From lockdown pup to Canicrosser. Expert advice from DogFit Instructor and Dog Trainer Matt Blackbourn

Posted by Gail Walker, 17th September 2021

Are you one of the thousands of people who have taken on a lockdown puppy during the pandemic and then realised they lacked socialisation skills through no fault of your own? On top of that, do you now have a dog that has endless energy to burn off, even as they are growing closer to adulthood? Fear not – help is on hand! Experienced DogFit instructor and dog trainer, Matt Blackbourn is here to sharing his personal experiences and advice about introducing Canicross to young dogs in a positive and effective way.

Could you tell us a bit about your background? Let’s start with the dog training side of your business.

I’ve been doing dog training for about ten years now and it’s gone from strength to strength. We do a lot of different types of dog training, although Canicross is one of our favourites! We work with a lot of gun dogs and run classes on agility, obedience and scent work – that last one is especially growing in popularity. We also cover all the basics, including puppy training.

What’s a typical age for a puppy to begin training?

It depends. Some people think about it before they even get their puppy and are really proactive about booking them in early on. Others get to about six months in and realise that their puppy has lots of energy and would benefit from some training input. It can start from any age, really, and go on for as long as you like. My dogs are training different things all the time and are four or five years old now. That’s the beauty of it; there’s always something else to work on and something new to learn. It’s never finished!

How many dogs do you have yourself and which ones do you Canicross with?

I’ve got four dogs in total. One is a cocker spaniel; we also have a springer spaniel and two border collies. I Canicross with my border collies. One is pretty good at it and well trained in it and I’ve got a younger one who’s full of energy but still learning the ropes. He’s a good, strong puller!

What drew you to dog training as a career?

I was trying out lots of different things and had a working cocker spaniel at the time. It went from strength to strength and I started doing training work with him and with some other gun dogs. I gradually got more and more dogs to train and it went from there. Regarding my Canicross instructing, I started helping my own coach down in Devon with some of her work and really enjoyed it.

Do you treat the puppies and younger dogs differently to the older ones that you see?

Yes, I think I do. Everyone seems to have the idea that they need to go to puppy classes to tick the right boxes, but we have realised now that while group sessions are great, there’s a slightly better way of doing things to get better results. We’re looking more at one-to-one puppy training now, where we can work on building up a really great relationship between owner and dog. Every dog is different, even if they are from the same breed. Training on a one-to-one basis enables you to tailor the content to suit each individual puppy.

We’re also not putting any dogs into a situation where there are six of seven other really excitable puppies nearby to distract them from doing the things the instructor is telling them to do. Taking them out of that environment and working on a one-to-one basis to start with can help them cope better if they go into a group class later on. Canicross can also be an excitable environment for a dog, so the better relationship you can build ahead of starting to run with them, the more you’ve got it sussed!

How did you first discover Canicrossing?

I was on a fitness drive for myself about five years ago and developed a fitness plan that involved a lot of running. I thought that I could kill two birds with one stone and take my border collies out running with me rather than doing separate walks with them. I had to put them on leads when we ran, which made me realise that I had to work out how to turn corners with them safely while running along. I looked into what I needed to do and discovered the world of Canicrossing. That’s how my journey started, plus I wanted to keep my dogs fit too. Canicrossing fits in well with their agility training.

It helps me work better with my dog and puppy training clients too. I work with puppies right through to older sports dog owners who are interested in agility. Canicross can really help keep dogs fit and improve obedience. People want strong, fast dogs who can react well to instructions. It gives the dogs enjoyment too, so there are lots of bonuses.

There has been a big swathe of lockdown puppies arriving on the scene over recent months, with some still quite tiny and others now reaching young adulthood. Are you finding that there are certain training needs that this group of dogs needs in particular? Has the ‘lockdown puppy’ phenomenon changed your perspective on training at all?

We are certainly seeing a lot of lockdown puppies coming through. When you first get a puppy, you are told that you have about 16 weeks to socialise them and you also have a whole long list of other things to do at the same time, like register them with a vet. Doing all of that was quite hard for many people during lockdown, as was getting them out to meet other puppies as well.

I’d like to dispel the myth that the only chance people have to socialise their puppies is that first 16 weeks. The process is more organic than that, and we can help puppies gain confidence and social skills with other dogs at any stage. We often use three-minute games to help set them up for success. This helps them to deal with novelty in the real world a lot better as they are already used to trying something new.

Dogs need to be 12 or 18 months old before starting Canicross because of their growth plates development, so the lockdown puppies may have to wait a bit for that. However, you also teach the sport to older dogs. How are you finding that?

First of all, we are seeing lots of benefits around building relationships between owners and their dogs and working as a team. It increases focus and drive for the dogs too. Sports dog owners want to build really fit, fast dogs and Canicross helps them do that. It boosts confidence and is a really great sport.

Are there any specific training techniques that you use to introduce dogs to Canicrossing and help them learn the ropes?

Definitely. I don’t just look at the Canicross activity, but the whole day. For example, is the dog OK in the car – can they travel to the Canicross location? Can they rest in the car until it’s time to come out and start working? Are they OK with other dogs and being in novel environments? After all that, the Canicross part is often the easier part to teach.

