Clipping a bungee cord to both a harness around your middle and your four-legged friend may not be everyone’s idea of fun (cue visions of landing face-first in cow pat), but it’s an activity that’s growing in popularity in Yorkshire, with an increasing number of canicross events taking place across the region.
First, a brief history lesson: the sport’s roots lie in European dog sledding, where during off-season training competitors discovered that running over terrain, up and down hills, through woodland and water while attached to their dogs was actually pretty fun, and so canine cross country – or canicross – was born.
Laura Robinson co-runs the group Pennine Canicross in West Yorkshire and was first introduced to the sport during obedience classes with her rescue dogs. ‘They’ve got a lot of energy so running gives them a job to do and I get some exercise at the same time,’ says Laura. ‘We work as a team, you give them directions – they love it.’
Pennine Canicross focus on short runs, and all abilities and dog sizes are welcome. There’s just one major rule: ‘The only thing that we say is to wait until the dogs are about a year old because their growth plates are still developing until then. If you do too much activity with a young puppy it can damage their joints,’ explains Laura. The group meet regularly to run non-competitively and distances are determined on the day, depending on how people feel.
While Laura enjoys social canicross, she also enjoys competing. She and her husband recently took part in the CaniX FUR Nations Cup where England, Scotland and Wales competed for the champion title, and she hopes in the future to travel to France to take part in the Trophée des Montagnes.
Another avid fan of the sport is canine and human remedial massage therapist, Morag Heirs, who prefers the endurance canicross events and ultra-marathons. ‘I had never been a runner before – I am not built for running. I’m not a lean whippet, put it that way,’ laughs Morag. ‘What I was looking for was a sport that I could share and enjoy with my dogs.’
After building up fitness gradually she began travelling to various CaniX (UK-wide group) competitive races around the country but wanted events that were closer to home and longer in distance (CaniX events are generally around the 5K mark). She approached trail running groups, such as the Hardmoors Group, asking whether they would welcome canicross runners and has since competed in multiple long-distance events, including tackling a 55-mile endurance test with her two border collies (one of whom is deaf).
When it comes to canicross, Morag can’t stress enough the importance of having the right kit. ‘If you have the wrong running harness on, the weight from your dog doesn’t pull through your hips but through your lower back and then you’re guaranteed to have problems,’ she explains.
‘Buying cheap kit to see if you like it is a false economy. If you buy cheap you’re going to have to replace it with better kit if you want to keep doing it,’ she adds. ‘If you buy good kit and you don’t like it, it will be snapped up within days of you posting it on eBay or Facebook groups.’
Reader, you’d be mistaken to think that running with your beloved pooch is a sure way to knock minutes off your 5K P.B.; we’re told that’s generally only those with dogs specifically bred for running, such as Eurohounds or Alaskan hounds. ‘For the majority of us normal runners, you spend quite a bit of time time untangling yourself, stopping to pick up poo or navigating styles and gates,’ laughs Morag. ‘I think my times would be better without the dog but I would have less fun.’
If you’re keen to give canicross a go, borrow different harnesses from a local club until you find one that suits you and your dog, then gradually build up stamina together. Although most dogs will sense the direction you want to turn on the trail routes through your body movements or change in speed, you can also train them with verbal commands or hand movements. Worried about your dog making a beeline for rabbits or ducks? Morag reassures us: ‘If you have a dog that chases stuff, you can teach them to channel that chase instinct into pulling harder and redirecting that energy.’