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Canicross: The New "Secret Sauce" of Agility Training? Part 1

Learn about a new sport that might be beneficial for agility training. By Barbara Scanlan. Photos courtesy of Canadog.


Canicross offers dogs cardio-conditioning benefits combined with strength-building, harnessed pulling.

Have you ever wondered how those European handlers and dogs stay so fit and fast? One guess is a canine sports phenomenon that has caught fire in the United Kingdom and Europe, but has yet to catch on in North America.

Canicross. Your next new dog sport?

If you haven't yet heard of it, you're not alone. Actually, it's most easily defined as running cross-country with dogs. The handler wears a hands-free waist belt and the dog wears a pulling harness, similar to the ones sled dogs use. They're attached by means of a bungee-corded leash. Usually it's done over natural trails.

I hadn't heard of the sport myself until YouTube posted this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cjw6QYanj6A&feature=youtu.be) as a suggestion in my subscriber email. It was about an event in Czechoslovakia called the Hill's Cup Praha.

Just watching the video gave me an adrenaline rush. People were racing with their dogs running  no, pulling them!  with sled dog harnesses. The first group to run were very fit runners and dogs, but after them came a lot of regular people with pet dogs and even small children in tow.

The whole thing had a festival, dog-friendly atmosphere that looked really intriguing. Needless to say, I had to learn more.

Why Canicross?

Runners run faster with a longer stride since the dog supports part of the weight.

*For agility handlers - As an agility handler, I've been aware of a surge of interest in fitness for both dogs and handlers in dog agility. Canicross seemed like it had the makings of a new conditioning sport that could suit the needs of both.

*For pet owners of energetic young dogs - As any pet dog class instructor can attest, there are thousands or even millions of young dogs out there in homes today whose lives are in jeopardy, just because they have a natural amount of canine energy. 

*For fitness enthusiasts with dogs  Many fitness enthusiasts and runners may have a dog and understand the benefits of keeping their canine pal fit, but don't want to go through the ordeal of fumbling with a dog leash or have a strong dog yanking on their arms.

*For competitive runners - Some might already be running with their dogs, but find their dogs aren't welcome in most competitive running events. Also, using arms to run efficiently while holding a leash can often be next to impossible. 

Benefits of dog-powered running.

Overall, runners find they can run faster with a dog in harness since, during the part of the stride when the runners feet are off the ground, the dog's pull supports the airborne weight. Runners report they run more freely and with a longer stride.

For the dog, the pulling harness is safer and prevents injury to the neck. Pulling is also a better workout for the dog. It builds a dog's strength and the effort of partially supporting the handler's weight also burns off excess energy more quickly. 

Canicross equipment helps humans run free and dogs run strong.


Canadog starter kit: Waist belt, bungee lead, and pulling harness.

So the most obvious question is, "Why couldn't a person just run with a dog?" as in "on a leash." 

That's always been an option, of course, and in fact, European organizations like the explosively popular CaniX (cani-cross.co.uk) in the UK allow beginner competitors to enter events with traditional leashes if they like. To get the story behind Canicross gear, I contacted Shelley Ramsay, owner of Canadog , a well-regarded source of Canicross equipment in North America and located in British Columbia, Canada. Ramsay, a former marathon runner, says Canadog (canadog.ca) started out making skijoring gear, but found the companies making the gear at the time didn't use it themselves. So she designed a belt with the features she wanted. These include high quality naval strength snaps made of Italian bronze. They are designed to resist breaking under frigid Yukon temperatures. The goal was to make products that could stand up to the pulling forces of the family's own competition sled dogs.

The Canicross belt is wide, helping to distribute forces and allowing the dog to pull off the handler's center of balance (a much more stable and better-for-the-back arrangement than holding onto a leash). The Canadog belt (youtube.com/watch?v=tRyiafF9xYQ&feature=player_embedded) is designed to allow the handler to choose whether the dog runs in front or in heel position (a training bonus we'll discuss below). It comes with carrier pocket and a water bottle carrier attachment in the back.

The bungee attachment leash absorbs the shock of the pull. Videos on the Canadog website show how to fit the harness and select the right length of connector.

