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Canicross: Hard running with your dog

Could dogs be the key to getting the inactive moving? Kath Hudson finds out about the burgeoning sport of canicross

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 22 feb 2016 issue 114
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Canicross competitions take place most weekends in the winter months
Canicross competitions take place most weekends in the winter months

As I’m puffing and panting up the hills at my local parkrun, I’m regularly overtaken by people cruising past being towed by their dog, attached to their waist by a bungee lead. I have to confess I used to think they were cheating, but in fact canicross is a new sport in its own right.

Canicross Cornwall jointly runs parkrun Lanhydrock, where I run, and co-founder of the group, Calvin Mudd, says they jumped at the opportunity to help organise the weekly event in order to get the sport on the radar of more people.

Canicross originated in Scandinavia some 20 years ago, primarily as a way of exercising huskies and keeping them fit when there was no snow. From there it developed into a sport in its own right.

“It’s been going in the UK for around 11 years, but has really gained momentum in the past five to six years, and now it has a fairly even spread across the country, with most counties now having a group and about 60 groups and pages on Facebook at the last count,” says Cushla Lamen, vice president for development at the British Sled Dog Sports Foundation (BSSF), the body in charge of canine-related adrenalin sports in the UK, and co-founder of Canicross Trailrunners.

The sport certainly has its risks: “It’s not canicross unless you’ve fallen over several times and there’s no accounting for the squirrel moments,” says Lamen. “However, it’s a great sport for the family to do together. Also those who are new to running are less intimidated about joining a club with their dog, than they are pitching up to a running club by themselves. We see a lot of people doing couch to 5k.”

The advent of social media has really driven the development of the sport and so far it has grown organically. However, Mudd is in the process of setting up a website in a bid to centralise information about clubs and events, as not everyone is on Facebook.

The clubs tend to be casual and friendly, with apres-run coffee and cake part of the appeal. They meet twice a week, with different runs for different levels. Like a dog pack, they go the pace of the slowest runner and also wait for them to catch up.

This makes the sport particularly accessible for those who are new to running – both people and dogs. However, more ambitious runners get the chance to indulge their competitive streak, partly because the dog helps them to run much faster, but also if they’re happy to travel, they could participate in competitions most weekends in the winter. Lengths range from 2.5k for children, up to ultra marathons and at the moment even international events like the European Championships are open to anyone.

The UK is a nation of dog lovers, so could we tap into this to get more people active? Lots of people have dogs, an interest in getting one, or access to a dog belonging to friends or family, or even via borrowmydoggy.com, so could leisure centres put on classes which could appeal to this market?

Lamen cautions against fitness instructors just launching a canicross class because an understanding of dog behaviour and handling is necessary: there’s skill involved in getting the dog to run in front and listen to left and right commands. That said, she says it would be easy to find someone locally to fulfill this role. Alternatively, a dog-loving fitness instructor could do the training required to lead runs.

Mudd says he would welcome the opportunity to team up with local operators as a way of reaching a wider market and mobilising more people. “There are a lot of unfit people and unfit dogs out there, so canicross solves two problems,” he says.

George Humphries,

Co-founder,

Ashridge Canicross

George Humphries
George Humphries

Our club was formed in January 2013. We’d been running with friends since 2010, and in early 2011 we set up a Facebook group which we used to communicate with a larger audience and to host regular runs.

As numbers swelled, it became clear we needed a club identity, so we used various sources, including knowledge from through other sports clubs, to work out what guidelines were required to set up a club. Our template has since been used by other groups who want to transition into a club.

Gaining recognition from insurance underwriters has been a challenge, but is getting less so, as the sport grows. We charge £10 a year membership to pay the insurance, fund a website and buy equipment for people to try.

We’ve had challenges over group compatibility when it comes to running speeds, so have loosely followed how most running clubs structure their club with different routes and speeds for different abilities, which – in turn – requires more race leaders.

Dogs can also be a challenge, as not all are compatible with canicross and in some cases we have to educate the handlers. However, it’s so rewarding to watch someone who’s new to the sport change from viewing 5k with trepidation to really enjoying it.

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