From a fear of dogs to representing England at the Canicross Fur Nations

Posted by Ginetta George, 6th August 2022

In our latest My Story feature we chat with Alistair Young, DogFit trainer, PE teacher and Fur Nations Canicross competitor.

Most people get into Canicross because they are looking for a fun way to get fit with their dog. They join a class with a certified trainer, get advice on the correct kit to use, learn essential commands and take part in regular sessions. Maybe, they build up to their first 5K or half-marathon. They may also take the plunge and enter a Canicross event.

However, for some, all that is still not enough and they want to immerse themselves further into the world of Canicross. Take PE teacher and Canicross Trainer, Alistair Young, who teaches popular DogFit classes in the Bradford area. He has recently represented England in the Fur Nations at Cannock Chase, where he ran with his cocker spaniel, Leo, and also with his son, Jayden.

Picture of Alistair Canicrossing with Leo

“My name is Alistair Young and I am a PE teacher from Bradford. I’ve been teaching PE for 12 years and am also an athletics coach. I grew up doing athletics and running. As a child, I was terrified of dogs. As a six- or seven-year-old, I was attacked by a massive dog and so developed a massive phobia of dogs. My parents still can’t believe I do anything with dogs now – I was so scared of them as a child.

My wife and I have a disabled son called Jayden, who’s adopted. He has major meltdowns, and so we were encouraged a few years ago to get a dog to try and help him deal with his issues. Leo, our cocker spaniel, turned out to be perfect for that role. He and Jayden have a brilliant relationship.

At first, I was very much opposed to getting Leo because of my own fear of dogs as a child. My family never had any pets and we weren’t animal people at all. My wife’s family, however, were. She’d had dogs all through her life. So, it was very much my wife who wanted it and I just went along with it. We got Leo from a local breeder – he was the runt of the litter, the very last one to be sold. He was about eight weeks old when we got him, which was the youngest he could possibly be to be passed on.

To begin with, I felt totally out of my depth. I had no idea how expensive it would be, whether we would be at the vets every few days and so on. I didn’t know what to expect. Leo was an interesting character in his first few months with us. As a young cocker spaniel, he ate most of our house in the first five months! There wasn’t a lot left of anything. However,he soon became a key part of everything that we were doing. That was where my bond with Leo came from. And as a PE teacher, I wanted to enjoy doing sport with Leo too; that was my natural instinct – to compete.

A picture of Alistair kissing his dog Leo

From rosettes to running

So, we took Leo to some show events. After we’d had him for six months, he was named the local district cocker spaniel of the year. We got his first rosettes and it all went from there. Me being a runner, I wanted to start running with Leo as soon as he was old enough. We tried taking him to agility classes, but it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t going to work. Leo had no interest in doing agility work; he just wanted to run. He didn’t want to go through the tunnels, or anything like that.

That was when I discovered Canicross. I quickly realised that there was no-one in Bradford doing Canicross, so it was a case of, if I want to be part of a Canicross club, I’m going to have to set one up myself from scratch. I was lucky enough to find out about DogFit. Then, last October on Jayden’s birthday, I did the online course with DogFit and it went on from there. I am very proud of Bradford Canicross, the success of the club and how it has grown in the relatively short space of time since October.

Canicross has given me and Leo an amazing relationship. Whenever I come home, he will run, open the cupboard, get his Canicross belt out and walk around with it. It doesn’t matter if we’re actually going out or not, he will just walk around with it. It’s great seeing him get so interested in the sport.

Learning about Leo

Leo is very much his own personality. He will have days where he is really excited about going out for a run, and others where he doesn’t want to get out of bed. I have learned a valuable lesson that I always pass on to the people whom I teach, which is that you must always remember that you are dealing with an animal. Something that has its own personality. You can’t predict anything. There have been some races with Leo that have been really challenging and it’s been obvious that he has not been sure about it.

Coming at it from going running by myself where you don’t have to worry about anyone else, I’ve had to learn at times to massively lower my goals and expectations for Leo when, for whatever reason, he’s not wanted to do it or not felt great. Then, there are other times when Leo would run for hours and is in the right frame of mind. I have learned how to encourage Leo, but also ensure that it is fun for him. If he doesn’t want to do it, I would never force him. As soon as he loses interest in going for a run, then nothing is going to change that.

Canicross Fur Nations

That’s what the whole partnership between runner and dog is all about. You know your dog best and can read the signs about how they are feeling. This is true, whether you are doing a simple training run that’s local to you, or completing in a top competition. It was thanks to my close bond with Leo that we were able to compete in the most recent Fur Nations, running together to represent our country. That was pretty special. The great thing about the Fur Nations is that it’s not just elite runners who are involved. It’s all about recognising achievements across the whole, national Canicross season. For example, I got involved in Fur Nations because Leo and I finished second in the male category of the Canicross championships.

Picture of Alistair and his dog Leo at the Canix Championships

Taking part in Fur Nations at beautiful Cannock Chase in Staffordshire was a really exciting experience. I got to run in the England shirt and Leo wore an England bandana. We ran five kilometres on both days. Although Leo loved the atmosphere there, there was one aspect that he found quite challenging. At Cannock Chase, the races begin with a mass start. I hadn’t done many of those with Leo before.

So, we competed on the Good Friday and the Saturday. On the Friday, he was absolutely fine with it, and set off without a problem. However, on the Saturday, for whatever reason, he became nervous about the mass start and it took a bit of encouragement to get him to the start line. He was quite agitated about it all. It goes to show, again, that you can’t always predict how your dog is going to respond. On the Friday, he waited to run perfectly, but it took a lot more encouragement to get him to want to run on the Saturday.

