When we take our dogs to the vet for their annual check-up, it’s always reassuring to hear that they are in good shape. If you’re a Canicrosser already, it’s normally at that point that you’ll have a conversation with your vet about Canicross. Did your vet know what Canicross was? In the past, there have been many vets who have never heard of it. However, that’s now changing. As the sport continues to grow, it’s also an activity that many vets now recognise and are seeing the benefits it can bring to dogs and their owners.
Small animal vet, Morgane Bitane is also a keen Canicrosser who has first-hand experience of running with her own dog. Here, she offers her views and thoughts from a vet’s perspective.
Before we start talking about Canicross and immersing ourselves in that, it would be nice to hear a bit about you first, and your dog, Molly. My first burning question is, did you always want to be a vet?
Yes! Since my earliest memories as a child I’ve always wanted to be a vet. I never had an animal, so I think that was part of why I wanted to be a vet. In a simplistic child-like way, I thought that if I was a vet I would be around animals all day – and that would make me happy.
So, how did you go from being a vet to working with small animals in particular?
At vet school, we learned about everything. I always wanted to work with cats, dogs and maybe horses, but I was never going to be a farm animal vet. I am a city person and was born and raised in Paris. We moved to the US where I finished high school and then I applied to vet school. I chose to do that in the UK because I wanted to be back in Europe but not quite back in France. I thought that was a nice middle ground between the US, where my family was, and France.
I ended up in Glasgow where I did five years of veterinary school. It was an amazing time. A huge culture shock as I was in a completely different country, meeting different people from farm backgrounds – a lot of my friends lived on farms. Also, just learning about every single species. That was something I didn’t quite expect when I applied to vet school and I really enjoyed it, actually.
When you lived in a city, you probably weren’t exposed to a lot of the animals that you were working with?
Not at all. Not just living in a city, but also my family culture was very, very urban. It’s not like they would take me to nice little farms on the weekend to see calves and lambs. That’s not really something we did.
So, when you were at Glasgow University, was that your first experience of livestock and farm animals?
Yes. I guess I should have done my research a bit better, but I always knew that I wanted to become a vet and that nothing was going to stop me – even a curriculum that I did not expect. The first few years were mostly farm animals and animal husbandry and it was a shock. We didn’t really talk about cats and dogs until the third or fourth year. I found the first few years harder than most students because of that, but then I started to feel more comfortable when we started to talk about the things that I wanted to learn about.
It was really interesting though, I got to understand how important it is to be a well-rounded vet who can look after any animal. If I’m in the countryside, going for a walk with my dog, and I see any kind of animal in distress, I know I can help them. Although I mostly see cats and dogs now, I’ve got the training to look after anything and that’s the beauty of vet school.
You’ve done small animal surgery and you also do acupuncture, is that right?
Yes. I’ve done quite a comprehensive course in the US with the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. It was a six-month course and every month we would go for three days – 12-15 hours per day – so it was quite intensive. We were taught by acupuncture and Chinese medicine experts from all around the world. It was fascinating and really opened my mind to a new type of medicine. It showed me how it doesn’t replace anything; it’s just another approach to understanding animal and human health. Also, how sometimes using a different perspective can help a specific condition better. I really loved it.
The challenge now is to incorporate my acupuncture and Chinese medicine knowledge into my normal practice, which is mostly Western medicine. Also, to educate owners about how we can help in a different way. A lot of people come to me to ask about acupuncture. They might have a 13-year-old Labrador, for example, who cannot walk anymore and they’ve tried everything to help. Now they want acupuncture to perform a miracle. Unfortunately, acupuncture doesn’t work like that. It can help a little bit, but it’s not going to make a dog with multiple joints disease walk.
I wish people would come to me before that stage. Maybe even at the same time as we introduce medication because the dog is starting to limp a little bit. That could be a good time to see whether acupuncture could help as well. It’s difficult because we don’t have a lot of time with each patient. Maybe 15 minutes per consultation. It is quite challenging. Ideally, I’d love to be able to run a parallel clinic where we only do acupuncture. Maybe in a few years…
After you finished your veterinary degree, you decided to stay in the UK. Tell us about that and how you got your first dog.
I waited a long time because I wanted to have the perfect life set up to have a dog. I loved the UK and that’s where I wanted to be, but I realised as well that when you are renting a property, having a dog can be quite stressful because it’s not that easy to find accommodation that allows you to have a pet. I knew it was going to happen, so I waited for the right time.
I lived in Jersey for a while and then in the south of England. I discovered a place that I fell in love with, which is where I am now in Poole on the south coast. I thought, this place has everything I want; the sea, the boats, everything, so this is where I’m going to live. I needed to come to that point in my life before I got a dog. So, I settled down, bought a house and said to myself, I have the house, now I can have the dog.
It’s really weird because I knew I was never, ever going to buy a dog, I was potentially going to go to a shelter to get one. But for some reason, I always trusted that he or she would just appear at the right time. Only a few months after I got my house and consciously made the decision that I was ready for a dog, I showed up at work once morning and my colleagues told me to go to the kennels as there was someone waiting for me there. It was a little staffie who had been given to the practice during the night because her owner couldn’t look after her anymore.
