Since starting canicross and qualifying as a trainer with DogFit, people are always asking my advice about running with dogs so I thought I would try to condense it all into an article, which hopefully you find helpful.

What is canicross?

Canicross is the sport of cross country running with dogs.  In canicross, dogs wear a running harness and are usually attached to their person (who wears a waist belt) via a bungee lead. Canicross can be run with one or two dogs, always attached to the runner. You don’t have to be competitive and enter races to enjoy canicross. I help a lot of beginners get started, who simply want to enjoy the countryside through being fit and active with their dog. You also don’t need to practice canicross to run with your dog. My older dog Bella has always run off lead, but my younger dog is very prey driven and reactive, so canicross is the perfect way to exercise her safely and sufficiently.

What are the benefits of running with your dog?

Initially I started running with my oldest dog, Bella, when she was about 6, and I discovered I enjoyed trail running. It seemed natural to me to let her tag along. She is well behaved enough to stay at my heels, and if she does veer off for a sniff or a squirrel chase, she does always come back when I call her. I loved sharing these runs with Bella, and they became more and more regular. Then we adopted our youngest dog. I had visions of Poppy, Bella, and I running free on the moors, frolicking in the heather, sitting on a cairn to watch the sunset. And then Poppy chased a deer one day when we were out. She was gone for about 10 minutes, but they were the longest ten minutes of my life. From then on, she was highly alert every time we went out, and I knew that initial thrill of the chase had awoken an instinctive prey drive in her. She needed to be on the lead, especially with all the sheep that graze our moorland, so I turned to canicross for a solution. The simple act of teaching her to run in a harness, attached to me, and listen to my commands, has formed a strong bond between us. Running gives her the freedom to stretch her legs, without me worrying about her running off. As a rescue from the streets of Romania, she is still very nervous and reactive, and running her on the lead really gives her a job to focus on – I can tell she really enjoys it. She especially loves our social runs where she can run as part of a pack and take it in turns to lead the way.

We did try off lead running with Poppy, but I’m more relaxed with her on lead, especially around sheep

How old does my dog have to be to start running?

Dogs should be fully mature before they start running, especially in harness, so at least a year old, sometimes older for larger breeds. Their bones are still developing until they reach maturity, so while you can start practising canicross commands and obedience training with them, it’s best to save the running until they are old enough. Once they’re ready, start them off on a couch to 5k programme, as you would a person, until they build endurance. DogFit offers an online course, or you can find a trainer near you who will be running a course.

What kit do you need to get started?

You don’t need any kit really to start running with your dog, as long as your dog is well-behaved enough to respond to you when you call him. I would however always advise that dogs wear an appropriate harness for if you do need to put them on a lead at any point (for example when crossing through fields where there are sheep). Running with a dog on a lead attached to a collar can cause the dog neck injury, so an appropriate running harness is a much better option. Let’s talk about suitable harnesses: a running harness should not restrict the dog’s shoulder movement; it should be able to move its shoulders freely while running. If you like the idea of hands-free running while the dog is on a lead, then as well as a harness, you might also like to invest in a running belt for yourself, to which you can attach a bungee lead. Your waist belt will give you control over your dog – a common fear I hear is that people are scared their dog might pull them over, but our hips are strong and much better able to control a dog than holding onto the end of a lead. A bungee lead also absorbs shock, so avoids the jerkiness of a standard lead if the dog stops or sets off quickly.

Poppy in her Dragratten harness

How do I get started?

You train a dog to run in pretty much the same way you began to run, by way of a gentle introduction to running, making sure they have appropriate recovery days as they build up their endurance. I offer Couch to 5k courses for dogs that have never done any kind of running before, an initially I would recommend they run no more than 30 minutes 3 times a week. If you’re running canicross style with your dog attached to you, remember that your weight, as the dog pulls against you, can tire the dog out much more than you would imagine.

How far can a dog run?

Each dog is an individual, and just like us, some may enjoy running further or faster than others. You know your dog best, so just pay close attention to it. Some breeds are naturally more suited to long distance running than others, and if you are planning to do some long runs with your dog, just make sure you train them up slowly. Dogs will run until they drop, so it’s your responsibility to make the call on how much is enough for your dog.

Does my dog need extra food after a run?

Not really. It’s tempting to feed your dog extra treats during or after a run, but dogs are built to run, and with us they’re often not performing at their limits unless they’re in a race. Be careful not to overfeed them. While we’re on the subject of food too, if you are feeding your dog prior to run, make sure you do this a couple of hours before so they don’t get uncomfortable or bloated during your run.

My dog sometimes gets the runs on the run. Is this normal?

The adrenaline pumping through your dog’s body on a run can often cause the bowels to become a little overactive. This is a normal reaction, but if you are at all worried, have a chat with your vet about it.

How do I train my dog to run at my pace?

Running together is a great way to bond, and your dog will naturally be paying attention to you, to see what you want her to do. Dogs usually fall naturally into their human’s rhythm after the initial burst of excitement when we shout ‘Let’s Go!’ This can sometimes take more time with some dogs, so just praise the behaviour/pace you want, and your dog will learn quickly.

What commands should I teach my running dog?

Keep the commands simple. I use just a few, as follows:

Let’s go!: This is our cue to go. I usually accompany this with an audible clap to get my dogs running.

Easy: I use this command when I want them to slow down a little. When training, I accompany this with a little tug on the lead.

Heel/With me: Useful when going downhill to keep the dog at my heel rather than pulling me down the hill. This is the most difficult one to teach, in my opinion, but is worth persevering with.

Left/right: Very useful to avoid getting wrapped around trees, and surprisingly simple to teach with a small tug on the lead in either direction as you give the command.

On!: A useful command if your dog is easily distracted by people/bikes/wildlife/smells, to encourage your dog to keep going forward, and also useful at junctions where your dog is unsure which way to go.

What if my dog won’t pull?

Some dogs don’t like to pull initially, because we spend our time on walks teaching them not to pull so it’s easy to see why they might be confused when we strap them to us and ask them to pull us along. Plenty of praise is useful to teach this skill, as is a willing friend with a dog who will run in front (what dog doesn’t love to chase?!). Some dogs just don’t like canicross, like my Bella for example, who is happier OFF the lead. If you’re not sure how your dog will respond, you can try a taster session with any of our DogFit trainers across the world before you invest in kit.

Can children do canicross?

Yes they can! I always recommend that young children have an adult attached to their dog with a bungee line as well, for safety, but children can certainly enjoy getting fit and active with their family dog as much as you. Children’s canicross belts are available, and many of our DogFit trainers offer classes for children as well as adults.

If you are interested in finding out more about canicross classes near you, you can find your local trainer on the DogFit website.