Things we wish we’d known when starting Canicross by DogFit founders Gail & Ginetta

Posted by Gail Walker, 8th October 2021

We were talking the other day about how we first got started in Canicross, many moons ago now. It occurred to us how much the sport has grown and evolved in that time. It’s like any other sport really, with so much to learn. When you first take it up and you’re a complete beginner, it might seem quite straightforward to just get your dog in a harness, put on a waist belt and go off for a run. Actually, there is so much more to it, as we have discovered in the years that we have been Canicrossing.

So, we thought it would be a really good idea to talk about all the things we wish we had known when we first got into Canicross and then found out over the years we have been doing the sport. We hope you find the following useful.

Gail: Let’s kick off with the kit, as it’s such a large area for everyone. One of the things that I wish I had been told when I started was about the best harness to choose for my dog. I joined a social group when I started and they recommended a harness to me, purely based on the ones that they were running their dogs in. There was much less choice back then. I was super keen and went onto the website, got my harness and belt and didn’t really explore any other options.

It was fine as an entry-level harness, but my dog was really big, deep chested and a very different type of runner to the other dogs I was running with in the group. So, I would say that something I’ve learnt now is that I should have found out more about the different harnesses available and spent more time getting it right for my particular dog. I actually ended up changing the harness about two or three months in and getting a much more suitable one for her.

People today have a lot more information at hand about harnesses. We’ve got our DogFit consultation form, for example, and have written numerous blogs on our website. So that’s one thing I would definitely say I would have done very differently now if I had to do it again. What about you, Ginetta?

Ginetta: My first experience of the kit was opening a birthday present where my husband had bought me a Canicross set. I had been talking about it for a few months and was looking for something to do with Coco, my dog. I had considered agility classes and then found out about Canicross. I had thought that I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t a runner, but my husband went off and found me some kit online. When I opened it, I thought, oh my gosh, I now actually have to do something with this!

Like you, I found myself changing the kit fairly rapidly once I knew more about what to look for. My husband didn’t know anything about it either, and at the time – it was many years ago – there was nowhere you could go and get good advice about the shape of your dog and what you and your dog actually need. I had to look around for ages before I found  someone to advise me on whether it was comfortable enough for her to wear. That’s when you and I met!

You checked the kit for me and we went off for a run. I remember that the line gave you rope burns, which told us that things were not ideal. There is a lot more support out there now for people looking for the right kit. It’s about making sure the dog is really comfortable in what they are wearing. Back then, it was more a case of finding someone with any knowledge at all to help me work it all out. Who would have guessed that, so many years later, we would be advising other people together on the best Canicross kit to buy?

Gail: You’re right about getting information. I remember I was writing blogs just off my own back because I was struggling to find information online and I thought, well, this must be the same for everyone else. I wanted to share the things I had learnt. There’s no reason nowadays why you can’t invest the time to find the right harness with all the information that’s out there now. I imagine most people reading this who are excited about starting will just want to get going, but my advice would be to just take your time and make sure you get the right equipment.

Even getting the right line is important. I didn’t know that. I thought there was just one standard line, but there are so many different types available. I personally like to have a handle at the end of the line, near the harness, so I can keep the dog close when I’m crossing roads. The first line I got was just a normal, full bungee that didn’t have a handle and I had to wrap it around my hand. It wasn’t the most comfortable!

Then, there are the different lengths you can get. I always run with one of my dogs on a short line because I’m not super tall and the dog isn’t super big. The long line was actually getting in my way and I was finding it quite awkward. Especially when running more technical races, I like having the dog close to me.

Ginetta: As well as the dog, there is yourself to consider as well. Not being a runner, I did own a pair of trainers, but they were road trainers and I didn’t realise that you needed specific shoes for trail running. I look back at some of the really early photos of me Canicrossing and wonder how I didn’t slip over. I literally put my road trainers on and turned up and there I was, ready to run! I didn’t even have any technical gym gear. I just wore an old t-shirt because, as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t a runner and my only interest was seeing if the kit fitted my dog.

When I got started, I just wanted to keep going, irrespective of my road trainers. For the trail running, make sure you have some appropriate trail trainers with good grip, especially if your dog is strong pulling. Most people just use any old trainers to begin with, but having the right ones is so important. I wish I’d known that part.