She’s beautiful. Her body is black and her little face and legs are brindled. She’s called Molly – she came with the name and was so full of personality that I didn’t want to change her name. It was what she responded to.
So, along with Molly your new life was set up by the sea. Sounds really idyllic! How did you first come across Canicross?
I loved to take my dog for a walk once a day, but I struggled with any more than that. It was becoming a bit time consuming. So, I thought it would be nice to include some fitness for myself in with her need to go out so much. I found routes where I could run with my dog and got one of those leads that you can attach to your waist and then to your dog’s harness. One particular time I remember, she lunged forward because she saw a squirrel. There was no stopping her instinct. The sudden, jerking movement on my lower back made me realise that I could get hurt by her doing that.
So I went straight home and did an internet search for ‘hands-free gear’, ‘running’ and ‘dog’ and came across Canicross and DogFit. I watched hundreds of videos and realised that there was a whole world out there that looked really fun and exciting. I bought the gear and was set. Next, I researched my area to see if there were any local groups.
One group I found was huge and had a lot of dogs and people involved. I watched a video where someone was filming the start of one of their casual runs and I thought, there’s nothing casual about that. I can’t imagine my highly reactive staffie in the midst of all this. Plus, I’m not a runner. I’ve never really been running, so I’m not that fit and all those people look like potentially they could be quite fast.
So, then I found a Facebook page and I contacted a DogFit Trainer called Georgina (George) Havers. She gave me great pointers and we went for a run together. Molly adored her, which made things easy. It suited us very well. We now run in small groups with four or five dogs at a time. I’d love to experience running in a larger ‘pack’ at some point, but it’s a good starting place for now.
One of the reasons why our Trainers run classes like the one you went to is to take people out in a structured way and support them. There’s no pressure and it means you and your dog learn how to Canicross safely. It sounds like you had a lovely introduction with George. What do you see as the benefits for the dog with Canicrossing?
The main benefit for me is that it helps reactive dogs improve in the way that they manage life when they come across something that makes them reactive. That’s what my dog is like. It’s caused quite a few problems and stress for me in the past, having her be so reactive. I’ve had people shouting at me, threatening to call the police…completely exaggerated reactions, but it stayed with me when I went on a walk. It made me feel worried. I saw an almost immediate difference when I started Canicrossing with her because she was able to focus on that one thing and I think that helped her.
She is still tricky at times. When we first join a group and go and say hello to everyone, she can look like a mad dog! She barks and is full-on but that’s just her way. George is incredibly calm about it which helps me be less stressed and feel less embarrassed about it. Then, as soon as we start running, she really gets in the zone. Her little ears go back, she looks into the distance and she runs.
She runs really close to the other dogs with no problem. She is always looking where they are to get closer to them. I have also seen a difference since we’ve Canicrossed in how she behaves on her normal routine walks with other dogs. She’s just calmer in those first few seconds of encountering a new dog.
It’s a great way to socialise them, isn’t it? I’ve got a similar dog and Canicross has made such a big difference. I know exactly what you’ve been going through. It was a revelation when I first discovered Canicross. Absolutely amazing. It’s all about understanding what’s driving that behaviour and a lot of it is pent-up energy and excitement. They run so much better when they are running with other dogs and focused and are in a safe environment.
You’ve mentioned the difference it has made for Molly in terms of the behavioural and mental side. What about the physical benefits of Canicross as a vet and also someone who does Canicross. What are the immediate things that you notice?
One of the topics I discuss most often in my practice is canine obesity. We see a lot of overweight dogs, unfortunately. A lot of it is people not realising. They overfeed their dog because they don’t know what it should look like or be like for optimal health. Also, with some of these dogs, although they eat too much, they also don’t do enough exercise. For me, that’s one of the obvious positives of engaging with this sport. You can get your dog to do the exercise they require in a controlled way.
Absolutely! Dog obesity can be as much of a problem as human obesity and this sport ticks both those boxes. In the veterinary community many haven’t heard of Canicross before. Is it becoming more well-known now? It seems strange that there is this sport that can benefit both humans and dogs and the vet world doesn’t seem to know about it.
I don’t know why. I have got one owner who runs a lot with her dog, but not in a Canicross way. I think he is just off the lead and they run in places where they can do that. I do talk about Canicross to my clients and a lot of them are really interested but have never heard of it. None of my colleagues do it. However, I did a quick search on a veterinary research paper database and there were a few papers out there that focus specifically on Canicross. Not a lot, but I think it’s starting to become a thing. Maybe that’s because there’s not that many injuries or problems with Canicross compared to other sports.
As you said, it’s a controlled way of exercising your dog, especially if a dog is coming back from an injury or it needs to not run off the lead for a bit. You can walk with the Canicross gear on as well. Hopefully as the sport grows, which it is doing massively right now, more vets will take part and take an interest so it can grow even more.
