Fun for all • pic: Vicky Stipetic

Taking The Lead

17th January 2014

Heather Harris ties herself to her dog, and runs off…

Pics: Vicky Stipetic

It’s the most fun you can have in a harness. Add in the fact it burns calories, exercises your pet and can even be done in the dark – and you have the best possible pastime in my opinion. And believe me if my Cockapoo (think sheep in dog’s clothing) and I (think couch potato in athlete’s clothing) can do it – anyone can.

Canicross is one of the fastest growing outdoor sports involving a dog being tied to a person (in fact, it’s the only one). It’s the perfect solution for that common pet owner's problem of how to timetable a walk for the dog and a trip to the gym.

Basically, it’s effectively Canine Cross Country. It originated from chillier climes where skiers are pulled along by their dog in a sport called Skijoring. The natural progression was to move onto dry land, throw away the skis but keep the harnesses. The one for the dog fits over its front paws and clips over its back while the human one is like a massive thong – although, fortunately, it’s neither pink nor lacy.

Once in place, the two harnesses are connected by a two metre bungee cord from human belly button to the middle of the canine's back, and – hey presto – jogging hands-free with dog becomes not only a reality but a positive pleasure for both you and your best friend.

I was invited to join the recently formed Ashridge CaniCross Group in Berkhamsted, along with my dog, Pele (named by my two footballing sons despite the fact he's neither black nor Brazilian), and I was pretty sceptical at first.

“But Pele will just run off and chase deer or garrotte himself with the bungee line or tie us up round a tree,” I protested, when organiser George Humphreys called to confirm our meet time.

Frankly, his reassurances that this wasn’t going to happen, and that even if it did everyone would stop and untie us, did little to convince me. I know my dog.

Things didn't bode well when we arrived at the Bridgwater Monument on the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate to be greeted by a massed army of Lycra-clad owners and an enthusiasm (new collective noun) of dogs Sensing he was the only competitor with a perm, Pele was surprisingly quick and keen to step into his harness – presumably in an effort to get this embarrassment over with.

“Honestly you'll love it. I'm not a runner but I decided to give it a go and now I drive 50 minutes twice a week to come here,” said Jackie England, as she fixed her Welsh Springers into their harnesses. Yes, you can even do it with two.

Gemma Felstead was equally enthusiastic – but then, she and her Hungarian Vizsla, Chester, do win many of the national CaniX UK events. “I compete both with and without my dog and can run at five and a half minutes a mile (the average jogger is about double that!) with Chester in front,” she told me, adding, though, that it is important that the dog is less than half your body weight or they can pull you over!

As we waited to start, and the minutes ticked by, I did wonder aloud… surely it would be far simpler to just run with your dog on a lead – or off a lead?

Apparently not. “This is far more fun for the dog as he pulls from his strong chest muscles, not his neck and he's got the fun of running with the other dogs. The runners have their hands free but don't have to constantly check where the dog is,” George explained, as he disappeared into the trees shouting directions to terriers Smurf and Barney.

And either Pele is not as stupid as his fluffy blond hair suggests or George was right, as my canine companion immediately set off in hot pursuit, tail wagging frantically.

Rabbits and deer were forgotten, along with his usual urge to christen every tree, as his competitive streak kicked in. Sadly, I was too busy trying to avoid sinking knee-deep in mud to think how fast I was going, but it was certainly fun and far easier to be running with a canine personal fitness trainer, especially up the hills.

Down the hills can be infinitely more tricky. Fellow runner Caroline Luff advised me to lean back, admitting that the first time she tried it, pulled by Vinnie, her German Shepherd Cross (presumably crossed with a small lion, considering his strength), she did indeed fall flat on her face in the mud.

Luckily, as I gingerly picked my way down the slope with Pele looking around bemused by my sudden lack of enthusiasm, George and the leaders stopped to regroup. And that's another plus, canine cross country people are dog people so naturally they’re all friendly. Everyone was made to feel equally welcome, no matter what our speed and no-one was ever left behind.

Bizarrely, I found it was over all too quickly. We ran 5k, all off road, in about 45 minutes, and Pele's tail didn't stop wagging once. I do think this was helped by the fact he clearly fancied Strider, a speedy Wolfhound out in front.
“We do vary the distance, depending on the group and we also do it in the dark with head torches,” triathlon enthusiast Vanessa Jones told me, as we posed for photographs and compared how filthy each of our six legs was.

Hosing Pele down

Any sport involving mud and dogs is naturally appealing to the British and since the first competitive CaniX UK race back in 2005 the sport has steadily grown in popularity. There are now numerous fun groups and nine official CaniCross groups meeting regularly in the UK; George and his Ashridge runners formalised themselves in February last year.

“The first winter we had just four regularly going out and now we can have as many as fifteen, of all shapes and sizes,” George explained, adding that any breed can do it. Charlie (a mini Cockapoo) and Clasper (a Cavalier King Charles, whose legs were at least a third of the size of Strider, the largest dog in our group) illustrated the point perfectly. Owners ranged from young whippet-like men, who flew along beautifully, to the more curvaceous Labrador-shaped women taking it at a steadier pace.

Eileen Cook, from CaniX UK, the organisation behind a series of national races since 2006, told me, “We cater for all shapes and sizes, any breed and all fitness levels – canine and human. Humans from the age of seven and dogs from the age of one can enter. Previous events have included vision-impaired entrants running with a human guide, hearing impaired entrants running with their Hearing Dogs, people who have had a triple heart bypass, 10km/marathon/ultra-endurance athletes, to kids, have-a-goes and those that just love to do things with their dogs.”

I was certainly in this latter category. Chatting to Phil and Sarah Edwards over scones the size of a football in the National Trust café, they acknowledged that many people do take up canicross simply for the social aspect. The fitness is incidental.

As Pele and I headed home, muddy of limb but happy of heart, I reflected that CaniCross does sound a bit barking at first but when it comes to sport, this one really does deserve to take the lead.

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