The harness features a wide breastplate and padded straps. It's designed specifically for dog-powered sports such as Canicross and Skijoring (skiing behind a dog on cross country skis). The straps have multiple adjustment points to allow a custom fit that won't slip. 

Canadog offers a Starter kit for one or two dogs. Ramsay says the connector leash on the starter kit allows for the leash to be handled while a dog is in training. Lightweight leads are a little harder to handle but are preferred for competition.

Getting started with Canicross

Start slow and build distance gradually.

 Although elite runners will appreciate the advantages of Canicross, you don't have to be a runner to enjoy this sport.

Jessica Schick, a member of the 10-time Flyball world-record-holding Touch N Go team (touchngoflyball.com), uses Canicross as part of the conditioning program for herself and her Border Collies. According to Schick, "Our team uses Canicross as just one way to condition our dogs. It is an amazing way to not only increase physical stamina but also mental stamina. Our dogs gain great experience along a run and learn to focus for a long duration through numerous distractions. They have to stay on task while running past bikes, cars, manholes, skateboards, children, birds, trash, other dogs, smelly spots, etc. Plus, what a fantastic way to get out in the fresh air and have some fun with your dog."

Schick finds teaching Canicross to be fairly straight forward. She says, "Canicross can be extremely easy to teach" and doesn't use a specific method for training her dogs. As in sled dog teams, she often uses her more experienced dog to help teach a younger one. She said dogs vary in how easily or well they pick up the sport and her best advice would be to contact an experienced person in your region for advice.

Ramsay, like many Canicrossers, trains her dogs on traditional sledding commands:

Gee = Right
Haw = Left
On by = Go past a distraction or go straight through on intersecting trails. It's also used to tell a dog or team to "stay to the trail."
Whoa = Stop
Come Gee or Come Haw = Asks the dog come all the way around and come to the handler, a convenient way to turn your dog or team around.

Many agility dogs will have verbal directional cues already in place. A handler can choose to either use the same set of cues for both sports, or train sledding commands specifically for use during Canicross. Ramsay adds that "On by is really important, because if a dog is not going to go by distractions, you will be running after every little critter."

Ramsay starts her 6-7 month-old puppies walking out in front of her in a harness without any weight. She suggests using commands, such as saying "gee" or "haw" as the puppy approaches a corner. She says certain dogs will only want to go straight, and others will prefer a certain direction. With those dogs, she says, the handler will need to train more on the directions the dog favors less.

She cautions that the one thing you will want to do is to put the harness on the dog only when you're ready to work. Take it off immediately after. "Don't give them a chance to chew it, otherwise that will be the first thing they do every time. Wait to make sure the dog knows what it's for. When it's on, the dog should know it's going to move. What you also don't want to do is let the dog roll around and get out of it." For beginners, she adds, the Canadog shorty harness is "about impossible to turn around and peel off." 

The goal in training is "to create the best experience for the dog possible, and keep it short and build distance gradually." Even for dogs that are used to running, it's good to start them off gradually since pulling requires much more effort and conditioning. Many Canicross runners also find it's easier to teach a dog to run on a trail rather than a wide open meadow since most dogs will run forward on a trail by instinct. For dogs that won't run out ahead, Ramsay recommends motivating them by having another team run ahead of them.

What if I don't want my dog to pull?

Ramsey shares, "We as dog trainers work with people all the time who are fighting so hard to keep dogs from pulling on a lead. Whatever the need is of that dog to pull on something, why not let them fulfill it? Attach them to a harness and let them do something with that drive and it's a much more fulfilling experience."

In what will come as a surprise to many obedience dog trainers, Ramsay trains heeling and pulling together. Basically, when she takes a puppy out for a walk she brings a collar and a harness. Because the puppy is usually energetic and wants to pull at the beginning, she starts out with the harness. "When he's open minded enough to listen, stop and put on the collar and work on heeling," Ramsay says. She also changes the lead to the side belt attachment at that point. If the puppy starts pulling, she takes off the collar and puts back on the harness. Over time, the puppy learns to associate the harness with pulling and the collar with loose leash walking or heeling. So, essentially, the puppy has learned not to pull by actually fulfilling the need to pull and without struggling against the lead.

Check back tomorrow to learn more about Canicross, including precautions you should take to make the sport safer for you and your dog. 

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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