I won’t pretend I’m not disappointed. When I learned the news, I had just got home from a canicross taster session, where the person trying canicross for the first time with her dog commented how much more in control she felt, having ger hands-free and how her dog was much less reactive.

To summarise the changes, parkrun have decided that, effective from (and including) Saturday 2 April, they will no longer permit parkrunners to use waist harnesses when participating with their dog. parkrun say this is “based on clear evidence contained within our incident database and which we believe will significantly reduce the risks associated with dogs at parkrun.” Dogs will be still be allowed to participate with their owners, but the rules from 2nd April state:

“One dog on a short, handheld, non-extendable lead by the side of the participant, and within reach at all times. Care must also be taken to avoid tripping other parkrunners.”

The canicross community is clearly very angry and hurt about this, and feels targeted by parkrun, which until now has been an inclusive event. Suddenly it has an element of exclusivity.

parkrun haven’t told us what these incidents are, but in their blog, here are the reasons they give:

“We carefully record and review all parkrun-related incidents, and our global incident database allows us to make operational decisions based on the reality of what’s happening in our parks and open spaces.

Over ten percent of incidents at parkrun events involve dogs, and as such we have spent significant time considering the nature, frequency, and severity of dog-related incidents.

Our evidence shows that, when participants use waist harnesses, there is an increased risk of serious incidents, particularly trips and falls, compared to when using handheld leads. These are typically associated with dogs running in front of other participants, and are occurring when people are together in groups, when people with dogs are overtaking others, and when people with dogs are being overtaken.

Unfortunately, the nature of parkrunning with a waist harness is such that the lead allows dogs to move from side to side, in front of the participant, which can result in the dog suddenly and unexpectedly crossing in front of other participants on the course.”

parkrun feels there is a risk to wearing waist harnesses, but does not specifically target canicross harnesses per se, and does not differentiate between these and the leads which simply fasten around your waist. While the waist fastening leads don’t provide any control over your dog, and do allow them to move side to side, canicross harnesses vary; some do allow movement side to side; others such as the Dogfit harness have a fixed loop, so the dog can’t move too much out to the side. Since canicross harnesses sit around your hips and bottom, you also have plenty of control over your dog. Most canicross lines also have a grab handle near the dog for additional control.

The directive from parkrun that dogs will only be allowed to take part if they are running on a handheld lead does worry me, and is certain to lead to more trips and falls because a runner can easily be pulled off balance, or injure their back or shoulder. A dog is likely to get spooked easily when surrounded by other runners, and there is nothing to stop it running side to side on a handheld lead, but most worryingly, it could easily escape if its owner drops the lead – this simply can’t happen with a canicross belt as the lead is attached securely.

A lot of dogs trained for canicross will be unable to run on handheld leads, so this rule change does sadly rule out their participation from what parkrun still maintains is an inclusive event. Many dogs are indeed happy to run alongside their owners – this isn’t so much a question of training, it’s more about the dog’s individual preference and character. My first dog Bella was a perfect parkrun companion; we had a handheld lead which attached to her harness, and which I could wear over my wrist. Bella was very calm and happy to run by my side. Poppy on the other hand loves to be out in front running as fast as she can, and is very strong – I don’t even walk Poppy on a handheld lead, we are also in a waist harness to help me have control over her. Poppy and I don’t run parkrun together as it’s too exciting an environment for her, we prefer quieter trails, but we do volunteer, and because I use a waist belt to attach her to me, I doubt we will be allowed to do this either – it certainly rules out tail walking for us sadly. Many of my friends and clients also enjoy running parkrun with their dogs. It seems to me like a backwards step to ban a piece of equipment that can help keep our dogs under close control, and prevent injury. I would much prefer parkrun to mandate the use of a proper running harness for dogs, rather than a lead attached to a collar.

Whilst it’s unlikely that parkrun will rescind its decision, I feel we should still have our say and let parkrun know how much we have enjoyed taking part in parkrun with our dogs, canicross style, and how important canicross kit is in keeping our dogs under control so that we can continue to enjoy parkrun together. Hopefully, with enough people sharing their stories in a positive way, it may encourage them to reconsider their decision. Their contact address is eventsupport@parkrun.com

I think I am most disappointed in parkrun because they have made this decision without consulting the canicross community at all, and without providing any evidence.

Here are some points which I wish parkrun would consider for the future:

  • Consult the canicross community for help educating people on safer running with dogs, by helping the dogs learn appropriate commands, educating people on the dangers of running dogs on tarmac, or in hot weather, and wearing suitable equipment.
  • Request that participating dogs wear a proper Y-shaped running harness, rather than a T-shaped one, and not allowing dogs to run if they are attached only to a collar or a slip lead, which can be dangerous.
  • Start dogs in a different area to other runners. Many parkruns ask them to start near the back, but many dogs do get excited by the atmosphere at parkrun and will naturally want to overtake, so starting them near the front or in a different start area may be a better option.
  • Consider allowing individual parkrun events to make their own decisions about whether to allow canicross, as some courses are suitable, whereas others are not.

As a DogFit trainer, I encourage and educate people how to run with their dogs in a safe and controlled way. Even though parkrun has banned the use of canicross equipment, please be assured that canicross kit has been properly designed for safe hands-free running.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Solidarity with our canicross and parkrunning community.

We also recorded a podcast about this, which you can listen to here.