The Active Dog Podcast – Episode 4
(A very slightly edited transcript from the podcast, so please excuse any grammatical errors and the length of the text!)
The reason that I have felt compelled to do an episode (and now this blog taken from the transcript) on Parkrun is because there have been recent changes made to Parkruns’ policy on running with dogs, that have deeply upset the Canicross community. And I for one can see why.
Basically, I just want to do a quick run-through of Parkrun and how it has related to Canicross in the past. When I first started canicrossing, you could just run with your dogs at Parkrun, there were no real restrictions. So you could run with more than one dog and there were no restrictions on the kit.
Parkrun has always historically been a very inclusive event on a Saturday morning, nine o’clock around local and usually public parks, sometimes they do have permission on private land to run the events. They’re 5k, they’re timed and if you take along your barcode, you get a time at the end of it which puts you in a gender and an age position. It’s quite good for monitoring your progress. It’s always been considered not to be a race.
So when people started competing through Parkrun, it flies in the face of what it was actually intended for because Parkrun has always been intended as a very inclusive and social, fun, free event on a Saturday morning. Originally it started out like I mentioned, with you being able to take any number of dogs along there were no restrictions on kit, you could run your dog however you wanted to and it started to get more popular with canicrossers. On the whole, we were always asked to start at the side or at the back of the start.
As the Parkruns got more popular, there were more people, so they asked us to step to one side as a canicross runner and they even marked us as ‘assisted’ for the timing so that people who were trying to achieve personal records didn’t get too upset by the fact that we were perhaps assisted by our dogs.
So from there, I think a lot of people became aware of people running with dogs at their events, a few people complained, mostly it was the competitive people who complained because I think they felt that it was unfair that the Parkrunners with their dogs were assisted, which was why the assisted category came in. But it also meant that run directors and event directors have to find ways to incorporate dogs into their Parkrun. This meant starting at the back, with some of the more forward-thinking ones starting us at the front, because obviously you get your dogs out of the way first, that’s much better for everyone, however the majority of them will start at the back.
As canicrossers, went along with whatever the Parkrun director for that particular event said, some Parkruns started to ban dogs because they felt that they weren’t safe in the situation that they had, that particular setup on some of the more narrow paths if they had a lot of people. You can check whether they are dog-friendly Parkruns or not before you attend through the website.
It then developed into Parkrun didn’t want people running with more than one dog because they felt it was unsafe, and it would potentially cause accidents. So every single park run across the country in the UK was then not allowed to have any runners with more than one dog. That was a bit of a blow to some of us who ran with two dogs. I have to say it was one of the factors that stopped me from going to my local park run because at the time I was running mainly with two dogs. I wondered ‘what am I going to do with the other dog while I’m running just one?’ I would have to just go around again or it just wasn’t worth it for me when they decided that it would only be one dog per runner. They also decided that you needed to have a short line and by short line they indicated no longer than 1.2 metres. That was how the park run line that you see today on all the canicross retail stores came about it, because Parkrun stipulated that they wanted a line that was no more than 1.2 metres.
So we all changed our lines to shorter lines if we wanted to do Parkrun, or the majority of us did. We again followed what the Parkrun directive wanted us to do. It seems that in spite of the fact that it’s cut down to one dog now, and we’re to run them on really short lines, there are still people who have complained about people running with dogs that Parkrun and there are still people who have managed to get involved in an incident.
Park run have recently announced that they’re making changes to what they allow in terms of running with dogs again. It’s this that’s really brought me to doing this podcast (and transcripted blog) today. Because the implications of what they are now saying is going to be their blanket policy means that essentially, you won’t be able to canicross at Parkruns anymore and that is because they have banned the use of waist belts.
So what they have asked for now in their ruling is that you run with your dog on a handheld lead, they haven’t specified whether it’s attached to a collar or harness, so you can still run your dog in a harness, and they haven’t specified that it be a bungee lead or a fixed lead. So you could still run with a bungee lead, but it has to be in your hand and you have to be within arm’s length of your dog – for many people, that’s just going to be impractical.
If you’ve trained a dog to Canicross, they are not going to want to run at your side, which is essentially what Parkrun are requesting now – that your dog runs at your side. There are also a few issues with this in terms of the actual setup because if you think about having a lead in your hand, you’re very much out of balance, all the control is coming from one side, the side that you’re holding the lead. If you’ve got a belt on, you’ve got the whole of your centre of gravity to act as a control for your dog, so you’re going to be much more balanced, your dog’s going to be much more balanced. If you are a trained canicrosser, which most of us who have done Park run are, then your dog is going to be in the middle in front of you and not causing any problems going off to the side. So it’s going to be very balanced, it’s going to be very controlled.
