Canicross: Trail Racing with your four-legged friend

Brian Thomas, founder of Kenosha Running Company, Inc., an American Trail Running Association specialty run store member, writes about the origins of Canicross and provides tips to get you started.

Canicross is a word that most have never heard, and if they have, they have no idea what it means! I fell into this category until May 2016, when I received an e-mail from Rich Kisseloff of Windy City Mushers in Chicago, asking if I would be interested in including a Canicross event at one of our trail races. After learning more about Canicross and the community of runners that actively race with their dogs, I agreed.

I host twelve trail events in and around Kenosha, Wisconsin. For reference, think the far southeast corner of the state between Milwaukee and Chicago. Our events had always been dog-friendly and we would typically have six to ten walkers and runners with dogs, so including Canicross was not a huge leap.

Photo by Harold Meerveld.

Canicross is an offshoot of dog sledding and falls into the larger category of Dryland Sports, which also includes Scootering, Bike Jouring, and Carting (urban and trail). These additional sports are and were intended to keep dogs trained and fit for the dog sledding season. There are two organizations that oversee, set rules and guidelines for those who want to compete at this level.

Canicross, or trail running with you dog, has been popular for a very long time. I ran with my dog on the trails as early as the 1970s, and now, the growth of those running on the trails with their dog is exploding for lots of reasons. Interestingly, the vast majority have no idea they could be part of the Canicross movement across the United States. The reality is that Canicross in the US is nonexistent except in the dog sledding community and a few of us hosting Canicross events. The sport is hugely popular in the UK and many countries throughout Europe.

We hosted our first Canicross event in December 2017, and we had 22 registrants. The trail route was 3.5 miles long. The dogs brought great energy to the event, everyone had an amazing time, and most of us had never seen this before. I was hooked.

Photo from canicrossusa.org

Presently, we host the largest Canicross series in the Country. In 2017 and 2018, we hosted seven Canicross events, and have eight scheduled for 2019. Our season starts in September and ends in April. Typically the field size is 25-40, depending on weather, with distances ranging from 3 miles to 14.5 miles. We start our trail events with Canicross participants (dog and human pairing), and ten minutes later we start our two-legged registrants on the same course. To learn more about our events, visit www.traildogrunners.com.

As a result of our novice attempt to bring Canicross to our community, and through a combination of opportunities, we have now started Canicross USA. Originally is was just me posting our pictures and race info on Facebook group page, Canicross USA, which lead to countless comments and requests about hosting events in their area, and where groups are located that individuals could run/meet up with. I reluctantly agreed to start forming Canicross USA Chapters across the Country, and then it got crazy!

People love their dogs, trail runners love their dogs. I could not keep up with the emails. One thing lead to another, and we developed a newsletter, website, membership program, and actively started introducing and recruiting trail race directors to consider including Canicross at their trail events. Slowly we are winning a few over to host events, and races are popping up in the Northeast, South, West, Northwest and Midwest. To learn more about Canicross USA and to find a listing of events, visit www.CanicrossUSA.org.

Here are some helpful tips to get you started in the sport of Canicross:

Canicross gear 
Most people who run with their dogs use a collar and a leash. While this works, it is not ideal for the runner or dog. There is specific gear that makes the running experience significantly better for the runner and dog and three key pieces of gear/equipment are outlined below:

  • A properly fitting harness for your dog. You want the harness to allow the dog to have a free range of motion and they are pulling from their chest.
  • A bungee lead line that connects you to your dog. Why bungee? If they pull unexpectedly it gives you a moment to react. The standard length is two meters.
  • A runner belt/harness, you want the belt to fit around your hips so you get “pulled” by your dog. Those designed for Canicross also have straps that go from your backside through your legs and strap to the front of the belt. This is to hold the belt in place around your hips. The brands I am most familiar with are Non Stop Dogwear and Howling Dog Alaska. We have been actively outfitting runners and dogs with these products for several years.

Trail running with your dog 
The first challenge you’ll face while running with your dog, is learning to run faster! Honestly, your dog will love to lead and pull, so you will both need to learn to adapt to that new comfortable pace. Verbal commands for right, left, etc., will start to come naturally like other commands you have already taught your dog and your dog has taught you.

I am hopeful that more and more trail race directors will consider adding Canicross to their trail event and I am happy to consult, lend my experience, and provide other assistance to get the event off the ground. Please reach out to me at briant@kenosharunningcompany.com, if you are interested in hosting an event or starting a Canicross Chapter in your area.

Trail Running: It is just a way of life.

Editor’s Note: Do you dig canine content? Check out this recent article by John Sudduth, DVM, on trail etiquette for dog owners.

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