If you are new to the world of canicross you might be unfamiliar with the type of equipment available to you and the things you need to think about to really enjoy the experience with your dog. Below are some helpful hints for making the most of your canicross runs.
First and foremost is the health of you and your dog to consider and you are normally the best person to judge this. Is your dog healthy, active and fully developed (i.e. not a puppy)? Are you healthy and active? If you have any concerns speak with your GP or your vet who will be able to give you guidance on this.
It is always recommended that you don’t run a dog in harness much before they are a year old to allow their bones & muscles to develop and as with all sports, distances should be increased gradually according to a training plan, allowing both you & your dog to gain strength and confidence over the terrain you encounter.
If you answered yes to the above questions then you’re ready to get started!
For your dog there are some environmental factors to think about – heat, water & terrain, all are equally important and I will deal with them one by one.
What temperature are you going to be running in? Most dogs do not enjoy running in temperatures much over 15 degrees centigrade but for sled dog breeds and long haired dog breeds the temperature often needs to be much lower to allow them to run in comfort.
You need to be fully aware of what time of day you are running in, is it lunch time when the sun is at it’s highest? If so then it’s probably not going to be suitable for your dog unless in the middle of winter!
I tend to recommend people run with their dogs early morning or evening between the spring and autumn months and often not at all through the summer unless you can get out early or late enough to avoid the higher temperatures.
There are warning signs you can look for in your dog to tell if it is overheating such as excessive panting, very red gums and ‘heaving’ of the sides. If your dog shows any of these signs when out running the most important thing to do is get water over the dog’s body and get your dog to a vet immediately as overheating can be extremely serious and sometimes fatal in dogs.
There are coats you can purchase which help to cool dogs down by using water evaporation, some of these can be used during activity too but nothing is as good as knowing what temperatures your dog is comfortable running in and sticking to it.
Is there going to be plenty of water available for your dog to hydrate whilst on your run? If not you may well have to carry some and a collapsible bowl to ensure you have enough. People often carry their own water bottles and so it should become part of your pre-run preparation to make sure you have enough for yourself and your dog. I always carry at least 500ml (regular sports bottle) for a 30 minute run with my two as a bare minimum and my collapsible bowl hooks to my running belt so it isn’t additional baggage I have to carry. It is better if you can plan your routes to include regular river or stream dips for your dog as it is this immersion in water which cools your dog down most effectively. Unfortunately dogs do not have a cooling system as efficient as ours and they do not sweat, so you have to think seriously about ensuring your dog can drink and cool down quickly after a run. I have taken to carrying a regular plant sprayer bottle filled with water in my car to spray my dogs with when we return to the car and even have a shallow, wide bucket available for when we are racing to provide them with a portable, cool off pool!
What type of ground will you be running on – off-road tracks, fields or tarmac roads? It is always better to avoid road running with your dog if you can, largely down to the safety aspect but also long distances on tarmac can cause problems with pads and eventually, similar to yourself, it can take its toll on joints. If you do run on roads be aware of the traffic at all times and ensure your dog cannot lunge out in front of a car. Listening to music is also not advisable if you need to hear traffic.
There are dog boots which you can buy to alleviate pad problems and a number of paw waxes are available to protect your dogs pads too but these should only be used if you experience problems as it is better to allow your dog’s paws to toughen up naturally.
If you are going to be running mainly on off road trails just be aware of the same sort of hazards you would encounter if you were running barefoot, sharp stones, twigs, brambles can all cut pads, although dogs paws are much tougher than human feet!
Once you have considered your running environment from a dog’s perspective you might need to change your regular run routes to accommodate your canine companion as your dog’s health, comfort and safety must always come first.
There are 3 main items you ideally need for canicross and below are my suggestions for the kit which you might like to consider.
As a seasoned canicrosser I now own a wide range of running belts, dog harnesses and lines which I use for different purposes. Some are better for racing short distances and others suit me more for longer, steadier runs.
If you are going to be regularly running with your dog you really need to get a harness for your dog’s comfort and safety. Harnesses come in all shapes and sizes and in a wide range of materials and colours to suit the many different types of dog breed and personalities!
There are 2 main reasons to get a harness. One is to ensure the dog is pulling against something which captures the running energy without putting any pressure on the neck which inevitably happens if you try to encourage a dog to pull from a lead attached to the collar.