The other problem with having just a handheld lead is that if something happens, and you end up dropping that lead, then you’ve lost your dog, you’ve got a loose dog in amongst hundreds, (potentially) of park runners. So actually having your dog attached to your waist is a much more sensible idea than having it just in your hand. I created a graphic last week on the back of all these changes to indicate to people that it’s really not a good idea to be running with a handheld lead and your dog unless you have got a dog who runs to heel, and you’ve trained your dog to run to heel, which is something that you could potentially do if you haven’t done it already. It’s not outside the realms of possibility to be able to do this with a dog who you’ve already trained to canicross because dogs are very intelligent creatures, they’re very smart and they will pick up on a difference in your training, if you decide to take it down that route.
However, the fact that Parkrun now seem to be advocating this as a way of running with your dog really bothers me personally, because I have spent the whole time that I have run my business – 10 years now, trying to educate people about why running your dog with a harness with a bungee lead on a waist belt is so much safer, and prevents injury than running with a handheld lead. This just blows all of that out of the water when you’ve got an organisation as big and as influential as Parkrun now saying actually, we want you to come to our events and run with your dogs with a handheld lead running next to you, because that’s not what Canicross is about.
I’ve seen a lot of people who have commented saying, ‘well, you know, it should be about that’. That dogs should be under control and Parkrun have got every right to insist on that. It is their event, and it’s their responsibility to make sure that everybody gets around that Parkrun course, safely. So if that’s what they’ve decided to say or their new rules, then really there’s not a lot the canicross community can do about that.
However, I feel really sad and really, I’m really bothered by the fact that there are going to be people out there who see this and think, ‘Well, this is the way to run with your dog’. Because actually, there’s a much better way to run with your dog. That’s with the waist belt, a bungee lead and a harness. So having something like that out there being put out there in the public, is almost it feels to me like a massive backward step from where we were going with promoting the sport of canicross in the country. As much as Park run isn’t designed for canicrossers, it has always welcomed canicrossers, in the 13 years that I’ve been running with my dogs, it’s always been a really inclusive place for people to run with their dogs with a lot of the event volunteers and directors themselves actually canicrossers.
I feel this is just a big blow to everybody who’s worked so hard to include canicross in the Parkrun community. And I know from what I have seen, on all the social media that’s been going around on it, (and there has been a lot on social media) there’s a lot of people who are very upset, there are a lot of people who are angry, and a lot of people who are really disappointed. And I would say that I fall into the disappointed category because it doesn’t upset me as such, I’ve got other avenues for canicrossing my dogs and like I say, since they cut the number of dogs that you could run with down to one, I haven’t actually participated in as many Park runs as I did prior to that. So I’m not upset about that decision. I’m not angry about that decision, because I feel that it is their event, it’s their rules, they can make whatever they want to as their rules.
However, I am really disappointed that an organisation like Parkrun would put out there something which basically suggests that it’s a good idea to run with your dog next to you with a handheld lead. And that’s what we have been trying to campaign against, people don’t choose the right equipment, they often run dogs on collars, and then you get dogs with neck injuries, you can even get dogs with eye injuries if they’ve got a lot of pressure on their neck from having something pulling on their neck all the time. You also don’t necessarily have as much control because you’re holding that lead, so you don’t have your hands free. The risk to injury for both the human and the dog, I think is increased by having that kind of setup without the proper equipment. So it’s just been really disappointing to me. And I can understand why some of my friends are angry, and I can understand why some of my friends are upset. And I’ve been personally asked by a number of people to campaign against this decision, which I won’t be doing because like I said it’s up to Parkrun to choose their own rules, and they’re entitled to do what they want with that. But I did have to make it clear that I’m disappointed with that decision. And the reason for that is because I don’t think it’s a safe decision. And I don’t think it’s a very good way to be advocating running with dogs. So that’s my position on it.
And people are so upset about this, because Parkrun has been such a big part of their canicross journey with their dogs for so long. And I know people who perhaps only ever take their dog to Parkrun and don’t take part in Canicross races. And that’s because they’ve always enjoyed the friendly and welcoming atmosphere that they found that their local Parkrun. It’s also for people that don’t have the time, or the resources to travel for long distances to races, at least they can get out and be sociable and experience that sort of group run atmosphere at their local Parkrun. It’s always been inclusive and it gives you the chance to mix with a variety of different people in the running community. I know families that go to park runs and they run with all different generations, some people run with dogs, some people don’t, but they can all go to the same place and all take part in the same run and get their token to get their placing at the end.