I’ll normally start by training the dogs to be happy in the car and waiting their turn to get out. I will use three-minute games to help them cope with novelty and new experiences. Then, I will move on to specific Canicross training using techniques like harness shaping. Have you heard of that?

No, what’s harness shaping?

We teach the dogs to push their heads into the harness using a very exciting game. Many dogs don’t like putting their heads through a harness and will find it very uncomfortable. You can sometimes see them backing away altogether. We work with young dogs, playing games like that at home to prepare them for putting their harness on without any fuss later on.

Another game we use to prepare dogs for Canicrossing is called Race a Dead Toy, or Race to Reward. Once they are happy to be in the harness, we set up a tiny Canicrossing session, perhaps in the back garden. We place a toy next to their food bowl at the end of the garden and then race towards it. We’ll do that over and over again until they start to drive towards it themselves. This teaches them to be OK in the harness and to feel happy with pulling on the lead. That feeling of pulling on a lead can be a bit funny for young dogs. There are so many games that can help with that.

Do the dogs pull naturally because they see a reward in the food bowl and when do you introduce commands and cues?

It depends on the age of the dog. They pull because they want the reward. At first, you have to build up their desire for getting hold of the food and the toy. I’m training a really young cocker spaniel at the moment and we are working on building up her drive for toys and food first of all. We put a bowl of food on the floor and we recall her towards it and she runs across and gets the food. In doing so, we’re building up her drive and desire to work for food from day one.

Going back to the racing game, once we feel that the dogs understand what is expected of them; that they are getting it right most of the time and are really pulling all the way to the toy, we start adding in the Canicrossing cues.

Going back to your point about teaching good behaviour even before you start Canicrossing is really interesting. Especially around the waiting as some dogs do get quite anxious and excited and that can make them bark. Then you might get another dog beside them that gets anxious too because your dog is barking. So working on that aspect first of all is a good steer.

Have you noticed that dogs who are Canicrossing bring some of the skills over to other types of training like scent work or agility? Are they more in tune with their owners?

Definitely. I find that the dogs that regularly run longer distances can work and train for a longer period of time. For example, if they’re following a scent or looking for an item that is difficult to find. They can sometimes go for up to half an hour, depending on the level of the dog. It helps to build endurance and determination – we use the word ‘grit’. We call them gritty dogs who can work for a long period of time without being rewarded until they actually find the object.

I use Canicross in a slightly different way for my agility dogs. I use it as interval training as these dogs only need to run for period of around 30 to 40 seconds at a time and it helps them with accelerating and decelerating, turning tight and jumping long on an agility course. So we walk for 30 seconds and then run for 30 seconds alternatively for around 15 minutes and I really do see a difference after that. The speed that my dogs can achieve in their ability is so much faster now.

You can introduce interval training into Canicross as well to mix things up and work on areas you want to improve, such as focus, can’t you?

Yes. If you think about it, you need your dogs to focus really well for Canicross, not only on their handler but also on the obstacles out in front. The dogs are listening to you behind them but are forward focused too. So, they need to keep that focus going to stay safe. Canicross has got so many different ways you can go with it and interval training is just one way to do it.

Do you have any stories you can share with us about customers who have discovered Canicross and how it has helped them?

I have quite a few customers who wanted to get into Canicross but we have had to work on a few different things first around behaviour, for example. They tell me that I have really helped them, but I say that it’s not me, it’s all about them and how hard they have worked to achieve their goals. It’s about having the right knowledge to get where you want to be and then using it to get good results.

I get lots of messages from people saying thanks. We have been training a border collie recently who was quite nervous and sensitive at the start. We have only done a few sessions with him, but he has already totally changed. At our last session, I got there and he couldn’t wait to see me and start work. It felt like he hated me when we first met! Now, he really listens to me and stays focused for the whole time. It’s great to see how the relationship has developed with his owner too and it’s nice to see them work as a team.

It’s so important to build up that bond and trust so that when you do incorporate training and exercise together, it can only be a mutually beneficial thing for the dog and their owner.

Canicross instructing and dog training work so well together as a business. I also offer fitness training for people and I try to explain how working together on fitness with your dog can really help improve your relationship with each other as well as your physical health. Canicross can really change a more challenging dog who could perhaps be called ‘naughty but nice’, and help to transform their behaviour for the better.

It’s lovely to hear you credit the owners and recognise their efforts in all of this too. Finally, what would be your advice to anyone considering taking up Canicross with their dog?

Just get out there and start. We often put things off and wait for the ‘right time’ to do things, but there is no right time to begin, so long as your dog is old enough. Give it a go; grab your dog and lead and enjoy the feeling of running together. There’s nothing quite like it. Try some of the games I’ve talked about here to help get your dog ready and then go and have some fun!

You can find more information about Matt’s training games here and 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

Please note, your dog does need to be fully grown before they can take part in our classes. If you need help with the correct equipment we have a harness consultation form. Otherwise, please visit our website to see our range of quality Canicross kit.

You can listen to the full Podcast with Matt here and watch his tips on games below.

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