by Lisa M. Gerry
Harness your dog's inclination to pull -- and run faster -- with this cross-country adaptation
Chances are you've never heard of canicross -- but if you want to run with your dog, it just might be the sport for you. Although popular in Europe, it's less well-known in North America. Canicross -- for "canine" and "cross-country" -- is the sport of running or walking behind a dog in harness. Dog-powered sports enthusiasts, such as mushers and skijorers (skiers pulled by dogs), canicross when there's no snow to keep man and beast fit.
Now, runners, hikers and dog lovers are discovering the sport, which offers fun and health benefits for you and your dog.
In canicross, your dog is harnessed with a line attached to your waist. Your dog then pulls you along, adding distance to your stride when you run -- and assistance on the uphill stretches.
Here's a clip of the sport from the U.K. group The Kennel Club:
Crufts 2009 CaniX Race
Canicross Isn't Just for Huskies
Canicross harnesses a dog's tendency to pull and puts it to good use. "Most northern breeds are naturals because it's bred into them," says Catherine Benson of Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC. "But any dog whose adult weight is over 30 pounds, who has a desire to pull, and who is in decent physical condition with no joint or bone issues can be a good partner."
Long-distance runners need a high-energy, fast-paced dog, whereas walkers and hikers do better with a strong but slower dog that won't pull them off their feet.
Equipment and Training
Canicrossers use specialized gear. You can't just attach a leash to your dog's collar and off you go. You'll need pulling harnesses, shock-absorbing lines, belts and related items. The best way to find these and to learn about the finer points of equipment is to contact a sled dog or canicross club in your area. These dog-power devotees will be happy to show you the ropes, so to speak. Dog adventure businesses also offer classes and clinics.
Pull training is a progressive process. "Let your dog get used to wearing the harness and lines when he's young so it becomes second nature," says Linda Newman of Points Unknown, a dog adventure business in Minnesota. "Teach him commands for "Go" ("Line out" or "Tighten up"), "Stop," "Right" ("Gee"), and "Left" ("Ha" or "Haw"). Any commands are OK as long as you're consistent. Reward him for pulling in harness, never on a leash. Dogs are smart, they know the difference."
Train a puppy in short sessions a few times per week, ramping up the frequency and duration as your dog matures. Check with your veterinarian when it comes to building endurance in your dog, as your dog's stamina can depend on his age, his current condition, where you train and many other factors. Your dog is likely to build endurance more quickly if he's already accustomed to jogging with you.
Dogs learn to love canicross and might pull to the point of exhaustion, so it's up to you to not overdo it. Labored breathing, occasional stumbling and an unwillingness to keep pace are signs your dog is fatigued.
You can train in any weather, but dogs don't offload heat as well as people do. Benson uses the "Rule of 100." She explains, "If the combined temperature and humidity are 100 to 120 F, either don't train or give your dog lots of breaks, including swim breaks, and have plenty of drinking water available." Excessive panting and rapid breathing are indications of heat exhaustion.
Improved Fitness for You and Your Dog
Canicross is ideal for exercise fanatics. The health benefits include stronger muscles and improved endurance for you and your dog -- although he'll think it's just plain fun! Plus, the exercise and training help alleviate boredom and improve the bond between you and your canine companion. Best of all, canicross can tone you and your dog at any pace, almost any place, and any time you want to "line out," as the canicrossers say.