Are you interested in taking up the fun and sociable sport of Canicross but concerned you have a reactive or anxious dog? Do you worry about how your dog will react to the Canicross kit, sounds and smells, not to mention the other people and dogs running ahead, behind and alongside them?
Well, experienced dog trainer and DogFit Canicross instructor Christine Barber, is on hand to reassure you that you and your dog can safely and confidently take part in this wonderful sport. She owns a reactive dog herself, whom she has trained to not only cope with Canicross but to actively enjoy it and benefit from the health and socialisation opportunities it provides.
Christine has worked as a full-time dog trainer for a number of years and holds an array of diplomas and qualifications in canine psychology, behaviour and training techniques, including formal accreditation with the Guild of Dog Trainers. Her dog has gained enough confidence to demonstrate regularly at Canicross training sessions and is living proof that, with careful handling and calm, competent training, a reactive personality need not be a hindrance to taking part in Canicross and running alongside others.
Here, Christine shares some insights and advice for both Canicross enthusiasts dealing with a reactive or anxious dog, or those considering whether to give it a try.
Why does Canicross help with reactive dogs?
Reactive dogs are typically highly intelligent and sensitive animals. They can get bored easily and need careful handling to navigate life and find their purpose. Put simply, reactive or anxious dogs need a ‘job’ to do. If they are allowed to get bored this can lead to greater anxiety and problems. Canicross is a great way to fill this gap and give them the purpose they so desperately need. The sport is straightforward to learn and easy to join in, building up the dog’s tolerance and stamina with increasingly long and more complex or varied routes.
From an owner’s point of view, Canicross can really help, as taking your dog to overly formal obedience classes, for example, may not come with so many opportunities to socialise with everyone else in the class. Canicross offers fresh air, a sense of achievement and a like-minded community to get to know and share your reactive dog’s training journey with.
What other benefits can Canicross bring to reactive dogs?
Access to regular exercise will result in a happy, tired dog. Many reactive or anxious dogs don’t get enough exercise, as their owners become too worried about how they might react to take them outside very often. Canicross can kickstart a healthier exercise regime for both owner and dog; a benefit to the owner in particular as they feel happier taking their dog outside. A happier owner will inevitably help their dog to remain calm. Stress can be easily transferred from owner to dog, creating a vicious circle as the dog reacts, plays up and exacerbates the owner’s concern.
To maximise the benefit of helping dogs to calm down, find other canines with quieter temperaments to run alongside at first and choose quieter times to run where there are fewer people and distractions. This approach can help your dog get over their fear of other canines, one companion at a time.
I have a reactive dog but would really like to try Canicross with her. Is there anything that I can do or buy in advance to help prepare her for the experience?
Before you even clip on a canicross harness or limber up for your first run, teach your dog a stop signal and make sure that its use is constant and reliable. Buy a shorter line at first to keep your dog closer to you, especially if they are a bigger breed. This not only allows you greater control, but reassures your dog because you stay closer to them at all times during the event.
A grab handle can also be helpful – this is a short section of lead that you clip to the canicross harness so you can quickly grab your dog and pull them in really close to you in an emergency, such as if they start showing anxiety or aggression when other people or dogs get too close to them. The DogFit lines also have a built-in grab handle for convenience.
What about muzzle training? Can this help?
Muzzle training is definitely a good way to prepare and calm your reactive dog for Canicross. It gives you more confidence too that they won’t be able to lash out and hurt any other people or dogs if they become overwhelmed part-way round. Choose your muzzle carefully so that it is not too tight or too loose. It is perfectly safe for a dog to run with a muzzle on, but it must be properly fitted by a professional to prevent injury or harm.
The general rule of thumb here is that the dog must be able to open their mouth wide enough to pant easily and to take in food and drink while wearing the muzzle. Look for a large, plastic muzzle that resembles a cage for the optimum flexibility and control. Your pet shop or vet should be able to give you further advice and arrange for a professional fitting.
What advice would you give for dogs who bark a lot?
All I can say with regards to Canicross is to keep at it; start with a quieter route, choose a less popular time and calmer running companions and you should start to see results soon enough with regards to less barking. When you start coming up against other people during a race, stop and tuck right in to let them pass, gathering your dog to you for reassurance. Give small pieces of food to distract your dog and stop any barking – you could even hide titbits in the undergrowth to turn an impromptu snack time into a game.
Next, slowly build up to walking past people, then jogging past and finally running at full speed when your dog is showing signs of being able to cope without having to bark. Build up their confidence in stages to make it easier on all parties involved. This also helps the dog get used to how the pulling of the harness feels when moving at different speeds. Don’t hide your dog away from people, as this won’t help them face their fears. Let them see that passers-by pose no threat to either of you and lead by example by exuding quiet confidence until they move out of sight.
Never mind the dog, I’m nervous myself about trying Canicross with a reactive canine! How can you reassure me that it is a good thing to do?
I always advise anyone interested in trying out anicross to give it a go! Your dog will always remain on a lead during a Canicross event or class so they can’t run off too far or get hurt. Get muzzle training and try it out. Start off in a quiet area at a less popular time of day and see how you get on.
Expect your dog to become slightly worse over the first few attempts, as they have to learn how to adapt to increased excitement and activity levels. Be patient and persist. That said, it is also important not to expect too much of yourself and your dog at first. If you feel that an event really isn’t working out for whatever reason, there is no shame in bowing out halfway through and trying again another day. Try not to establish any negative associations with the sport, or your dog will never take to it.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
For me, seeing a dog and owner’s relationship get stronger and happier makes everything that I do incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. I love seeing dogs grow in confidence and willingness to try new things. I also relish watching owners who may have been struggling with their reactive dog for ages fall back in love with their canine companion. When a dog starts enjoying a sociable sport like canicross, you often see positive changes in other aspects of their life too, such as more focus when they are training, a greater enjoyment of life in general and increased interaction with the whole family.
A final piece of advice for anyone currently training a reactive dog is to stick with it, don’t give up and never doubt yourself – the process can take time but it will get easier and easier. Be kind to yourself and your dog and you will get there in your own time.