I’m quite confident that will happen. When I was reading about Canicrossing, it seems to be a much bigger community in the US. It seems to be very, very big over there. In France as well – at least there are a lot of competitions happening in France. It’s making its way in. It’s so easy to take on.
It’s also not one of those sports where you need very complicated equipment, or you need to go somewhere very specific. It has quite easy access for most people. I don’t know if you saw on the news, but there has been a huge increase in dog ownership over the past few months with the pandemic. So, there could be a surge of people taking up this sport in the next year or so.
We’ve noticed that ourselves. We’ve been inundated with orders for products and people wanting to either do a class with a DogFit Trainer or do our virtual challenges or online courses. So, we’ve definitely seen a big surge in the last twelve to eighteen months. It’s just growing and growing. You’re right about the fact that it’s quite simple in terms of getting started as you just need three items. But there’s a lot to it once you get into it in terms of using commands and getting the best out of that relationship with your dog. Getting started is cheaper than a pair of good, off-road trainers so it’s really accessible!
Another question we get asked on a frequent basis is ‘what age can my dog start Canicrossing?’. We always give the advice that they must be fully grown as their growth plates are still developing. What is your view?
Basically, dogs grow very, very fast during a short period of time. The growth of the bone itself occurs at a very specific location at the end of long bones. For example, if you look at the leg bone – the tibia – there are two ends to that bone, the top and the bottom. There is a very thin layer of a structure called a growth plate, which is where all the bone activity and growth happen.
This is also a structure that is very vulnerable to impact, or trauma, whist the dog is growing. So, if it is subjected to too much trauma it can be damaged. If a growth plate is damaged, it will fuse and the bone will stop growing at this location. This can then cause problems with the joints involved with that bone.
I had a case a few weeks ago. A four-month-old Scottish terrier who injured one of its growth plates. When I did the x-ray, you could clearly see the fusion. You could see the bone next to it that was starting to curve. It was only four months old. That dog will probably have problems for its whole life with pain, limping and early-onset arthritis. There is a surgical procedure that can help with that, but it must be done early on. However, you always want to prevent the problem from occurring rather than having to treat it.
Although gentle running with your puppy is fine, I find it safer to offer a blanket recommendation to not run your dog until they are fully grown. They can go for nice walks instead. I do have people coming in with their puppies, telling me that they have been told not to walk their dogs at all, only ten minutes per day and then increase it by five minutes every week. That is crazy advice and completely wrong! In fact, for the correct development of muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones you do need some kind of exercise.
Not doing anything will predispose the dog to more problems later on. So, they do need some exercise but you do have to listen to your dog. You have to watch your dog. When Molly was a puppy I could see after half an hour on the beach that she was slowing down and was feeling tired. So, I would take her back home. But I wouldn’t play with a ball or encourage any high impact work and I carried her in and out of the car because I didn’t want her to jump. However, a normal run in a field is completely fine.
One of the questions we get, especially with ‘lockdown puppies’ now getting to about nine months old with lots of energy, is about starting Canicross at that point, which we don’t advise. Canicross is a sport that is mentally challenging for the dog as well as physically tiring so they have to be an adult before they can start.
For those of us who have adult dogs who regularly Canicross, another question we are regularly asked is about joint supplements and things you might want to give your dog to help them manage when they are getting older and a bit stiffer. Tell us about your view on that.
Well, my view is based on the data and unfortunately, there is very, very little scientific evidence that joint supplements do help with pain associated with arthritis. There is even less evidence that it can prevent problems from occurring. It’s very frustrating as I would love to give something to my dog, thinking that it would stop her from having joint problems later in life.
The problem with supplements is that because they are not officially considered a drug, they are not regulated in the same way. Anyone can put something together and sell it. Therefore, there is very little research done. Veterinary research is not nearly as good as human research because the pharmaceutical market is so much smaller.
I guess there is one exception to that, however. There is good evidence that Omega-3 fatty acids, so fish oils, are very good. They have an anti-oxidant effect that reduces symptoms of arthritis, such as pain and inflammation in the joint. In terms of prevention I don’t know, but that would be what I would recommend to my patients when they come with dogs that are older and have signs of arthritis. If they are stiff, can’t move as well or limp and have pain, then I will advise them to go on a diet that is supplemented with Omega-3.
That’s really good advice. I think of all the money I’ve spent on supplements!
I know – I’ve done it too!
It sounds like you’re a big advocate of Canicross and we’d love to hear about your and Molly’s journey and how it’s all going. Do keep in touch with us. You’ll be entering a race in no time!
I would love that. I’m really keen to take her in a bigger group. She might have to wear a muzzle, but we’ll see. She might actually love the competition aspect of it.
I swear that the dogs know when you are doing an event with them and about halfway round they look up at you and you just know that you’re both in it together. Definitely have a try when all the events open up again.
(Since recording this podcast, events are now open and you can find our listing of the latest ones here)
If you would like to find out more about Canicross classes in your area with a DogFit Trainer, please complete our enquiry form and we can put you in touch with your nearest Certified Trainer. >> Complete our form here