Taking the lead: why a jog with a dog is the latest fitness craze

Once it was exercise enough to walk the dog. Now increasing numbers of owners are being taken by their pets for a vigorous run instead.

Although canicross – where a human is strapped with a bungee cord to a dog in a harness as it races across fields and woodland trails – has been slowly growing in popularity, there has been a huge jump in participation in the last 12 months. Demand across the UK for equipment has quadrupled, while for training classes it has nearly tripled. Record numbers are also signing up to running events that allow dogs.

In response, a plethora of canicross training companies have sprung up, offering to teach joggers how to direct their dogs while running and ensure the pet’s pace is appropriate for its age and fitness level.

At DogFit, around 4,000 people have taken part in training classes over the past year alone, which is 2,500 more than last year. “Participation is at record levels,” says co-founder Gail Walker. She estimates that over the same period sales of her canicross equipment kits have quadrupled. “At Christmas we were inundated,” she said.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), pet owners in the United States spent $60.28 billion on their furry friends in 2015. That number is expected to rise by more than $2 billion in 2016.

“It’s definitely been the busiest year for canicross equipment that we’ve seen,” says Adrian Ward, owner of Innerwolf.co.uk, a website which sells canicross harnesses for dogs, waist belts for humans and leads made from bungee cords, to protect dog and owner from sudden changes in speed or direction.

He has seen demand “at least double” over the past year, he says. “It’s exposure, I suppose. More people are hearing about it and, because most trail running events now incorporate a canicross category, there is more availability at races now as well.”

Canix, which organises canicross racing events all over the UK, is putting on 15% more races this year and signing up 10% more runners for each one. “The sport is definitely becoming more popular. We’re seeing more interest from beginners all the time,” says spokeswoman Dawn Crook-Richards. “I think people are more aware of the need to keep themselves and their dog fit. Compared with a lot of other sports it’s cheap – and people really love it.”
Gail Walker and her rescue dog Winston.

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Gail Walker and her rescue dog Winston. Photograph: Rhian White

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means most dog owners get the recommended minimum 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease and keeping them in better overall shape.

Mark Tasker, a dog trainer at the Dog Academy in Hertfordshire, decided to start offering canicross taster classes last month after requests from his clients. “The first session was sold out and the next one is sold out too. Customers are looking for extra things to do with their dog,” he says.

Canicross appeals because dog owners like the idea of getting fit while strengthening their bond with their pet, he adds. “Plus, if you run with your dog, you are learning a new skill, and actually, it’s easier than running on your own because you’re working as a team.”

At Cani-Fit, another canicross training company, founder Lindsay Johnson says her clients and their dogs particularly enjoy the social aspect of the weekly hour-long training runs. “We get a lot of people who wouldn’t attend a gym or a running club. They use the dog as a crutch –they tell themselves they are doing it for the dog. As for the dogs, they love running with other dogs.”

It’s a great way, she says, for nervous dogs in particular to safely socialise with other dogs. “When they all face the same direction, there doesn’t tend to be any intimidation.”

It’s not so black and white. It’s a myth that dogs only see in black and white. In fact, it’s believed that dogs see primarily in blue, greenish-yellow, yellow and various shades of gray.

Since it is best for dogs to run long distances on surfaces which are naturally bouncy and kind to their paws, canicross runs typically take place on trails, rather than pavements. “When you’re running the types of trails we do, you’re going on a real adventure,” says Johnson. “You’re running off-piste, through woods and streams, over fallen trees. It’s like going back to your childhood days, when you’re out playing in the woods, but you get to do it with your dog.”

To run along such trails together, owners must work with their dogs. “You achieve a different level of understanding each other because you’re having to pick up on different senses, touch and positions. You get such a stronger bond, and such a sense of achievement with your dog,” she adds.

One of the reasons canicross has become so popular so quickly is because it has a high retention rate, Walker says. “Once people go to a class, most people will continue with it.” She is particularly keen to stress the impact canicross has had on some of her runners with mental health issues. “They say it’s been really good for them because they’re running outside, they’re meeting people and they’re doing all that with their dog, their best friend. I’ve been told some lovely, heartwarming stories.”

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She will never forget the first time she tried canicross herself. “It was just exhilarating. You get a little pull from your dog, which you can control using commands, but it feels like you are running with dogs in a pack. They’re excited, they’re enjoying it, and you feed off them. It puts the fun back into serious running.”