a German Shorthair/Greyhound cross, according to Ramsay.

Herding breeds also hold top billing since they are fast and responsive to commands. According to Ramsay, "Border Collies and crosses are really easy. They will blow right past you and the teams never look at distractions."

As a reference for matching running distance with typical breeds, check out this recently published Runner's World magazine article (runnersworld.com/running-tips/breed-apart?cm_mmc=Twitter-_-RunnersWorld-_-Content-Training-_-BestDogsForRunning). The listing is certainly not all-inclusive and includes "breeds" that are actually mixed breeds, but gives a general idea.

Of course, a healthy dog of nearly any breed can run, with cautions for brachycephalic breeds and thick furred, double-coated breeds in temperatures over 65 degrees. Conversely, thin-coated, or single-coated toy breeds will need to gear down in temperatures less than 40 degrees.

Determining the distance.

As a general guideline, the most popular CaniX races in England are 2K and 5K. However, the distance mainly depends on the dog, the dog's age, the dog's condition, the surface, and weather conditions. Natural surfaces and cool conditions are best.

Keep in mind that many working, herding, terrier and sporting breeds cover many miles a day in the course of doing the jobs they were bred to do. It's only modern life that has caused dogs to become sedentary (and many, unhappily so). The main thing to remember is that continuous running requires more thought and monitoring. Be a good coach, build slowly and always listen to your dog.

Four-minute milers to muddy meanderers.

A wonderful video of the start of the Canicross event at Crufts (youtube.com/watch?v=CZYO-SRoF0k&feature=youtu.be) shows the wide range of breeds, mixes, and handers doing Canicross (including a woman in a wheelchair). The announcer introduces each team and gives an inspiring view into the many reasons and the remarkable results that many teams have found in Canicross "from sub-four-minute milers to muddy meanderers!"

The clip showcases dogs that have become part of thriving partnerships after being rescued. Also featured are "all rounder" performance dogs, championship agility competitors, and teams who are celebrating success in dealing with fear, aggression, high energy, and reactivity issues. An "Over 50" competitor group and a Juniors group are included.

The Crufts video also shows a great example of safe starting technique and gives a good look at the high degree of fitness obtained by the sport's top dogs and handlers. 

Most of all, with the variety of dogs and handlers large and small, the video affirms that Canicross really is a sport for nearly anyone.

How to get started.

There is no central organization for Canicross in the US, but there are a few local and regional groups, especially in the Northeast and upper tier Midwest.

Ramsay recommends Sled Dog Central (sleddogcentral.com/) as a place where dryland racing (i.e. dog-powered events not on snow) and training events are posted. While the focus is sled dogs, it's a good resource for information about training and equipment. It's also a primary networking point for the dog-powered sports community. 

Here are some other resources:

American Dryland Mushers Association http://americanmusher.webs.com/training.htm

Canadog http://www.canadog.ca/  Canicross equipment and advice

Down East Sled Dog Club http://www.desdc.org/

Jersey Sands Sled Dog Club http://jssdra.com/

Maryland Sled Dog Adventures http://www.marylanddogsledding.com/Tours.htm#CanicrossHike

New England Sled Dog Club http://www.nesdc.org/

Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club http://www.pennsleddogclub.com/

Points Unknown http://www.points-unknown.com/  Pulling classes, training trips, and Canicross Hiking Club, Minnesota

My Fitness Recovery http://myfitnessrecovery.com/index.html  Running rehabilitation and Canicross 

Once you start running, you might find your dog still wants to pick up the speed. That's the time some teams step up to one of the other "dryland mushing" sports such as dog scootering (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1oZSiDenLQ) and bikejoring (http://www.alaskan-husky-behavior.com/bikejoring.html). Many of the sites in the resource list above offer connections to these sports as well.

No Canicross or dryland mushers in your area? 

Start your own group. Get together with your agility friends at a park on the weekend or after work and test out training with Canicross. For dog training clubs and training organizations, Canicross is an activity that is easy to learn and a helpful solution for high-energy pet class students. 

Also, teaching Canicross can be done at a local farm, trail, or park. So Canicross might be an opportunity to offer an additional class or event without taking up valuable facility or ring space.

Ramsey has held introductory clinics telling students, "Bring out your dog, and we'll get you started. After the clinic, we'll have weekly get togethers and go out and do trails." In Europe, larger Canicross events often end in picnics with tricks and agility demonstrations.

Another alternative is working with a local running club to add Canicross to existing running events.

Harnessing the nature of a dog.

As Ramsay says, "Asking a dog to run in a harness is not software, it's built into their hardware. They instinctively know how to run down a trail." Above and beyond its value as a conditioning sport, Canicross is a way to get in touch with an unsung element of a dog's nature. The drive to run and pull, so often suppressed and struggled against in today's world, comes together under harness in a force that has served mankind for millennia.

Editor's note: Before beginning a strenuous sport like Canicross, both the human and canine members of your team should get medical examinations to determine if the sport will be safe for you. You should also discuss ways to keep yourselves safe and healthy while training and competing. Be careful and have fun!
Barbara Scanlan is a writer by day and agility trainer by night. She and her husband, Mike, currently live with three dogs. Shaun is a 16-year-old rescue Toy Fox Terrier, who taught Barbara a lot about patience. Her brainiac, but physically challenged Papillon, Taylor, won the Preferred National Agility Championship (PNAC) at the 2011 AKC Preferred National Agility Championships. He was the 2nd Place Finalist at the 2010 championships. She now competes with her handsome and brooding young Papillon, Samurai, in Master's classes. You can follow their adventures and keep up with her current training discoveries and obsessions on her blog, View from 4 Inch. You can follow her on Twitter at @PapillonAgility and reach her for freelance writing assignments at barbarascanlan@gmail.com.

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