Running with your Golden can be a little daunting if you don’t know how to get started. If you’re interested in running with your dog, stick around. Here I’ll tell you what worked for my Golden, Coty, and myself then I’ll tell you what you need to get started, too.
Canicross vs. Just Running–What’s the Difference?
That’s a great question and one that should definitely be answered before we continue. Why? Because while they both involve running with your dog, the training is different.
Running with your dog is…well…. Running with your dog. You’d have a leash in hand or attached via a belt. Your dog, attached by a collar, runs politely next to you. Your Golden would need to be trained not to pull on the leash as this could really hurt their necks over the long term.
Canicross is a sport (you don’t have to compete) where you run cross-country with your dog/s attached to you. Your dog actually pulls you while you run. The person wears a supportive belt that connects to the dog’s pulling harness via a bungee line. This is very similar to skijoring, biking or mushing. It’s just that you don’t get to “ride” anything but your own legs. Don’t let that fool you, though. It can be ridiculously fun.
Why I Chose Canicross with Coty
My Golden loved to run, so I knew I needed to utilize this activity to burn some of his energy, but it took me a while to settle on running together. Coty was not well trained on the leash originally so I decided that if he liked to pull, I would teach him to pull productively and only in his harness. So I bought a pulling harness and began his training. My original goal was to teach him to pull so we could do skijoring. The problem with Coty was that he was a rescue and was terribly afraid of the skis. So I had to re-evaluate and focus just on trail running. We did an unofficial version of Canicross, though at the time I didn’t know it!
Our First Time in Harness
The first time I put Coty in his pulling harness, I had a friend stand on the other side of the yard with a toy. I held the leash taut at this point and asked him to “Hike” (Hike is a musher term for “Go!”). My friend had the toy, and he was very excited to go see her, so he took off like a rocket and pulled me across the yard. I kept the leash tight as I followed behind him and allowed him to feel some weight in the harness, just to encourage him to pull. That’s not an official training method, but it worked for us. The idea is to get them excited about being in harness, and being willing to pull in it. Chasing a ball or toy could accomplish this as well, but you don’t want your dog bringing it back to you. They need to know to stay in front.
Continuing Our Training
After I knew he was comfortable to be in the harness, I took him for walks in it, always encouraging him to at least stay in front of me (even if he was next to me, I still wanted his head in front for safety). Sometimes Coty would decide to stop and smell things. This is a habit I had to stop pretty quickly as it was dangerous! I tripped over him a couple times and realized that we needed a command to keep him focused. I used the command, “Leave it” if he started to look interested in something, and since I had already trained this at home, it was easy to incorporate into our trail running. It helped a ton. Another term that people train for this, to encourage their dogs forward while ignoring distractions is “On By”. This is useful as well, but we stuck with “Leave it” as it worked well for us as a team.
Then we started incorporating other commands: Gee (go right) and Haw (go left) into the trails we walked. As he picked up on it and got in shape, we did more and more running. At the time, I didn’t know about shock absorbing bungees and belts (I really wish we had, though!), so I rigged up my own leash/belt system that let me be hands free while we ran. While we never competed, we both loved our time canicrossing together. I especially loved it in the winter on snowy trails–it was really an all-year-round activity for us!
What You Need to Know to Get Started
One thing that will be pretty important to teach your Golden Retriever is that when they are in the harness, they are allowed to pull and when they are not in harness, they are not allowed to pull. There are many different ways to train your Golden to do this, so you will have to adapt to yourself and your dog.
I do recommend looking into Positive Reinforcement training, as it is one of the fastest and most fun ways to train your Golden and would be great to teach polite collar-walking. (Haven’t heard of it? Check out Karen Pryor’s Book: Don’t Shoot the Dog!” It is really an interesting read on learning behavior and can help a ton in understanding how to teach our pets and each other!)
As far as equipment goes, you will need four items to make the most out of your canicross activities. These are: a decent pulling harness for your dog (this needs to be specifically designed for pulling), a bungee leash, a belt to attach it to you, and access to water for yourself and your dog to drink during breaks on the run.
The most important commands to teach your Golden will be:
Stop or “Whoa”
Go or “Hike”
Turn Right or “Gee”
Turn Left or “Haw”
Slow Down or “Easy”
“Leave It” or “On-By”
If you’ll be running by roads, it may be useful to have a crossing command. I used “Cross-Over” to teach Coty when to cross the street.
You can teach them with whatever words work best for you, but try to keep them under 2 syllables and very distinct as it’s easier for your dog to hear those shorter commands, especially running in front of you. The easiest way for you to teach them will be on walks together in harness. This will give you a chance to get the feel of the gear together and sort out the commands in slow motion without the added stress of a running pace. Be patient with both of you. Praise your Golden like crazy when they get it right and don’t be afraid to be energetic and goofy with them. They are big goofballs themselves, so they love that sort of thing.
Training Options for You
As far as the training goes, there are a couple ways to approach it. We used repetition and praise. All this means is that I would take Coty out for a walk in his harness. When we started, I always said “Hike” to let him know we were starting and praised him for pulling at all. He soon learned that “Hike” meant go and he was happy to go when asked. When I came to a fork in the trail or a turn I wanted to make, I’d pick my direction and encourage him that way. As he did it, I’d use the command to teach him that’s what it meant and praised him as he did it. So as we turned right, I’d say, “Gee!” and then praised him as we turned. After a few weeks of this, he understood what the commands meant and would do them more confidently. We started running a little at that point and I had to do it all again, as he had to learn that the commands were the same at the run as the walk. After that, he just needed some encouragement here and there.
Another option would be to find a group of Canicrossers with someone who would be willing to let your dog work in harness with theirs. Dogs learn quite well from each other, so that’s a neat option. We didn’t have that available to us, but I would have loved it if we had!
You also could use Clicker Training or another Positive Reinforcement method, but you would need to be careful that your dog was not coming back to you for treats during the walk or run.
Start Slow, Then Build Up
Remember that you will need to work your Golden up to the level of activity you desire. If you watch your Golden run, they are often short-burst sprinters when given the chance. So remember that long consistent runs are a whole different kind of exercise. Puppies shouldn’t be pulling until they are older (at least over a year, often longer) and you get the ok from the veterinarian. You want to be sure their bones are developed enough. If you have any concerns with your adult Golden doing Canicross, be sure to bring those concerns to your vet as well.
What if I’m Not in Shape?
If you’re out of shape, that’s actually not a bad thing at all in the case of training your Golden for Canicross. Start small. Encourage each other. Start with short walks in harness and incorporate the training into them Enjoy your time, let your Golden do a little pulling to get the feel for it. Start running for only a minute or so at the beginning and then walk for a minute or two. Run again after a decent rest, then repeat. Keep an eye on both of you so you don’t overheat. Bring some water, take lots of breaks and keep it fun!