Though dog-friendly 5Ks and trail runs are becoming more popular around the United States, Canicross takes the title for the ideal way to race with your dog. The sport, named for its mash-up of  “canine” and “cross-country,” is exactly that—a cross-country race where dogs and humans work together to navigate technical terrain and sprint to the finish.

“There is a special energy created when you 25 to 40 dogs eagerly waiting at the starting line, barking up a storm and ready to run,” says Brian Thomas, owner of Kenosha Running Company and founder of Canicross USA. “Runners being pulled by their canine teammate is exciting and a rush.”

canicross start line
photo: courtesy Canicross

And yes, you read that right: “Runners being pulled by their canine teammate” is Canicross in a nutshell. It sounds like chaos, but there’s a method to the madness. Canicross draws heavily from the sport of dog sled racing. Originating in Europe as an off-season training methodology for sled dogs, Canicross evolved into a popular race format of its own—first in Europe, and more recently in the United States. Since Thomas started Canicross USA in 2017, the format has exploded, with Canicross chapters forming throughout the country and races held with increasing frequency.

In Canicross races, dogs are harnessed to their humans, and they run in a team. Much like sled racing, the human is the “driver,” directing the dog from behind with voice commands. But sled dogs like Huskies and Malamutes aren’t the only one who thrive in Canicross. Race day often sees a variety of pups, from purebred German Shorthaired Pointers to Humane Society mixed breeds.

The breed of the dog doesn’t matter so much as the chemistry with its human. The two must move together as one unit. If the dog pulls too hard, the human will be dragged; not hard enough, and there will be too much slack on the leash. Just right, and both will speed along nicely. For ease of movement in tandem, Thomas recommends getting the proper gear. “Most of those that start running with their dog are generally using a collar and a leash,” he says. “To maximize the pulling power of the dog, consider an upgrade to dog and human harnesses.”

dog running harness
photo: courtesy Canicross

Get the Gear

To select the right harness, follow these general guidelines:

Make sure the harness fits both dog and human properly. Avoid harnesses that restrict breathing or movement in any way; the lungs should be able to expand freely.

A dog harness that clips to the leash from the back is best, as a front-clip leash can restrict freedom of movement for the dog.

Connect the harnesses with a bungee leash, which will absorb shock from sudden changes in direction (“Look, a squirrel!”) or strong pulls.

The connecting leash shouldn’t be so long that your dog can get away from you on the trail, nor should it be so short that it pulls on the dog. For best results, shoot for a leash around 6 feet long at full stretch.

Canicross finish
photo: courtesy Canicross

Speak the Lingo

Because Canicross derived from sled pulling, much of the “driver’s” commands are the same. Though you can choose any terms you wish to train your dog, many find using sled terms while training for Canicross allow the dog to understand the behaviors of Canicross, such as pulling and running ahead, are for training and racing only—after all, as Thomas points out, “most dogs are trained to stay by your side.”

The key to training cues, Thomas says, is to be patient and consistent with what you say and how you say it. Common terminology:

Line out = Stand at leash length

Hike = Move forward

Gee = Go right

Haw = Go left

Hike on = Move faster

On by = Move around an obstacle, ignore a distraction

Back = Ease off the pulling (i.e., on dowhills)

Slow = Slow down

Stand = Stop

Join the Fun

To find a Canicross race near you, visit the Canicross USA Events page. You can also find local chapters on the Canicross website to meet up for training runs. Whether you’re just starting out or an experienced team, you and your furry friends will be welcome. “It is certainly a sport that is open to anyone,” says Thomas.