Canicross: Guide To Trail Racing With Your Dog

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One of the countless benefits of being a dog parent is having a built-in exercise buddy who is always ready and willing to train, explore the outdoors and have fun with you. Of course, walking and running are great ways to do so. But if you want to take it up a notch or two, canicross might be just the activity for you.

What is canicross? Short for “canine cross country,” canicross is trail racing with your four-legged best friend. However, there is much more to it than simply hitting a random path.

Read on to learn a little history behind canicross, how you and your pup can train for the sport, why canicross is beneficial, and how to get started.

So, What Is Canicross, Exactly?

Sled dog trainers started training their dogs in Europe during the off-season. Over time, canicross, sometimes called “urban mushing,” became a stand-alone sport in its own right. By the early 2000s, canicross enthusiasts started to organize competitions.

Although canicross has been largely unheard of in the United States until recently, it is gaining popularity. While canicross USA events are more prevalent in cooler regions of the U.S., where mushing and sled dog sports are popular, people are becoming increasingly interested in the stand-alone sport across the country.

So what is canicross? It is a team sport consisting of one person and one or two dogs running together. The dogs are always connected to the human runner. Canicross USA events are typically 5k, but they can be as long as 10k.

Most often, the person wears a specially-designed waist belt to which the dog’s canicross harness is connected. When two dogs are running together, an elastic line is also used to join them, reducing the shock to the entire team when a dog pulls.

What Are Some Benefits of Canicross?      

Why canicross? The sport offers numerous advantages for dogs and humans. One of the many things people and their pets have in common is a need for physical activity. Canicross is excellent for reaching or maintaining a healthy weight, strengthening muscles, and supporting the cardiovascular system.

Fresh air is beneficial to pups and their parents, as well. Even the cleanest indoor spaces often contain toxins and allergens, like mold, dust, and chemicals from household cleaners. Getting out into nature can help both breathe easier. The sun is a natural source of vitamin D, which supports strong bones.

Canine enrichment is essential to the physical and mental well-being of your dog. Canicross stimulates dogs’ minds, fulfills their natural drives, offers socialization, and provides sensory engagement, making it a well-rounded opportunity for enrichment.

Dogs who are anxious or reactive can also benefit from canicross. Typically intelligent and sensitive, reactive pups can quickly become bored, increasing anxiety and behavioral issues. Giving a reactive dog a “job” gives them purpose and a sense of achievement that keeps them focused and happy.

Can My Dog Do Canicross?

Your dog doesn’t have to be a special breed, size, or even a certain age to participate in canicross. However, there are certain factors to consider.

Wondering what age to start canicross? Dogs should be full-grown before starting the sport. While it might seem like the ideal activity for an energetic puppy, dogs should be at least a year –or even two years old for larger breeds– before starting. Puppies need more rest than adult dogs do.

Also, puppies’ bones are still growing and their muscles are still developing. It’s a good idea to talk to your vet about obtaining preliminary hip and elbow radiographs before starting. Your vet can help rule out (or detect) any underlying conditions that could be exacerbated by the pulling force used in canicross.

While any size or breed can enjoy canicross, you’ll have a different experience with a small dog than with a larger one. Some breeds, such as malamutes, huskies, Weimaraners, and vizslas, are physically suited for the stamina and energy the sport requires. But don’t rule out your furry best friend. Any active, healthy dog can be a great candidate for canicross.

 On the other hand, dogs with certain health issues or predispositions toward them might be safer and happier participating in other activities. For instance, if your pup is prone to joint problems or breathing conditions such as brachycephalic syndrome, talk to your vet before giving canicross a try.

How To Train Your Dog for Canicross: Preparation

Before you begin to train your dog for canicross, make sure you have the required gear. There are three essential items you need:

  •          A pulling harness.
  •          An elastic leash.
  •          A canicross waist belt.

The best harness will have an ergonomic fit with a y-shaped opening at the neck to support breathing and movement. A strong but lightweight waist belt and an elastic leash that connects to it complete the setup. Trail shoes are also recommended for the best traction and protection.

As with any new sport or exercise routine, it’s a good idea to consult with your vet and your own healthcare provider before you begin to train your dog for canicross.

How To Train Your Dog for Canicross: Exercise and Commands

Warm up before training to prevent injuries and prepare for exercise. Some canicross trainers prepare active stretches, which encourage the dog to stretch, while others like static stretching, where the person gently stretches the dog’s muscles.

During warm-up, watch for any signs of issues or injuries, such as limping, reluctance, yelping or sensitivity when touched in a specific area, or unusual panting. Seek medical advice before continuing if you notice that your dog has any concerning symptoms.

Cooling down after training is also essential. Gradually slow down from a run to a casual walk to allow your dog’s heart rate and body temperature to regulate.

Teach your dog common canicross cues, such as the following.

  • Line out. This is a cue for the dog to stand facing forward with the leash tight in preparation.
  • Hike. This means “go” and is most often used at the start of a race.
  • Gee for “turn right.’
  • Haw for “turn left.”
  • On by for “keep going,” often used to go around other canicrossers or ignore a distraction.
  • Let’s go to speed up or resume racing.
  • Back or behind to prompt your dog to fall behind you or back up.
  • Let’s go home to pick up speed, especially at the end of a canicross race.
  • Whoa means “stop.”

Once your dog has mastered these skills, you can teach them to pull. Begin using the canicross harness when training for canicross. You can still use a traditional harness for regular walks and other activities, but use the canicross gear exclusively for canicross training.

Some dogs find success when starting with an easy pace, like power walking, and praise when the dog pulls. It can be helpful to have someone else walk ahead of you alongside the dog, encouraging proper speed and pull.

How To Start Canicross

When you and your pet are ready, you can plan how to start canicross. First, make sure you are both well-hydrated. Encourage drinking lots of water starting three hours before you run. It’s also recommended that you not feed your dog for several hours before a race, as running on a full belly can be very dangerous and even fatal. 

Be sure to check your pup’s feet and legs before and after runs. Look for swelling, cuts, skin damage, or signs of pain.

Find a soft trail (natural surfaces are recommended) and choose a time to run when there are not likely to be many cars or people passing through.

If you can find other canicrossers in your area, try to meet up and run together. Canicross is a social sport, and practicing together will encourage you both while helping you pick up the sport more quickly.

When you and your dog are ready, enter a race!

Where to find canicross events, groups, and more

Check out these groups and organizations to find other canicrossers in your area, race info and, perhaps most importantly, to find canicross events.

Facebook also has dozens of canicross clubs, from general groups based on experience level to location-based groups and even groups based on breed. So there’s a good chance you’ll find the perfect fit for you and your best buddy.

The only thing left to do is start racing and have a blast.

Trainer that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Camilla Echeverria, CTDI, KPA CTP
AKC CGC and Trick Dog Evaluator
Founder and Managing Director of the Northwest School for Dogs

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