Podcast Blog: Episode 36
Hannah Robinson is a huge dog lover with a big heart. She has recently adopted two tripawd dogs – two female vizslas called Nula and Maple – from the charity Vizslamentés. In fact, Hannah drove all the way to Hungary last year to meet Maple, more of which you can hear about below.
For anyone who hasn’t heard the term tripawd, it refers to a dog that only has three legs. This doesn’t stop them from taking part in Canicross, which is why we are talking to Hannah today.
Welcome, Hannah. Tell us a bit about yourself and the dogs you have at home.
I have three Hungarian vizslas, all girls and all from Vizslamentés. My eldest is nearly 12 years old and her name is Alba. Then, I have Nula who is four and Maple, who is one. I did have a lovely older vizsla, Roma, whom I got from a puppy. She was my queen, but unfortunately, she died last year. She was fundamental in welcoming new dogs into the house with open paws whenever they arrived.
My dogs are a huge part of my life. I do have children as well, but I have way more pictures of my dogs on my phone!
When and how did you first get into Canicross?
It goes way back to 2010 or 2011. I turned up at a race called Brutal 10 – still a very popular race today. I pulled into the car park and I saw this lady getting a beautiful dog out of her car. She hooked her dog onto herself and off she went. I found myself wondering, “What is she doing? What is this?”
I followed her to the start line and watched her race off. I then didn’t see her until after the run when I went and spoke to her. She went on to become my lovely friend Claire. She taught me everything I know about Canicross.
It always passes down the line the first time, doesn’t it? I remember that I was getting ready to run in a race and saw a lady with two huskies taking part. Like you, I remember asking her what it was about and she told me all about Canicross. It was harder to find stuff online about it back then, so I left it for a while.
Sometime later, I was out for a walk in my local woods and saw a group of people with loads of dogs – mostly vizslas – who were doing a training run for a Canicross race two weeks later. I went over to ask the nearest people all about it. They said to me that it was their first time and pointed me in the direction of another lady – you! I told you that I had seen similar events before and wanted to do one myself. I remember you told me to come along next week when you would all be doing another training session, and to bring one of my dogs along.
So, I went along and brought Red, our Ridgeback-Dobbie cross. You leant me some kit and I had an amazing run with her. I remember that feeling of running with a load of dogs and feeling part of the pack myself. It’s really hard to describe that feeling unless you have done it yourself. I came home that afternoon and went straight online to order myself some kit.
Red is old and blind now, but back then she was in her prime and pulled like a train. In the end, I asked my husband to run with her and I took one of our staffies because Red was just too strong for me! The best bit was that after that first weekend, I got my kit and then went straight on to do my first proper race! So, my second ever time Canicrossing turned out to be a full-on 10km race – with Red of all dogs! I loved it though, and have never looked back. It’s been the best thing for me and I’m so grateful you introduced me to it.
The Canicross community is very welcoming and generous. Part of the ethos behind DogFit has been to encourage people and give them confidence. You only need one person to say, “You can do it,” and show you how and it opens up a whole world of dun and friendship. That first race we did together was in support of Vizslamentés, in fact, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. We were all decked out in orange too.
Canicrossing isn’t just about running; it’s also about crossing canals and rivers sometime, and going through bogs. There are pictures of me carrying my dogs at times, who looked totally confused about what was going on! It’s a brilliant thing to do, though.
We have discussed Vizslamentés and owning rescue dogs. I’ve always had rescue dogs too, and I don’t know about you, but they have given back to me as much as I have given to them. Canicross has cemented that. It really helped to build the bond between us.
After Red, I ran with my other dogs, Sydney, whom I have also loaned out to many other people, and Winston. I have found that it is not only a great way to bond, but for a dog that cannot be let off the lead and that might be a bit reactive, it is a wonderful way to socialise them. It also really helps with exercising them and letting them burn off their excess energy. It’s lovely to see them having so much fun.
For people who have got rescue dogs, Canicross is the ideal sport for them. Winston is very reactive, but he can run alongside other dogs perfectly well in his harness. Did you find the same thing with your two girls?
Yes, I did. I remember my first ever race with Roma, my older girl. The starting gun went off and we had no idea what to do. I remember thinking that we would just go for it anyway! She just looked up at me, wondering what to do. She remained that kind of Canicross dog for me, staying by my side throughout and needing to have lots of cuddles beforehand. We did do well in that first race, though.
