Canicross: how to run with your dog

Canicross: how to run with your dog

canicross racing

After getting the first few weeks of runs under our belt, or should I say waist harness, I wanted Ralph and I to enter our first running race, so I looked into options for us locally.

The sport of canicross is defined as cross country running attached to your dog. It’s a sport that has boomed both across the UK and worldwide in recent years, with dedicated leagues putting on races for dogs of any breed who run with their owner.

It first started as a way of exercising sled dogs on dry land when there was no snow around, but has since turned into a popular passtime for runners. The first canicross event that was held in the UK took place in 2000. Today, you can find a plethora of events that are canicross-friendly by doing a quick internet search or looking out on Facebook Groups in your local area.

Running with your dog at Parkrun

Although parkrun might seem like an ideal place to run with your dog, it’s important to note the rules that were brought in in April 2022. Previously, you were allowed to have dogs on a waist harness at the events so you could run with your dog , but the rules now allow: “One dog on a short, handheld, non-extendable lead by the side of the participant, and within reach at all times.”

Anna and Ralph’s first race together

Our first event together was held in the beautiful setting of Salcey Forest in Northamptonshire. It was a great event for first-timers because of the nature of the event.

Big Bear Events organizers are known for putting on six-hour events, where you all start running at the same time and have six hours to run as many of the roughly 5K laps as you want. It means that it’s not all about podium finishes or being highly competitive because your main competition is yourself.

The weather was particularly British as Ralph and I arrived at the start area. The rain was pouring and we were soaked before we’d even started running. But that didn’t dampen our spirits.

The event allows runners and canicrossers to take part simultaneously, which makes it feel much less intimidating as a first-timer, as there are lots of other runners doing their own thing. We set off on our first lap together and Ralph was a star.

Despite the rain, I smiled the whole way round, as he happily pulled me along the course, keen to keep up with the other runners in front of him.

racing compared to training

I noticed a difference in his behavior at the race, compared to when we go out running together on our own.

When we’re by ourselves, he can sometimes get distracted or bored of running at my pace, as he knows he can go a lot quicker, so will sometimes veer off to the sides for a sniff in the bushes. But in this setting, he was focused and wanted to keep going. In fact, the only thing slowing him down was me!

We completed our first lap and met up with a friend, who was also running with her dog, before setting off to tackle our second and final lap together as a four.

Coming up to the finish, we had completed just under seven miles, which was the goal for our first go. I handed back my timing chip to the race headquarters and was presented with my medal.

To my surprise, and delight, Ralph was then presented with his own medal too; a small star-shaped metal keyring which can be attached to his collar that says ‘Canicross Superstar’, which I think describes his efforts perfectly.

Next paw steps

Since that first organized event together, Ralph and I have continued to run regularly together and the first race I booked to run this year was another one with him. We’re training to run a bit further at the next event, hopefully completing three laps, which will take his longest ever run from him to just under 10 miles.

In the meantime, I am working on training Ralph to understand some basic canicross commands. You can use whichever words suit you and your dog best, but the most common ones used in traditional canicross are:

  • Stand or Wait – Stand still and wait for my cue to start running
  • Go – Start running
  • Gee – Right turn
  • Haw – Left turn
  • On by – Overtake another team without interfering with them
  • Easy – Slow down

canicross commands

As Ralph demonstrated in our first race together, when dogs are in an event scenario, they tend to naturally follow the people in front of them. But when we’re running on trails on our own, every time we take a left or a right turn, I’ll use the commands and give a slight tug on his bungee line to let him know which way we’re turning, so that he can associate the words with the movement.

I’ve found that one of the unexpected benefits of using these commands when running with your dog is that they begin to know the difference between being out for a run and just going for a regular walk.

A lot of people I’ve talked to about running with dogs are afraid to start because they think it’ll make their dogs pull more when they’re on their regular walks on a lead.

Conversely, I’ve found that the more I run with Ralph and keep commands and kit for walks and runs completely separate, the more he’s starting to know the difference, and he doesn’t pull any more (or less) than usual.

creative running

For me, running with Ralph has made me think more about the locations that I run in. As someone who has spent a lot of miles pounding the pavement on the dull, straight and flat pavements near me during training for road marathons, I now find myself getting more creative in finding off-road alternatives that are Ralph-friendly.

It’s much better for the wellbeing of your canine chum for them to run on grass or other natural ground surfaces.

Running on concrete pavements or other hard surfaces can put a lot of stress on your dog’s body and can put them at risk of injury to their legs, paws or paw pads. Although there’s no harm in a short run on pavements to get to running off-road with them, the majority of running for dogs should be on the softer trails.

“So far, we’ve only tried a few locations locally to us,” Flora says about her canicross progress. “But I already know that Tia’s absolute favorite places to run are woodland trails. In Bristol, we’re really lucky to have so many local to us, and I can’t wait to explore more in the years to come. We just need to brush up on our direction commands so I don’t end up wrapped around a tree.”

Not only is running with Ralph switching up my running routine, but he’s an added motivator on the days when I’m not feeling 100% certain about heading out there.

There are some really excellent online resources out there if you want to learn more about getting started with running with your dog. Check out DogFit’s website and YouTube channel, as well as the British Sleddog Sports Federation and, where you can find the dates of upcoming canicross races around the country.

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