Gail: That’s a really good point, actually. I was already doing a lot of off-road and road running when I got going with Canicross, so I was covered there, but a lot of people do still ask us about the best shoes to wear. That’s a whole other minefield, but if you can get hold of a basic, good tread shoe, that’s a great starting place. Especially in this country. It can be hard under foot in the summer so grip is less of an issue then, but when it’s really wet and muddy you definitely need that good tread.

I quickly realised that when I was trail running without a dog, I didn’t really think about where I ran. It wasn’t so important with just me to consider. I just thought, oh, that will be a nice run to do. However, one thing I wish I had taken more time to do when I started running with my dog, was to think more about the route for my dog, not just for me. Especially when it was a bit warmer. When I plan runs in warm weather now – I never take the dogs out if it is too hot – I plan more about where there are places for water stops, especially at the end of the run, to let the dog cool down. Also, where there might be a few shaded areas to stop and rest. When I was running alone, I didn’t think about any of these things, but now I am putting my dog’s needs first so everything needs a bit more thought.

As well as water stops, I also think about what the terrain is like underfoot. In Canicross you have a dog pulling you, so you don’t want to go anywhere with too many exposed tree roots. I don’t want to be worrying about tripping over, I want to enjoy the run.

Also, think about what to carry, I used to not carry anything apart from my own water bottle, but now I need to think about what to take with me for the dog. Some dogs don’t like to drink out of certain devices. Others are happy to drink from anything. I often use my aqua pack and the dog drinks out of that, but I know other people whose dogs are really fussy and will only drink out of certain vessels. Some will only drink out of streams. So, it’s really worth thinking about what you take with you on a run. Have you found the same?

Ginetta: Absolutely It’s the experience of having done it yourself and realising that there isn’t any water for your dog, or that you’re not near a stream.

One of the things that I hadn’t been quite so aware of at the beginning is that when you’re starting out in Canicross, you’re not continually running all of the time. I remember coming along for the first time and thinking, I’ll just get my kit checked out, then I’ll go away and try and learn how to be a runner, just Coco and me on our own, and then we’ll come back and join the group properly.

I didn’t realise that when you’re in a group, especially a beginner one, you do take things slowly for the sake of the dogs. You stop and the dogs have a pee. You make sure that everyone in the group is fine before setting off again. It’s not a case of you and your dog running continually for ages or going too fast. I think that was an anxiety that I had before I started that I was going to be shown up by all these people who were super-fast runners with super-fast dogs and that Coco and I would be stuck at the back.

Actually, there is a whole other fun, social side to Canicross and that is something I have really enjoyed along the way. You’re all there because you love dogs and you love being outside and getting fit. So, everyone has a common aim. I wish I hadn’t been quite so nervous and taken quite so long to come and try it out.

Gail: That’s the thing, isn’t it? You can be quite intimidated by video clips and pictures of people out running together, going at full speed on a 10K. In reality, we stop and start and you have time to have a chat. It’s not like a serious running club where you go out and do hill reps, unless you really want to do that, of course. It’s more about the social side, putting the dog first and making sure it’s fun for everyone involved.

When I started running with other people, I didn’t know about the commands that can be used. Now, I’m fully fledged and know them all, it has made a huge difference to my Canicross experience. Back then, I thought you just attached the dog to the line and went for it. Incorporating commands has not only helped me navigate routes better, but it has definitely built a stronger bond between me and my dog.

I think that is something that, looking back, I wish I had started doing sooner. Taken the time to build up the commands gradually. I remember that one of my early races involved a very technical route and I had only just started using commands. I had taught my dog “left” and “right”, which are two of the easier commands to teach. The race was really technical and there were trees everywhere. I started calling out “left” and “right” and he was doing exactly what I said.

It made everything so much easier and more fun. I wasn’t having to get wrapped round a tree or drag on the line to direct the dog. It felt like we were really working together. I would definitely tell people starting out now to learn some basic commands right from the beginning. Even if you’re just out Canitrekking, or walking with the dog, it’s such a good thing to do.

Ginetta: It is a form of dog training, like when you teach your dog to sit, and it sits and knows it’s done the right thing. You can verbally reward them when you’re out Canicrossing.

Another thing I have learnt along the way is that when you are going to an event, you must give your dog enough time and work out how your dog is going to be when you get there. I started off doing quite a few park runs when I was trying out some shorter events to begin with. Obviously, you’ve got other runners in there with you. You can’t zoom in at five minutes to nine and expect your dog to just go along with it.