You said about the importance of bonding and giving dogs that are reactive a bit more support. When we got Alba from Vizslamentés, we raced both dogs together, which worked well. Alba tends to be quite reactive and worried about other dogs, but when she was working alongside Roma and running in a pack, she became far more focused. She was running well, working and listening to me.
When dogs complete a Canicross race, they tend to be tired – and not just physically. They have done a lot of thinking tool You’re going left and then right; you’re telling them ‘steady’ and then ‘slow’. ‘Speed up’. ‘Stop’. Whatever you need them to do. All the while you’re calling out these commands, the dog is processing what you’re asking them to do. Also, they are asking a lot of you, because whenever they flick a tail or bend an ear, you need to work out what’s going on for them. That bond becomes completely unspoken.
We’ve seen some amazing transformations happen for people with reactive dogs that can suddenly take part in a race with no issues. There’s no other feeling like it. Let’s talk now about Nula. What’s her story and how did she adapt to life with you and your family?
Nula is my middle girl at four years old. She came over through Vizslamentés transport. We met her at our local service station! She was – and still is – the most energetic, intelligent and switched-on dog that I have ever met. I had never owned a three-legged dog before. I had done loads of research and phoned my vet for advice.
Both she and my other tripawd girl, Maple, were born like that and had only ever walked on three legs. However, despite never having known any different, being tripawd does still come with challenges. They experience pain and tightness associated with growth even though they have been born that way.
We have to be very careful with Nula when it comes to strengthening what we affectionately call her ‘nubbin’, or where she has part of her leg. We monitor her closely for pain, as dogs communicate that in a totally different way to how we do. I really think that Canicross has helped us with that, as we know when out dogs are in pain, or are feeling tired or hyper. You learn the smaller, more subtle signs.
She settled into our household almost straight away, alongside my other two girls. Alba wasn’t a fan initially – she takes a long time to warm up to newcomers – but they became friends in the end. We knew that we would have to be creative in helping Nula adapt to our family. We’d have to think about how to exercise her, work on her strength, her diet and all those kinds of things.
Vizslamentés was really supportive and gave us loads of support and advice. Nula is missing part of a front leg and dogs tend to be 60% (front) and 40% (back) when it comes to leg strength. So, it’s better to lose a back leg rather than a fore one and we had to be a bit more mindful as a result. Now, I couldn’t imagine our lives without her – or any of them!
Maple is also tripawd, isn’t she, and was the dog that you drove all the way to Hungary to collect?
Yes. We think she probably believes that she has been kidnapped! We drove there and took her away in the night. Another great thing about Vizslamentés is the network of wonderful fosterers they have in their system Without them, it just wouldn’t work. Maple was also born without a front limb, but it’s the opposite leg to Nula.
How did Nula take to Maple’s arrival?
It was love at first sight. They are thick and thieves. When they run towards you, it looks like they are one and the same dog as they are so close to each other. They support each other. When they run long distances together – and I’ve seen this with other dogs running as a pair as well – they lean into each other. It’s great to see.
How did you introduce them to Canicross?
Maple is still too little for Canicross, as she is only one year old. Nula came along when I still had my two older girls and they were both still running. They ran way into their old age, in fact. Every time I brought the harnesses out, Nula would be climbing into the harness herself and getting really excited. Then, there would be this heartbreaking moment when she realised that she was not going to be allowed to join in. It would be horrendous each time.
So, I eventually went to my vet and asked him what to do. Canicross was new to him, as it still is for many vets. I asked if he thought Nula was ready to start a little bit of running and he said that I should go for it. She was a good weight and was healthy. He suggested that we build her up very slowly, just as you would with any dog.
We didn’t take her in harness for her first run, but she was over the moon to be finally allowed to take part. She took to it so well. We then moved on to running her in a non-stop harness like the ones her sisters were in. It really supports her frame. One issue that we found, however, was that her nubbin came out of the harness quite easily at first. So, we had to adapt it slightly to compensate for that.
This can be an issue for dog that have either been born missing a limb or have had one amputated. The harness must be supportive, but also adaptable depending on how the dog runs and what their biomechanics are like. For Nula, she is also better off running in a longer harness, rather than a shorter one, as it supports her spine as well.
