My friend Liberty Schilpp has progressed from taking short jogs to becoming a devoted runner. She started just last year, following a run/walk program I wrote about in these pages. Now, I am proud to say, her long runs are over six miles. What’s changed since she started, besides the distance she covers, is her running companion.
Liberty’s dog, Katie-Roux, needed exercise, too. She tried running with the dog on an ordinary leash, but holding it in one hand made Lib feel off balance. Plus, Katie-Roux pulled — a lot — which caused a lot of discomfort for both of them.
Luckily, Liberty heard about canicross, a mash-up of the words canine and cross-country. Conceived as a way for sled dogs and their drivers to stay in shape even when there’s no snow, it was originally called dryland mushing. It has become a sport in its own right, in which the dog and its human compete as a team.
Liberty and Katie-Roux agreed to take me for a trot in the woods, so that I could see how it works. The dog wears a specialized harness, which allows it to pull comfortably. Liberty wears a hip belt with leg straps (it reminded me of the “Swiss seat” used in rock climbing) to distribute the force of the dog’s pulling. Runner and dog are connected by a two-meter bungee line, which reduces the shock for both parties when the pup pulls. With this setup, Katie can pull, while Liberty runs comfortably hands free. They’re logging a couple of three-milers a week and a couple of six-milers a month.
After watching them, I did some research on how canicross beginners should get started. The basics of the progression — from a walk/jog routine to short runs, then longer ones — is familiar. You want to ease into canicross gradually, to allow time for muscles, tendons, and joints to adjust to the stress. Just as humans are advised to get medical clearance before starting a vigorous exercise program, dogs, too, should get the green light from the vet first.
Dogs shouldn’t run distances until they’re fully grown — which happens at about one and a half years of age. This is cross-country, so stick to unpaved surfaces, which are better for the dog’s foot pads than pavement is. With the warmer weather coming, it’s important to remember your four-legged friend is wearing a fur coat and has only one way of cooling off — panting. You should avoid running in the heat of the day, take frequent breaks, and bring lots of water for both of you.
There is a mental side to the training. The sport has its own vocabulary, and there are commands to be learned. “Go right,” “Go left,” and “ignore that exciting smell and keep going” are “go gee,” “go haw,” and “on by.” Katie-Roux is still learning, so I got to hear a lot of that last one as we circled the pond. Those who are serious about competing will also need to learn how to pass on narrow trails, keep an even pace, and sprint to the finish.
To learn more about how it all works, Liberty says there is a very supportive canicross community. She recommends Canicross USA (canicrossusa.org) and North American Canicross (nacanicross.com), as well as the Facebook groups North American Canicross and Canicross for Beginners as good resources on gear, training, and events, and to connect with like-minded people who run with the dogs.