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Sunday 31 January 2021

Canicross and my history running with dogs

by George Humphreys, Ashridge Canicrossers

Back in 2001, foot and mouth came to town. As a person and dog owner who lived in a rural area the countryside around me was closed for my normal dog walks, I was restricted to country lanes. As a runner I thought, fine, I can take my dogs with me on my runs. So I put a normal harness on and attached a lead. It gave the dogs much needed exercise along with myself. I found I actually enjoyed the company of my dogs when out for a run. 

When foot and mouth finished, I carried on running with my dogs, switching to trails, most of the time the dogs running off lead with me. I noticed when running the dogs tended not to wander off hunting, preferring to just run with me. 

Leap forward to 2007 and a friend went to crufts and saw a Canicross (what is Canicross video here) demo race. Knowing I ran with my dogs She grabbed a flyer and gave it to me. Seeds sowed I now looked into this sport. Initially cobbling together bits and bobs to enable me to run with the dog strapped to me – just to see if the dog would enjoy it. 

My Doberman at the time took to it like a duck to water, even though the Canicross equipment I was using was very heath robinson. I continued along this line until one day a canicross race was scheduled in woods fairly near to where I live. I went along, came last, but loved it. While there I got my first piece of real equipment, a canicross harness fitted to my dog. As I’m always interested in things I asked about harness fit on the dog rather than just accepting the fitting. 

The harness released more of Bono’s (my Doberman) power, so I started to see limitation in the other pieces of equipment. Trawling the net for options and alternatives I found there was actually quite limited equipment purely for canicross, a lot was skijor equipment or mushers walking belts just used for canicross and not equipment specifically designed for running. 

My racing gathered pace over the next couple of years, moving gradually from the back of the pack to the front. I worked out how to train myself when not running with the dog to running with the dog. At the same time I would buy in equipment for both me and Bono from around the world to test and see what worked. Having an enthusiasm for the sport I gradually introduced friends to the joys of running with their dogs and with the extra bits and bobs I brought over time I could introduce them without them having to go out and buy initially. 

Racing regularly with Bono it became clear to me that the harness he was wearing could be better, so the search was on to get things spot on for him. I eventually found the right harness for him, though for me there didn’t seem to be anything on the market. Being an Engineer I was always looking to improve what was out there and modify to suit me. This lead to me sketching out designs for belts, but struggled to actually make them. A Friend in Norfolk offered to make up one of my designs, so 3 hour trip ensured to get it made and then test it out. It wasn’t perfect but watching things getting put together made me realise I could do this myself, so I picked up an old sewing machine from eBay. I could now draw out and build my own belts. Lots of trial and error eventually found me settling on the design I still use to this day. It has turned out to be a popular belt with people who have borrowed and tested against the main stream designs that were coming to the market, but I don’t actively promote it. At the same time I thought now I have a machine I might as well make my own canicross lines. 

I was now regularly racing and becoming a regular at races around the country. When not racing I was gradually introducing more and more people locally to the sport, using the knowledge I had been gaining, and passing it on. My “kit box” was growing along with numbers coming out running with me at weekends. I was making kit, both lines and belts for my kit box to get people started. When out at races I started to get the odd comment on where did I get “x” from, to which I would reply, I made it. They would then ask me for something similar and I found the lines I made were getting a bit of popularity. 

My racing peaked in 2010 when I went to race in Europe, a truly wonderful experience with Bono and one I shall always treasure. We both raced and achieved everything I could ever have asked for. Myself I spent 6 months preparing for the race, having a running coach train and tune me so I was probably the fittest and fastest I have ever been in my life. I had to get myself in tip top in order to do justice for Bono, he was an amazing dog that had a massive following in all areas of his life. 

Sadly shortly after this event his health went downhill and I had to say goodbye to my faithful running partner. I was devastated and my racing and desire to race has never really come back after loosing him. My next dog was not interested in racing either, but loved to run, so my running changed from running 5-10k at max speed to running ultras and the different approach that required. Chess (a pointer) changed me from a competitive runner to a person that just loved running, he gave me a totally different outlook on running. I guess dogs never stop teaching us. 

No longer racing, I refocussed on introducing people to getting started in the sport of Canicross. As numbers grew with people wanting to come out and run, I was finding my Saturday mornings were spent taking multiple groups out one after the other for runs in Ashridge, Hertfordshire. To put this on a more sound footing a group of us decided we would like to form a Canicross Sports club. After investigating what we needed to do, sorting out a constitution, insurance etc Ashridge Canicrossers was born at an AGM in the cafĂ© at Ashridge. This was the first Canicross specific club in the country, a blueprint that others soon followed, with clubs forming around the country. This was I thought the future of the sport, with grass roots clubs forming. Ashridge Canicrossers still goes strong to this day, we have a lovely place to run, and lovely members who are interested in getting out there with their dogs to just enjoy company, the outdoors and that very special bond that canicrossing with your dog brings. My little kit box has grown to a comprehensive kit box with all types of harness and belts from all the main stream manufacturers around the world. This has been possible with our membership money and gives newcomers the ability to try out different styles to see what works for their dogs and themselves. 

Over the years of taking out people in the club, fitting harnesses to all different breeds of dog and all different shapes of human, has given me a depth of experience in Canicross equipment. As I also
manufacture equipment I have learnt not just about fitting but what works for running with your dog. I could advise on what was needed to run short or long distances with the knowledge I have gained, but I believe we never stop learning so I keep searching for information, that will benefit my partnership with my dog, and what will benefit the members of our club. 

For me now I still get a great deal of pleasure seeing a person coming out Canicrossing for the first time. The look of nervousness at the prospect or even in some cases fear as the dog moves off in front on that initial start, then gradually as the run progresses, seeing it being replaced by a grin from ear to ear (of both dog and owner), it is magical. The friends I’ve made along the way are truly great friends, but no where near as great as the bond I have with all the dogs that I have run with, dogs are just so special, and the sport of canicross can help to explore that relationship.

Naturally Happy Dogs has a range of videos about Canicross: