John Thompson used to run marathons. “I could sprint a 4:46 mile before the knee surgery,” he said. Now his dog, Timber, pulls him around.
Tethered together with a short length of bungee cord, man and dog work as a team. Six legs leap and bound together, a train of power running down the trail. Timber, an Alaskan husky with sled dog credentials, is the engine; Thompson, a 48-year-old small business owner from Shoreview, Minn., is the conductor, shouting voice commands and directing the course on trails and grassy open fields.
“It’s like a turbo-charged run,” Thompson said.
Canicross is a cousin sport to dog-powered disciplines like dog sledding and skijoring. But the canine-human running technique, which is one of four so-called “dryland” dog sports, is gaining momentum on its own. Indeed, dozens of domestic and international dryland competitions are now held each year.
In addition to canicross, dryland disciplines include bikejoring, scooter and cart racing. Participants tether their dogs to bikes and scooters with elasticized lines, steering and braking to control the dog-generated momentum. Carting, which uses elaborate three- or four-wheel metal-frame carts, borrows technique from dog sledding and is the oldest of the dryland divisions.
“People have been using carts and similar vehicles for sport with dogs since the 1920’s or earlier,” said Tim White of the International Federation of Sleddog Sports. “But canicross, bikejor and scooter are the areas that are getting some attention now.”
White, who lives in Grand Marias, Minn., and owns 50 dogs, has traveled to Korea, Argentina, Singapore and Europe to promote dryland dog sports through seminars and competitions. He believes canicross, in particular, has the potential to be immensely popular, especially with pet owners.
“Millions of people already take their dogs on walks or runs,” White said. “Canicross is an easy transition from there.”
Propulsion via the canine-connected cord distinguishes canicross from regular running. The subtle tug at the waist belt harness brings significant speed and endurance gains. Recreational runners can shave minutes of time off a trail run. Olympic-caliber sprinters, who race canicross in European events, go 5 to 10 percent faster with a dog, according to White. “Ten percent is immense when you’re at the top of your game,” he said.
Voice commands tell dogs when to turn, stop and go. Dogs are trained to stay ahead, pulling steadily to keep the line taut. The elasticized towline cushions abrupt starts and stops.
Equipment requirements for canicross are minimal, including a dog harness, a human waist belt harness, and a towline. Many dogs willingly run and pull when introduced to canicross, said Jim Benson, president of the Midwest Skijorers Club. Pulling is a natural instinct in many breeds. “They will yip and jump at the sight of the harness once they know what’s going on,” Benson said.
Breed type is not as crucial as many people believe, said Benson. And larger dogs, which can overpower a runner, are not always better. “My 40-pound husky is about perfect,” he said.
Alaskan and Siberian huskies, malamutes, and pointers are speedy racing breeds. But labs, greyhounds, great Danes, Weimaraners, retrievers, and even border collies participate in canicross and wheeled dryland sports.
During a recent canicross training run, Thompson and Timber made for a swift pair. A form-fitting harness crisscrossed Timber’s back; Thompson wore black running tights, trail-running shoes, and a Nordic ski cap.
Thompson is tall, and every step is a long stride. Timber pulls steady, lengthening each human stride even more, pulling Thompson faster than he can run on his own.
“C’mon, Timber, let’s go, let’s go!” Thompson shouted.
The line went tight as Timber took off. The language of the sport — esoteric Nordic commands like “gee,” “haw,” and “on-by” — told Timber what to do. But on the trail he needed little instruction, following a worn groove in the dirt straight on ahead.
Claws dug in. Dirt flew. Rubber tread and paw prints marked the muddy ground.
The pair ran a quarter-mile at high speed. But Timber was hardly working. A pink tongue poked through as he came out of the woods. It was sunny and warm. Timber was trotting. “He could go all day long like this,” Thompson said.
—Stephen Regenold is editor of Gear Junkie.