So it is going to be very disappointing for a huge number of people that they can no longer do that essentially, unless they are willing to train their dog to run by their side and potentially increase their risk of injury for themselves or their dog in my opinion by meeting the new rules that Parkrun have brought out. I think from my point of view, the future now is that Parkrun have, albeit through a blog rather than publicly on any social media channels have now indicated that this is the change that’s going to be made from April the 2nd and I don’t think they’re going to back down on that.
I think the point now is to try and be constructive moving forward. And if that means the canicross community are going to have to work twice as hard to educate people about safe running with dogs, then I think that is what we’re going to do. I think there are people who are already putting the wheels in motion for an alternative for people called Bark Run. And at the moment, that’s currently looking to take place at some of the Parkrun sites where it’s accessible and viable to do so. At 8am, in the morning, on a Saturday, around the same course as the Parkrun would, but not interfering with the setting up of the Parkruns that are going to be taking place. And obviously with the agreement and cooperation of the Parkrun directors who are already at that venue. So that’s something to look out for. If you are disappointed about the new changes to Parkrun that looks like it’s gathering momentum. And we’ll just have to see how that goes.
Hopefully, that won’t be in conflict with anything that Parkrun are doing. And it does seem to be being welcomed by a lot of the Parkrun volunteers and people who have been involved, who were also disappointed themselves that Parkrun have made this blanket decision about changing the rules on what equipment can be used. So that’s something to look forward to and look out for in the future. And what I will say is that I have always said to people that Parkrun isn’t necessarily the best place for canicrossers, it can be quite stressful for anyone who doesn’t have full control over their dog. And it can also be quite stressful for people who aren’t prepared to move out of the way of some of the other Parkrunners, because I’ve been in situations where people have actually kicked my dog out of the way in a Parkrun.
There are some people who are hostile towards people running dogs in what is essentially a human run. And you will get some people who are scared of dogs. And so there has been that situation where people are scared to be passed or scared to pass and it’s been slightly uncomfortable. So I have said to people who are starting out, it’s not necessarily the best place for people to canicross with dogs, unless you know, you’ve got really good control over your dog. And unless you’re happy to deal with the fact that you’re just one cog in that in that Park run machine.
So don’t expect the park run to make changes for you, basically. And I think that’s been a running thread over the years where they’ve made the different changes that people have complained about. But essentially, Parkrun isn’t there for canicrossers Parkrun is there to serve the entire community. But on the flip side of that, the entire community does include canicrossers, so it is a sad day. It’s something that a lot of people have been quite upset about. And it’s actually been quite emotional reading people’s posts over the weekend about attending Parkrun where they felt they might be unwelcome now, and they felt uncomfortable going because of the changes in the rules. They felt that people didn’t want them there, which is against everything that Parkrun has always said they wanted to be. So I hope that has given them an indication of how much Parkrun meant to the canicross community and how disappointed everybody is about these changes, in spite of the fact that it probably won’t change anything about their decision and it won’t change the way that Parkrun run in the future.
But like I say there is Bark Run coming and hopefully that’s going to, to get up and running in a really positive way for people. So I’d encourage anyone if you’re really disappointed about these decisions to have a look at that. And also there are many, many other ways that you can go out and be sociable with your dog other than up Parkrun. It’s not the end of everything for canicrossers who have been at Parkruns before. But I do know that it does feel like the end of an era for a lot of us who have always attended Parkrun and felt welcome for the most part. Because this new ruling about the equipment indirectly bans canicrossers from Parkrun. And as much as you can say, it doesn’t stop you taking your dog, it will stop a lot of people taking their dog to Parkruns. Because as a conscientious canicrosser we wouldn’t want to be taking part in something without the proper equipment and without the proper safety surrounding the control that that equipment gives you.
So it does mean the end of an era for many of us, which is pretty sad. And that’s why I just wanted to put this podcast out there today and say how I’m feeling about it and address the issues that have been talked about on social media. I know this will probably go on for a little while now. Because obviously the changes don’t come into place until the 2nd of April. But if you’ve got any thoughts on it, then you know, please do join the debate. Well, not join the debate, because there’s actually nothing really to debate now. But please do continue to help educate people about the right way to run with dogs because I think that’s my biggest fear now that this has been advocated by Parkrun that people will think that this is a great way to run dogs and it’s really not.
I think from my point of view, I definitely feel disappointed. I definitely feel sad about the impact that it’s had on some of my friends and the way they feel about it. And, all I can say is we need to not look to the past, look to the future and plan for great things to come because hopefully this debate and this accepting of other people not necessarily understanding what we do will lead to more conversations and more education, which is all we can really hope for.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode and discussion of canicross and Parkrun.
We’ll be back soon with another episode on the active dog podcast here: https://anchor.fm/theactivedogpodcast And until then, remember, active dogs are happy dogs!