The other is so your dog can differentiate between pulling whilst in harness and then being on a lead which is when you would rather your dog didn’t pull you and as a result have probably spent time and effort discouraging this.
Dogs are intelligent animals and quickly recognise the difference between a run with a harness where they are encouraged to pull and a normal on lead walk when they are not.
There are numerous types of harness available but they generally fall into two categories in my opinion, those which have a shoulder ring (short harness) and those which have a tail ring (long harness).
Short harnesses consist of a piece for the dogs’ head to go through, then usually do up around the dog’s mid section behind their front legs, with a ring on the top of their back between the shoulder blades or along the back to attach a line to.
I feel I have more control over my dogs with the attachment from the shoulder and also the angle at which the line falls from my belt can be quite steep if I use my short line.
Long harnesses can be seen most often on sled dogs who more often than not wear something known as an ‘x-back’ harness due to the criss cross design of the harness, which has been used on sledding dogs for hundreds of years.
The harness again has a piece which slides over the dog’s head and straps which fit behind the front legs but the material continues back up the dog’s sides to the point where the dog’s tail meets its body and the line is attached to this point.
I use this type of harness for bikejor (biking with your dog) and scootering because I prefer more distance between myself and my dogs to keep them away from the wheels of the bike or scooter and therefore my line is longer and the angle less severe. This type of harness was designed to be used with a point of attachment (i.e. yourself, bike, scooter or sled) which is similar to the height of the dog so if you run with a long line this is fine.
This is only a guide and my personal opinion, however I know many people who find their dogs run better with long harnesses on and people who bikejor and scooter their dogs in short harnesses.
What is important to remember is that every dog and person is different so you need to find what works best for you. The breed of your dog may well have an influence on which type of harness works best for you, as some of the broader breeds do not suit all harness types, the same is true of very slender breeds.
If you can go along to one of the organised group leisure runs or a canicross competition there are always people with spare kit who would be willing to let you try the various types of harness, lines and belts.
This is what you use to attach your dog to yourself and provides a more comfortable option than running holding a dog lead. If you choose to run without a belt, as I did initially, you quickly find that your neck, shoulders & back take the strain of an eager pulling dog!
There are a number of options for choosing a belt and again they come in various materials and colours but are more conventional than the dog harnesses.
Waist belts for running generally follow the same design, they are adjustable, made of padded material which clip or buckle around the waist with some sort of ring or clip to attach the line to.
Some belts offer leg straps which can be useful if your dog pulls a lot and the waist belt rises up. The leg straps keep the belt down on your hips or waist (whichever you prefer) and disperse some of the strain.
Some belts have bungee straps to attach the line to, offering a more ‘springy’ feel to being pulled along which you may or may not prefer.
Many belts have pockets for essential items such as keys, a mobile phone (poo bags!), water holders and some have rings to which collapsible water bowls, extra leads (or anything else which can be clipped to a belt) can be attached to, saving the need for clothing pockets or a rucksack.
Again it is useful to try a few different types of belt out to see which you feel most comfortable running in and what accessories you prefer.
This is what connects your dog to you via your waist belt and the attachment point on the harness. The line can vary in length depending on what type you purchase and where you purchase from but as a rule they all tend to have a bungee section built into them.
This bungee section ensures that both you and your dog have some ‘bounce’ in the line and prevents sharp movements which could otherwise cause injury.
In canicross competitions the European guidelines state that the lines have to have a shock absorber (bungee) and should not be more than 2 metres in length when extended so it is worth bearing this in mind when purchasing equipment if you think you would like to compete in the Cani-X competitions in the UK or the ECF (European Canicross Federation) competitions in Europe (Nb. for bikejor the limit is 2.5 metres and must be attached to the bike with a suitable attachment).
The lines are designed to attach to the waist belt but to have some element of quick release in case of an emergency situation where you might need to detach your dog quickly and in fact many people use caribiners for this purpose. Various styles are available and for the specific competitions as mentioned above there should only be 1 metal clip on a line which attaches to the dog’s harness, the other end of the trailing line should have no metal clips, loops or ‘D’ rings.
Canicross is a growing sport and so every year there are more options becoming available for equipment. The best way I have found of selecting the right gear for both myself and my dogs is by listening to the advice of others, trying out the different styles and then choosing the kit which suits my dogs and I the best.
If you feel you need any further advice please contact me and I can direct you to more resources to help you make the right choice.
Happy canicrossing! (photo copyright of Freeze Frame Images)