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Can small dogs do canicross?

- It’s not the length of the legs that matter – it’s the size of the heart! Of course, small dogs can do canicross. We like to call most “small but mighties", says Lindsay Johnson.


She is the founder and owner of Cani-Fit, a dog and owner fitness training company in Scotland.


- Some of the best canicross dogs I have seen are under 13 kg, and they just are not blessed with stride length like some of their taller colleagues. The best drive in a dog I have ever seen has come from a 7-kg Jack Russel Terrier called Nelson, and I have owned many great sled dogs—some multiple world champions! A lot of small breeds, such as Jack Russel terriers, Spaniel mixes, and Border Terriers, are hardworking dogs with huge heart and drive. When they are given a task, such as running and working on a trail with their owner, they put their heart and soul into it.


Amy McLaughlan totally agrees with this. She started doing canicross in 2013 with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel/Cocker Spaniel mix, Maisie.


- Our canicross adventure has been amazing! When I first started, I had never run, and I was unfit and overweight. Now, I run several times a week. I’ve taken part in races and events all over the UK, and although I’m never going to be fast enough to win anything, canicross has brought so much to my life—lots of great friends and countless adventures! When I first started out, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know what Maisie would be like, but from the very first session, she pulled like a little train. I couldn’t believe it. That got us hooked—she loved it so much I couldn’t possibly give it up and deprive her! She is a fantastic canicross partner. Focused and determined with a strong work ethic, she nails her commands, even the more complex or subtle ones. I am so proud of her and the bond we have.

Size is not a barrier

Lindsay cannot think of a reason for a small dog not to participate in canicross unless it is due to health issues or a lack of drive.


- Canicross is a team sport and a partnership between runner and dog. For any team, you can only go as fast as the slowest runner. There is so much more to canicross than speed and groundbreaking distances.


Maisie absolutely does assist her owner Amy when running, but if she was looking for super-fast times and podium places, a bigger dog would be needed.

- I am about two minutes faster on a five-kilometer run with her. Maisie and I are a perfect match. She runs and pulls just enough to assist me at my best pace. She makes me try harder. I have honestly never said to myself when on a run, “I wish I had a bigger dog.” But, I have often said that I’m grateful for my small dog in many a technical situation; however, there are plenty of large dogs out there who don’t pull the way Maisie does, and they still have a great time with their owners. So, size isn’t always the main factor! As long as you’re both loving it and enjoying the trails together, then winning isn’t the be-all and end-all.


The one true con she has faced is some other people’s attitudes.


- I’ve had people who don’t know us make fun of her or make mean comments, laugh at her, or call her a “handbag dog.” I just like to make sure they get to see her running. That usually shows them! She rockets along as determined as any sled dog! Thankfully, most people know that she’s actually an amazing canicross dog, and her nickname is Mighty Maisie to her friends! Her size has never been a barrier.


Some small dogs may find longer distances harder. With shorter legs and a shorter stride, they have to put in more effort to cover the ground.


- Often, their effort can be double that of a larger dog. This is not to say that small dogs cannot run longer distances. It’s just a factor that should be considered, Lindsey says.


Small dogs often find narrower, twisting, single-track trails more fun and exciting, while some of the larger breeds, such as German Shorthaired Pointers or Greysters, may find the very technical trails mentally challenging. On a very technical trail or an extremely steep or slippery hill, it is also much easier to control your pace and watch your footing according to Amy.


- Only 10 kg of dog in these situations is far less scary! She can’t pull me where I don’t want to be pulled. Big respect to those who tackle trails like this with a big powerful dog!


Amy recommends owners of small dogs to always be conscious and considerate of their dog’s size.


- Very long grass or deep mud and things that might not be a challenge for big dogs are a bigger physical challenge for short dogs. You just have to be mindful of your little pal and how hard they might be working compared to others. Sometimes you just have to scoop them up!


Other things to consider when canicrossing “small but mighties” in particular is surface type. Smaller pads will be more sensitive to harsh ground. The more natural and kinder to pads the better.

Importance of good equipment

Kit weight is very important.


- A heavy clip at the end of a line can put pressure on a smaller dogs’ backs or can cause too much bounce. The Non-stop dogwear Bungee Leash with a lightweight carabiner is perfect for small dogs, and the full bungee gives a soft tow and eliminates extra bounce.


- For the smallest ones, the Touring Bungee is an even lighter option. The leash is adapted for every breed, as it comes in four different models with different lengths and widths.


- I have to say the new clips on the Non-stop dogwear bungees are perfect. This is the best line I’ve ever had. It is super lightweight, and the clip is very light while still being very strong. It also doesn’t pull the hair out of Maisie’s tail, which the lines with a trigger clip do. I see lots of people with small dogs with heavy lines and bulky clips and think they could really benefit and also improve safety if they were to consider changing lines.

When it comes to harnesses, some chest plates can be wide on small dogs. Amy experienced this firsthand.


- Trying to get a good harness for a small dog who pulls hard has been a long, difficult process!


She is now using Non-Stop dogwear Freemotion Harness, which is available from size 2.


- Maisie runs very well in it, and it’s very supportive for her strong pulling. It just needs a bit of tweaking to make that breastplate less chunky and to allow her front legs a little more freedom, and it will be spot on!


- Be aware when fitting and choosing your harness. This is something I think brands could consider as more small dogs join our sport, Lindsay adds.


Read more: Canicross harness and equipment

Be a good teammate

Canicross is a partnership and a team sport.


- As much as the smaller dogs will enjoy pulling and running in front, it is essential the runner works hard to run with their dog and not expect full assistance on all terrain. Give your dog breaks when needed, and put in extra effort when running uphill or on really tough surfaces.


When your friends run past you uphill with their 30-kg sled dog in a full gallop, remember how it feels as you fly passed them going downhill with your 8-kg terrier!


At Cani-Fit, we see more smaller dogs than we do bigger dogs. It’s not the length of the legs that matter; it’s the size of the heart!

Amy strongly recommends the sport.


- My main reason as to why you should take up canicross with your small dog is just how much the dog will get out of it. I love seeing how happy it makes Maisie. It’s the reason I still go training week in, week out through the horrible winter weather. For years now! She lives for Thursday night training! It is also important to me that she keeps very fit. Her Cavalier breed has a history of heart conditions, and so keeping her weight down and fitness up are vital. Our vets are extremely supportive of her running and training and are convinced it’s the reason she stays so well.

More small dogs are entering the sport

At the more traditional sled dog-type competitions where canicross is not the main focus, Amy has seen far fewer small dogs, but at other competitions, you see a much wider variety of dogs. More are participating all the time.


I’ve seen Chihuahuas and Dachshunds competing! Maisie is definitely never the smallest at these types of events, and I think that the other events will start to see more small dogs as time goes on. The more the sport grows and the more accessible it becomes, the more dogs of all shapes and sizes you see coming through.


No excuses – take your small dog with you and go for a run!

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