I would always now get there 15 minutes early to make sure the dog has had time to adjust to where it is, go to the toilet and have a drink. That way, when you are ready to set off, your dog is ready too. After a while, you get to know how long your dog needs to prepare and how they will react when you get to the start line. It might be that your dog gets really excited and you have to stand at the back and let other people go first and then start running. Working all of that out takes time.

Gail: I totally agree with that. Some dogs thrive in the starting line atmosphere and are eager to go, while others are more anxious. I’ve got a couple of dogs with whom I would have definitely done it differently if I was starting out now. In my first few races, I didn’t know what to expect and there would be about 40 or 50 Canicrossers, all being asked to come to the start line at once. I’ve also been to races where they ask you to wait for five to ten minutes before setting off. Some of the dogs start barking and the rest join in. So, I’ve learnt that it can be better to turn up to the event in enough time for both me and the dog to warm up a bit first.

I also found it was best for us to keep to the side or at the back for a bit and when we all get called forward to start, only then move in amongst everyone. Otherwise my dogs can get a bit wound up. It can also be quite noisy, so if you have an anxious dog that can also be a problem.

Ginetta: If you’re taking part in an event that has both dogs and trail runners competing, like we have both done – some of the half marathons and coastal events – you’ve got other runners there running without a dog. As a Canicrosser, you’ve got to be really mindful of that. You have to be careful, especially if anyone there doesn’t like dogs, to give them space and tell them if you’re about to overtake. We’re dog owners and we know what dogs do, but if you’re a trail runner who doesn’t have dogs in their life and one comes up close to you, that can be really irritating. So, I always call out in advance whenever I pass someone. It’s great to be able to participate in events with other runners who are ‘dogless’, so we do want to encourage that and not get in their way or put them off.

Gail: Events is a massive area. Even if you’re just running a social 10K, it’s still good to let the dogs have a chance to walk around for a bit first. Otherwise, you set off and all the dogs are pulling off to the side to relieve themselves. It’s funny to watch, but when I’m doing a race it can get in the way of getting a good time. I definitely advise doing a warm up first to cut down on that happening.

When I set off on a race, it feels like I’m going from 0 to 60 in ten seconds because all the dogs set off together as a pack and they are all trying to keep up with each other. One of my older dogs who doesn’t Canicross anymore used to feel like a horse when she pulled me along at the start and then, after about ten minutes, she’d just ease off as she got into her stride. I had to have my wits about me! I learnt to give her a chance to warm up first and make sure she wasn’t too excitable at the start so we could set off safely. I needed her to go at a good pace, but also to keep it manageable for me.

Ginetta: Talking to people like Georgie Lambert who runs for Team GB, the other side of going into competitions with your dog is not to feel that you must Canicross with your dog in its harness every single time you go out for a training run. For many people, when they get to a higher level and train for the tougher competitions, they do a few dogless runs to help them work on their own fitness. This can really help if you’re working towards a particular challenge or best time – so long as the dog is getting enough exercise through things like free running or swimming, you don’t necessarily have to Canicross six days a week.

Gail: Some people also make the mistake of thinking that their dog will automatically be fine to run. They might be a really good runner themselves, but they shouldn’t assume their dog will go for it just because they are young and energetic. Just like people, dogs need to build up their running stamina. It’s probably sensible to take them on a shorter run and choose a 5 or 10K race for their first event. Even if you’re an experienced runner, you still have a lot to learn when you start Canicrossing. You’ve suddenly got a dog attached to you, pulling you as you run along and this can affect your gait. You need to learn how to work in tandem with the dog to get the best out of the experience for you both. Build up gradually, whatever your background in running.

Ginetta: On that point and going back to the question of lines, I didn’t realise there were different lengths. There was the two-metre standard length, which is what you would use in competitions and then you’ve got the shorter 1.2-metre park run length. It all depends on the height of the runner, the fixing point on the harness of the dog, and the size and pulling ability of the dog. I run my two dogs on two separate lines. One is a really strong puller, while the other tends to fall back. I don’t use a splitter line because I don’t want Ayra to be dragged along, or Coco to be pulling her. So, I use two independent lines. I think that’s something that you gain experience with as you go along. For instance, if you’ve got a long harness and you’re not very tall, a short line might be better for you. Your dog might pull more consistently on a shorter line, rather than being further away from you. The last thing you want to do is end up having to hold the line if the dog is running beside you. 

