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Canicross: Guide to Trail Racing With Your Dog

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David Adams

April 12, 2022

Dog Enrichment

Canicross: Guide to Trail Racing With Your Dog thumbnail

One of the countless benefits of being a dog parent is having a built-in exercise buddy who is always ready to explore the outdoors and have fun with you. Of course, casual walking, jogging, and hiking 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 running — and sometimes racing in competitions — 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, why canicross is beneficial, how you and your pup can train for the sport, and how to get started.

So, What Is Canicross, Exactly?

The history of canine cross country

Generations ago, sled dog trainers started training their dogs in Europe during the off-season so that they could stay in shape. (Skijoring and bikejoring are related dog running sports that likely have similar origins.)

Over time, canicross, sometimes considered a form of urban mushing, became a stand-alone sport in its own right. By the early 2000s, canine cross country enthusiasts started to organize competitions.

Although canicross was largely unheard of in the United States until recently, it is quickly gaining popularity as both a form of physical exercise and competition. While canicross USA events do tend to be more prevalent in cooler climate regions of the US (where mushing and sled dog sports are generally more popular due to the accessibility of snow during winter months) many dog parents are becoming increasingly interested in the stand-alone sport regardless of the weather where they live.

What canine cross country looks like and how the sport works

So what is canicross? It is a team sport consisting of one person and one or two dogs running together. The dogs are connected to the human runner via a canicross belt — together, canine and human can run more quickly and keep up their energy levels over longer distances and periods of time.

Canicross USA events are typically 5k (around three miles) but they can be as long as 10k (about six miles) or more depending on the canicross setup.

Proper canicross gear

Most often, the person on a canicross team wears a specially-designed waist belt (aptly called a canicross belt) to which the dog's canicross harness (which is specially designed for pulling) 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 both dogs and humans.

Physical activity and healthy movement

One of the many things people and their pets — really all living creatures — have in common is a need for regular movement to maintain their physical health. While any level of exercise is better than living a sedentary life, bouts of high-intensity exercise can have particular benefits.

Canicross is excellent for reaching or maintaining a healthy weight, strengthening muscles, and supporting the cardiovascular system.

Fresh air and time outside

Fresh air is also beneficial to pups and their parents. 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 you and your four-legged companion breathe easier.

Plus the sun is a natural source of vitamin D, which supports strong bones (and which the majority of adult Americans are actually deficient in).

Mental stimulation and enrichment

Canine enrichment is essential to the physical and mental well-being of your dog. Canicross stimulates your pup's mind, fulfills their natural drives, offers exposure to different situations (a key part of healthy socialization), and provides sensory engagement. This all makes it a holistic enrichment option!

Boredom prevention, especially in anxious dogs

Dogs who are anxious, reactive, or otherwise struggle with life in our modern human world can also benefit from embarking on a canicross journey. Many intelligent, sensitive reactive pups can quickly become bored, increasing their anxiety and contributing to long-term behavioral issues. Giving a reactive dog a “job” — an activity they love to do alongside you that has some clear goals — can provide them with a sense of purpose and achievement. Plus positive experiences out on the trail (and maybe eventually in canicross races) can build into greater confidence over time. Who doesn't want to be focused and happy?

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Can My Dog Do Canicross? What Are Canicross Dog Breeds?

Your dog doesn't have to be a special breed, size, or even a certain age to participate in canicross. That said: There are certain factors to consider.

How old should a canicross dog be?

Wondering what age to start canicross? Dogs should be fully grown before starting the sport. While it might seem like the ideal activity for an high-energy breed 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.
  • 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. This is a good thing to do before starting any form of canine exercise program!

How big should a canicross dog be?

While a multitude of breeds of many sizes can enjoy canicross, you will have a different experience with a small dog than with a larger one.

Some hauling breeds, such as malamutes, huskies, weimaraners, and vizslas, are especially physically suited for the stamina and energy the sport requires. But don't rule out your furry best friend if they aren't one of these preferred breeds! Any active, healthy dog can be a great candidate for canicross. The sport continues to become more welcoming over time.

On the other hand, dogs with certain health issues — or even just predispositions toward them — might be safer and happier participating in other activities that are still mentally stimulating but involve less intense exercise. For instance, if your pup is prone to joint problems or breathing conditions such as brachycephalic syndrome in brachiocephalic breeds, talk to your vet before giving canicross a try.

How To Train Your Dog for Canicross: Canicross Starter Kit

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 canicross dog harness will have an ergonomic fit with a y-shaped opening at the neck to support your dog's 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 on the human end!

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. We can't stress this safety precaution enough.

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How To Train Your Dog for Canicross: Exercise and Movement Cues

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 With Your Dog

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!

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Get safe exercise for your dog by renting a private dog park near you

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. 

These are the trainers 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

Penny Locke
Proudly offering Positive Reinforcement & Force-free Dog Training
www.allabout-canines.com

Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

Sniffspot Dog swimming in pool
David Adams photo

David Adams

April 12, 2022

Dog Enrichment

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