Despite that, we did OK in the event. We finished overall in eighth position in our category out of about twenty-four, I think it was. Overall, with everyone together, we were maybe fourteenth or fifteenth out of seventy. I was pleased with how Leo ran and felt that we got good times on both days.

Like father, like son…

My son Jayden also competed in the kids event at Fur Nations – his first ever race. He got to run in the England shirt as well, which he was extremely excited about. Jayden has a condition called Noonan Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that means he is extremely small. Unfortunately, it means that he hasn’t been able to do things like football or rugby with kids his own age because they are just too big. So, for Jayden to be able to take part in a sporting event where it was all about him and Leo, without being affected by anyone else, was brilliant.

A picture of Alistair with his son and black cocker spaniel Leo

We started off right at the back. I asked for that to happen for Jayden’s sake rather than Leo’s, due to his disabilities. He would have found being in the middle of a mass start difficult. Some of the juniors ran with just the dog attached to them and an adult running nearby. However, because of Jayden’s needs, he and I were both attached to Leo. It meant that I could be in control of the speed and keep us all safe. I would love to think that, if Jayden keeps up with it and gets stronger, he could do it by himself with Leo. However, it was a great first effort.

Jayden and Leo are an interesting pairing. They argue a lot. Halfway through the race, Jayden had a sit-down protest with Leo because he felt that Leo wasn’t trying hard enough to win. Even though Leo had just been running with me. So, Jayden decided to sit down until Leo apologised, for not trying hard enough. Eventually, I managed to get Jayden to believe that Leo had apologised. We got back up and finished the race.

I was very proud of them both, because it epitomised why, as a family, we had got Leo in the first place. Seeing Jayden, with all his needs, running and completing three kilometres with Leo was a massive thing. The freedom of just being able to run with your dog is amazing. It was a lovely thing to be able to do with Jayden. At the end of the race, he was over the moon. He got a medal for taking part which he was very excited about. He took it to school the next day to show off his England medal.

Jayden also loved being able to go away for the weekend to take part. We stayed in a hotel in a brand new part of the country for us and met lots of great people. Running with Leo was just one small part of the overall experience. In fact, travelling to beautiful locations has been a huge part of Canicross for us. We live in the centre of Bradford – an inner city area. So, being able to take Jayden out to some incredibly beautiful, rural parts of the country has been a great thing to do.

A man wearing an orange Dogfit jacket, kneeling down with his dog. The dog is wearing a poppy bandana

Training for success

As a runner, I have my own training timetable in place and being a PE teacher, I already have an active lifestyle. What I tend to do with Leo is work in the garden with him. Not using Canicross equipment, but chasing balls, doing sprint work etc. I don’t always have as much time as I would like to do a proper run with Leo, due to family commitments, but we will do a good half hour in the garden every day. Then, two or three times a week, we take Jayden down to the local park and I put the equipment on Leo and take him to do a mile or two together.

I would love to do more but don’t have the time. A message that I like to get across to the people I work with is that you don’t have to commit hours and hours to the sport of Canicross. You can really enjoy it and get properly involved with it by just keeping it as part of your normal exercise routine. I find that a lot of the people I work with worry about having a busy lifestyle, work, family commitments etc. that will stop them doing the sport, but that really isn’t the case.

As I said at the start, my entire focus is on Leo’s enjoyment and he is very good at telling me when he has had enough. So, if we go out along the local canal path and after ten minutes he is lying down and it’s obvious he has had enough, we will stop there. Other times, he will want to go on and on and on, which is also great. So, although I will always try to do two or three Canicross sessions a week, the length of each one is dependent on several things, including the weather, how Leo is feeling and how I am feeling. As long as we are both enjoying it, that’s all that matters to me.

You are what (and when) you eat

On the subject of nutrition, when we do a competition, Leo will eat two hours before we start, but he doesn’t have anything any closer than that. That does mean some insanely early starts at times, if the race has an early start. Usually, Leo and our other dog, Bella, will have fish and rice.

When we finish a race, I won’t let Leo have anything straight after, not even a drink. I will immediately take him away from the finishing area. When we first started, I used to let him have a drink straight away, but he would usually end up being sick. He would drink too quickly and it would all be too uncontrolled. That was something I learned quite quickly. Now, I give him time to calm himself down – calm his breathing back down. When he is in a quieter state, I will give him a drink and something small to eat.

Why choose Canicross?

Quite simply, Canicross has brought our family together and allowed me to meet lots of fantastic new people. For example, I took Leo to a local primary school community day recently to promote Canicross. No-one was noticing us when we were sitting still. So, I decided to take Leo for a run and see if people noticed us then. I put the Canicross equipment on Leo and we set off around the field.

It was unbelievable. Within a few minutes, we had a long queue of children wanting to attach themselves to Leo. The head teacher told us that the number of kids talking about Canicross was amazing. They hadn’t heard about it before and now they wanted to do it with their own dogs. So many families had either gained dogs, especially during lockdown, or knew people who had dogs. Suddenly, they were realising that Canicross was a great way to get active with their dogs and enjoy being out in the open air with them.

Canicross is such an inclusive activity. I’ve worked with every type of ability in my capacity as a DogFit Trainer. Everyone who comes to my sessions leaves feeling proud of what they have achieved with their dog and a feeling of having been active and had fun. I’m so grateful that DogFit has given me this opportunity to share my knowledge with others and I look forward to having a lot more fun with it in the years to come.”

Visit Alistair’s DogFit Trainer profile page here

Find out about Canicross classes in your area.

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