Gail: It can take a bit of trial and error to get it right. If you know your dog and how they run, you can use common sense to speed up the process. I used to run with my two staffies together who went at similar speeds and were a similar size and a splitter line worked well for them. But I went through a few lines first to get it right. I got a double line at first, but that ended up with them running too far apart. The splitter gave me more control over them. You’re right, you really do have to understand how your dogs run. Not all dogs like to be really close to each other or even next to each other.

Ginetta: When I went along to events in the beginning, nutrition was also something I didn’t know enough about. When to feed your dog, and so on. I’ve learnt now that if we are going to do an event, I should feed the dog two hours before so they have the chance to digest the food. If I do an early event, I now get up very early to do that because it’s right for Coco to have something in her stomach before we set off, even if she only has half her breakfast. I will give her plenty of water too, so she’s hydrated. When we come back, she might then have the rest of her breakfast, but that doesn’t matter. You have to do what’s right for your dog. Also, take a few things along with you. I’ve carried bits of chicken with me before because that suited Coco.

Gail: When I used to do lots of races in the winter, including obstacle races, one thing I bought was one of those portable container showers to hose my dog down afterwards. I used to do many runs when the dog would be caked in mud at the end and it was a nightmare to clean them back at home. It was great just to fill the container with hot water when we set off and it would be lukewarm by the time I used it to hose the dog off. It was quite useful to rinse myself off too and it kept my car a bit cleaner!

Ginetta: When I did one of those types of obstacle events, we had to go through a lake with the dog. Coco’s an excellent swimmer and I was thinking that it would be no problem for us. I jumped in the lake with her and she was so freaked out by the fact that I was in the water too that she didn’t swim at all! I had to really encourage her across the lake. So, always remember that your dog could do the unexpected at any time. They’re animals and will run differently in different conditions. In the cold, you can get a really nice run in because the dogs get the wind behind them. It’s all about working out the right temperatures for running with your dog. It could be that you have to set off a bit earlier because they don’t run so well when the day warms up.

Gail: That’s the thing with the heat. Some dogs can cope better than others. There’s not one rule for everyone. Be sensible about it because humidity is a big factor. We have loads of content on our website about running in warmer weather. If you‘re new to Canicross, do have a read because there are loads of good tips.

Ginetta: Just to finish off, Gail, you’re on dog number four now that you have introduced to Canicross. I look back at some of the early dogs that I owned – my first pointer – and I know they would have loved Canicrossing with me. George is your fourth dog and you are just starting out with him. What have you done differently this time round, knowing what you know now?

Gail: Quite a lot of things, actually. I knew I wanted to Canicross George because he is full of energy and I thought he’d be quite good at it. He’s wiry and pulls on the lead all the time. He’s an English bull terrier crossed with pointer and has that pointer body. So, when he was about nine or ten months old, I got him a DogFit harness. Not for running, but I used it as his normal walking harness to get him used to pulling in it. We did some Canitrekking where he walked alongside one of my other dogs in his harness who showed him how to pull out in front when he is attached to me. I also started using some basic commands. So, when he was fully grown and old enough to start Canicross, he was used to wearing the harness, understood commands and knew a bit more about what was expected of him.

All my dogs love Canicross, but George gets the most excited. He can’t keep still. When he was younger, he used to pick the harness up in this mouth and run off with it, so it was difficult to get it on him. I spent some time training him, using treats to get him to let me pop it over his head. Now it’s really easy to do. So that’s something I have certainly done differently. When he was ready to run, he took to it really easily.

Ginetta: We hope you have picked up some hints and tips. Perhaps you are thinking about starting Canicross but are a bit nervous about what it involves. At DogFit we are always happy top chat and advise about starting out. When we first started, there was nowhere to go for a good quality intro class or advice about kit, so we really do welcome your questions. Please do get in touch with us! Is there anything you wish you had known when you first started? Wed love to hear from you. Happy Canicrossing!

 

For more information about Canicross equipment including our popular starter kit visit our website. You can also use our free harness consultation form to help you select the best harness for your dog.

If you would like to book a taster lesson or couch to 5k course find your nearest certified DogFit Trainer here.

 

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