It’s an amazing sight watching you guys running. From a distance, she looks just like any other dog and then she approaches and you notice that she is tripawd. How did Nula prepare for her first Canicross race?
Nula has always done a lot of exercise. She swims and paddleboards and is a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’, doing all kinds of things. Thanks to that, we knew that she had the strength for Canicross. When her first Canicross race was approaching, we also took her for some park runs.
On the day, we went along to the race with no expectations and thought that even if we got halfway round, that would be brilliant. When the race started, she just flew. It was marvellous to watch! She was a bit confused on the start line as there were lots of people there and we had to wait for quite a long time as we all set off in stages
When she started running though, it was my turn to become confused. My little three-legged dog suddenly turned into a ginger rocket! We were flying by. I’ve never had dogs that pulled like her before. It was joyous. She had always shown interest in racing and I was finally able to let her do it. That’s the key for me. Letting her interest and enthusiasm lead us, rather than me saying, “OK, we’re going to go for a run now.”
Nula has a good personality for Canicross, doesn’t she? She is quite confident in the harness and trusting of you. You have clearly built that bond to allow her to feel safe.
She has got a lot of allergies, including around nine different types of trees. That has given her quite a bit of anxiety. However, the running helps to keep her mind focused. We were really mindful at first about how her allergies might affect her ability to take part in Canicross. Like a lot of reactive dogs, however, the moment we started running, she was on point and knew exactly what to do. She had a job to do and understood how to do it.
Have you got any more events planned with Nula?
We hope so. That first race we did with her was really relaxed and low-key and she enjoyed it a lot. That is what we want to find again for her. An event that respects the needs of dogs and the people there. If we can find something suitably low-key, then maybe we will look at doing something else towards the end of the year.
Right now, we are doing lots of swimming, and in the summer, we did lots of paddleboarding, which is great for her core. Really, entering events closer to the winter months is better for a tripawd dog. They tend to overheat a lot quicker than other dogs because they are putting a lot more energy into moving.
Does it take longer for a tripawd dog to recover after a race? Does she need supplements or a massage afterwards?
Oh, she gets it all at my house! We have the shower going and everything! Rest days for tripawd dogs – or indeed any dogs – are very important. Knowing what your dog has done and watching them closely to see how they are recovering. That is why it took us so long to do the actual race, as we had to keep monitoring her and making sure that she was enjoying it. Then we had to make sure she was and recovering from it properly afterwards. We would never have let her race if we didn’t think she was fit enough to cope. She had an MOT two weeks beforehand and the vet was great with her.
If she is using more energy than other dogs, does she eat more to compensate?
It’s not so much about eating more, but eating the right stuff. Fish oils and other things that support joint health are absolutely key for her. As is making sure that she is not too heavy. So, she eats tons, but not stuff that would put on too much weight, as that would add pressure on her legs. Weight monitoring is a big thing for tripawd dogs. You need to keep them on the leaner side. When we were running the race, she looked quite ‘ribby’, but she was actually at her optimum weight.
Do you have plans for Maple to start Canicrossing when she is old enough? Will you run her together with Nula?
I wouldn’t run her together with Nula, that’s for sure! When I ran my two older girls together, they really supported each other. Running Nula and Maple together would be like putting the two naughtiest girls in the group together!
We’ll have to see if Maple turns out to be a puller. At the moment, she is still very little. She is very different to Nula in that she often does what we call a ‘meercat’ stance, which is when she goes up onto her two back legs and stands like a little human. Today, she did a couple of hops in that position too. So, we need to know whether that’s going to be permanent or not before we start preparing her for Canicrossing.
When you talk about being worried about running Nula and Maple together, that reminds me of a time that prompted us to make our video about running downhill. We went out for a run. You had both of your older girls with you and ended up running downhill with windmill arms to try and slow down as they were pulling you long so much. That was where we got our inspiration to show different ways in which you can slow yourself down if you end up going too fast downhill!
That’s what people who don’t do Canicross cannot understand. They think that it must be nice and relaxing running with your dog. Actually, what you don’t see is the effort that is out into preparing and training your dog to run safely. You work on ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’ and what to do if they see a squirrel.
