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Monday, 15 June 2009

Road runner

I have recently rescued a very energetic two-year-old collie-cross and I'm looking for a fun sporting activity we can do together. We have already tried agility and flyball, but I feel she needs something a little more strenuous. I have heard mention of a canine sport involving running, which sounds ideal as I am a keen long-distance runner. Can anyone tell me more about this sport?
Martha Johnson, by email

Canicross – the sport of running off-road attached to your dog - is an ideal activity for high energy dogs and outdoor owners. The physical activity will keep you and your dog fit and trim and will prevent illnesses associated with being overweight or obese. Canicross also requires some mental agility as it is necessary to teach your dogs directional commands so your route running is smooth and your dog needs to pay attention to you rather than go off chasing bunnies!
Running cross-country with your dog is a truly joint enterprise that gets you and your pet out in the fresh air and is a great sport for forming the strong bond that you can achieve when you work closely with your dog, companionship when the running gets tough, and a different sort of training opportunity. As such it is an ideal sport for collies who need to use their brains as well as their bodies, but done right can benefit most breeds, shapes and sizes of dog. However, it is always best to get both of you checked out by your doctors and your vets before embarking on this new healthy hobby!
Cross-country generally means not on the road so you have parks, fields, woodland tracks, farm tracks, footpaths, moors and plains to choose from. Running offroad means that the terrain will be less punishing on your dog’s feet as concrete, tarmac and gravel/rocky ground is hard on joints and rough on pads. Having a dog with you on these routes can give you the confidence to get out into the countryside and take you to places you might not have previously considered.

Get kitted out properly so you and your dog can run together safely. Ideally get a padded walking belt for you with an
elasticated/bungee line of around two metres which attaches to your dog via a comfortable padded tracking/shoulder-style harness. These types of harness have been found to be less restrictive to your dog’s abdominal muscles and the attachment is near your dog’s centre of gravity so may work better with your dog’s balance and movement. Most bespoke suppliers can advise you on correct fitting (see end of this article for suggested retailers).

So you are ready to roll! Well-behaved dogs may find the concept of running ahead of their owners a little alien so you will need to encourage this behaviour. Allowing your dog to pull when in harness as opposed to when wearing a collar can assist you when training the outfront commands. Canicross is great for dogs that pull like trains as you can harness that energy in a useful way but you will also need to get some control so that you can slow your dog in an emergency or when a crazy squirrel crosses your path on a steep downhill!
Running together with your dog is also a good idea if you have a new rescue dog whose recall may be unproven or indeed if you already have a dog that ignores you off-lead but who still needs the exercise that simple on-lead walking cannot always deliver. Keeping your dog’s line tight with the right amount of tension is the key to success in the sport. It is acceptable for the line to be loose and indeed if you do find it too difficult, dogs are allowed to run to heel if that is more comfortable
(although be careful that your dog does not trip you up). A line with a little bit of tension will help you, especially on uphill stretches but it is certainly not desirable for your dog to drag your deadweight around the countryside.
If you dog is very unkeen on running ahead choose a narrow, definite path for your dog to follow and get a friend to jog ahead so your dog has something to chase. As he is running ahead to catch up give the command ‘hike’ and he will begin to associate the activity with the command. Start with very short stretches and build up to longer distances. Food treats may also motivate your dog in the early stages and always reward generously with praise and encouragement.

Directional commands ask your dog to turn right (gee) or left (haw) or go straight on. You can practise this at home and in the garden by getting your dog to negotiate a simple obstacle course. As you approach a turn give the correct command and a big wide helpful arm signal in the direction you wish to go. If your dog is unsure to start off with you can GENTLY guide your dog with the line onto the right path. On the trail try to include lots of turns so you can practise and make sure you do not
always go the same way so that your dog is not simply learning a set route. Once you have taught gee and haw you can get your dog to ignore turns and go ‘straight on’. There is nothing quite so satisfying as watching your dog approach a junction with his ears twitching back and forth wondering where you will send him and then smoothly negotiating a
turn without stopping and interrupting your flow. Whoa! and steady are self-explanatory commands which should be taught before you need them so that you can get control and are not in a panic.
Once the initial excitement of the run has died down you can practise slowing down giving the steady command in a slow, calm voice. If your dog knows the heel command then you can certainly use this too. ‘Straight on’ or ‘on by’ asks your dog to carry on running and ignore any distractions (that crazy squirrel again, another dog, a herd of wildebeest or whatever...). I try to keep running and give encouragement in a lively voice to keep them going. As your dog learns these commands his confidence (and yours) will grow immensely and you will get so much out of the sport.
When in training always stop before you are both ‘dog-tired’. If you leave your dog with wanting more he will be less likely to hide in his bed at the sight of you putting on your trainers if you have not run him into the ground. Get a pedometer so that you can start to measure your times and distance. Once you have got the bug you will not want to stop and hopefully your dog will be getting the physical outlet he needs and the mental stimulation necessary for a balanced canine lifestyle.
Always ensure you are not asking too much of your dog, give lots of breaks and praise and of course let him have days off and days when he can mooch around and please himself.

If you are both beginners aim to build up to about 5km, but do it gradually to avoid aches, strains and injury. Always warm up before starting and cool down when finishing a run. Veterinary advice suggests that walking 250m before and after your 5km
run on the terrain you are training on is sufficient for warming up and cooling down.
Weeks 1 and 2
Powerwalk (canimarche) for a brisk 10-15 minutes on alternate days. Before beginning the session try to encourage your dog to toilet so you will have less chance of a ‘nature break’. In the beginning, if your dog is easily distracted by other dogs, minimise the possibility of such distractions by going somewhere a bit quieter but if you do get a distraction practise your ‘on by’ command.
Weeks 3 and 4
Introduce a small amount of jogging into your caniwalking, say one minute walking and then one minute jogging to start off with and extend your outings by 5-10 minutes during these weeks whilst gradually decreasing the amount of walking you do.
Weeks 5 and 6
You should now be able to jog a 5km route within a 30-45 minute time period. Remember to vary your route and do lots of different trails to keep you and your dog fresh and to experience varied terrain – do not forget to practise on hills! Walk any time you need to. Once you have got to this level you can start to build up your speed by running faster for some sections of your run until you can do the whole route at a faster speed.
There are many beginners training programmes on the market which you can try but remember to keep it fun and fresh and if your dog finds a session particularly heavy going, back off and take it more gently. Most dogs however usually beg for more and it is the human canicrosser who has trouble keeping up!

Wait until your dog is a year old before embarking on canicross and check with your vet before you go ahead.
Wherever you go always take a supply of water and foldable water bowl for your dog.
Get a basic doggie first aid kit.
Take along some doggie booties in case of paw injuries.
Take a mobile phone with your vet’s number on in case of emergency.
Ensure you have a supply of poo bags for ‘accidents’ on the trail.
Check your dog’s feet after each run.
Have fun and encourage your dog all the way.

Do not use flexi-leads or check collars – a sudden jerk at speed can cause injury.
Do not use spiked/studded running boots in case you tread on your dog.
Do not run for long distances on hard surfaces.
Do not shout at or abuse your dog in any situation.

For enquiries or information on canicross races, activities and events
for Canicross Trail Runners
For canicross equipment
For canicross equipment
Specialised veterinary surgeon for doggie athletes and canine
Nicky Hutchison and Cushla Lamen, Canicross Trail Runners