- 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 them “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 kilos. They just are not blessed with stride length like some of their taller colleagues, but they are great dogs for canicross! The best drive in a dog I have ever seen has come from a 7-kilo Jack Russel Terrier called Nelson, and I have owned many great sled dogs—some multiple world champions! Many small dog breeds, such as Jack Russel Terriers, Spaniels, 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.
Small dogs have the same needs for physical and mental exercise as big dogs, even though their bodies are tiny.
Amy McLaughlan totally agrees with this. She started doing canicross in 2013 with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and 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 cues, 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 only real drawback 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.
Canicross gear for small dogs
When running with small dogs, the weight of your canicross kit is important.
- A heavy clip at the end of a line can put pressure on a smaller dog’s back or can cause too much bounce. The 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 dogs, the Touring Bungee is an even lighter option. The line is adapted for a wide variety of breeds, as it comes in four different models with different lengths and widths.
We have a specific kit for small dogs, the Small dog CaniX kit, consisting of the same setup as professional canicross athletes are using.
- I have to say the 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 too 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 the Freemotion harness, which is available in small sizes and highly adjustable for optimum fit.
- Maisie runs very well in it, and it’s very supportive for her strong pulling, says Amy.
- 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.
Canicross distances for small dogs
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 that owners of small dogs 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 with small dogs in particular is surface type. Smaller pads will be more sensitive to harsh ground. The more natural and kinder to pads the ground is, the better.
Competing in canicross with a small dog
Dogs of any size can enter a canicross competition, and the community is usually very welcoming to new dogs in the sport.
When participating in a canicross competition with a small dog, you are likely to be overtaken by other teams. You should spend time training being passed by other dogs. This will make overtaking a positive experience for your dog. If your dog is reactive towards other dogs, this must also be trained before entering a canicross competition.
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-kilo sled dog in a full gallop, remember how it feels as you fly past them going downhill with your 8-kilo dog!
- 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 for owners of small dogs.
- My main reason as to why you should take up canicross with your small dog is just how much your 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
Amy has seen far fewer small dogs at the more traditional sled dog-type competitions where canicross is not the main focus. But at other competitions, there is a much wider variety of dogs. More small dogs 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.