It takes time and trust and time as you have to let them enjoy what they are doing. Then, when it all comes together, it is just magic. I love to run in Wales, where we go up and down a lot of giant hills and mountains – and cliff edges in some cases. So, you have to have that bond and trust between you to keep you both safe.
What steps did you take to go from having to ‘windmill’ down the hills to being able to have your two dogs run quietly beside you?
I used to take them up some really big, sandy hills to practise. That was really good, as if you do fall over – and it is usually you that falls over, rather than the dogs – it was softer to land on sandy ground. We would practise running up and down and up and down and then sit at the top and have a sandwich afterwards as something of a reward. That was it, Time just spent going over and over what to do and learning the commands they had to follow.
Everyone uses different words when teaching commands. I used to keep a few Hungarian words in my back pocket when I was running with Alba, as she seemed to want to carry on speaking Hungarian for a while after she came to live with us!
I’ve been lucky enough to run with other people’s dog as well as my own, including a Giant Doberman that was the size of my desk and a beautiful Bracco-Italiano called Rocco, who pulled like an absolute train! He did not know the ‘steady’ command, or how to run downhill slowly. His owner, who normally ran him, tended to win all his races, so he needed to be out in front. I didn’t know that at the time – it was a very fast day and took me a long time to recover from afterwards!
I remember loaning out my dog Red to a friend once for a Brutal race. She never run so fast in her life! I’ve got a video of her going ‘zero to sixty’ in a few seconds. We were all in a group watching her in amazement! You’ve got to have the legs and knees for it, I think. You can hurtle downhill far more easily with the right knees. That and teaching the dog the right commands.
I agree about the commands. They really get the dog working. It’s not just about physical exercise, dogs love the mental challenge of following ‘left’ or ‘right’ and so on. We don’t always take the same route, so that the dogs can get that variety. For me, quality of life for the dog is top priority. Whatever they are doing, they must enjoy it and feel like they are living their best life.
If they enjoy Canicross, then that’s brilliant. I’ve been blessed to always have dogs that love being active. Vizslas are like springs! However, if your dog doesn’t want to race in a harness, they can still run alongside you or come out on hikes with you to get exercise. So long as they are enjoying what they are doing and being with you.
At DogFit, we promote the sport in this exact way. Anyone can join in Canicrossing and you can walk or do a whole marathon – it’s up to you. It’s all about spending time with your dog and forming that bond.
There’s something for everyone in Canicross. You don’t have to be the fastest runner to take part, you can run or walk. I’ve also known people who have done weighted hikes with their dogs. It’s a joyous activity that you can do with your best friend!
You mentioned earlier about Nula doing other sports. You are a swimming coach among other things. So, she is bound to be a good swimmer too. How did you start Nula off with that?
Swimming was something we started doing quite quickly after she arrived. I had contacted a veterinary rehabilitation organisation called Greyfriars in Guildford way before we collected Nula as I wanted to know what we should be doing for her in terms of exercise. She was only 15 weeks when we got her, so she was very little.
We saw a physiotherapist almost immediately, as well as the vet, and we got her into swimming with weekly lessons where a lady called Bex took her under her wing. Now, she is an incredible swimmer and knows how to stabilise herself in the water. It has really helped with rehab and recovery if we are unable to run.
The amount of background research you have done, and the work around physio and rehab with your tripawd dogs has been absolutely amazing. They really do lead regular lives! What advice would you give to anyone with a tripawd dog who may be wondering whether or not to take up Canicross?
It’s all about quality of life as I said before. It’s about my dogs enjoying what they are doing and living the best lives possible. No different to any other dog, really. If you are wondering about Canicross and whether your tripawd dog will be able to cope, all I’d say is don’t rule it out.
If your dog is showing an interest, get in touch with people who can help you get started. I’m very happy to talk to anyone who might be interested in finding out more. One of the issues I had at the beginning was that while my dog was showing interest, I didn’t know whether or not it was right to run with a three-legged dog. Would it be cruel or wrong? We came up against several different opinions when we were out and about.
However, what it all boiled down to in the end was the fact that she genuinely enjoys herself whenever we do Canicross together. I know that she is safe to do it, our vet was hugely supportive of it and she really is living a great life.