The importance of getting a properly fitted harness for your dog

With the dog sports of canicross (running with your dog) and bikejor (biking with your dog) becoming so popular it is inevitable that new people will come into the sport and want information on how to get the best experience for them and their dog. From our point of view the most important piece of kit you need for both canicross and bikejor is the harness for your dog. If you are going to expect your dog to pull any weight when running, then it is your responsibility to make sure that your dog is in the most suitable harness which allows your dog the best range of movement to suit their shape and running style.

Your dog should be comfortable and have free range of movement while running and pulling – Photo courtesy of Horses for Courses Photography

 

We’ve recently seen a number of people out running with their dogs on a collar and lead, which for us is just not an acceptable way to exercise your dog, unless it is running to heel and not pulling at all. The pressure put on the neck (a very sensitive area) with your dog pulling is something that should always be avoided and we even walk with a harness for the same reason. If you are going to run with your dog, it is highly likely your dog will be faster than you and therefore pulling at some point even if off to the side, so ensuring their comfort and safety should be a top priority.

The next problem we’ve seen more regularly is well-meaning people who have been badly advised or have been mis-sold a harness and although the dog is wearing a harness, it is just not suitable for the purpose of running. For example there are no-pull harnesses which have been used because they have a fleece lining on the webbing and so it is assumed to be comfortable but anything which tightens when pulled into will not be comfortable for a dog and will not encourage freedom of movement. The other common unsuitable type of harness is one which has a strap across the front of the shoulders, these are often sold as ‘sport’ harnesses by the manufacturers so people are being misled into thinking these are suitable for the pulling sports – they are not. The reason being that this front strap restricts shoulder movement and will prevent a full, free range of motion when the dog is running.

Harnesses such as this with one strap across the front of the shoulders are just not suitable for running dogs in, although may be sold as such

Sometimes even when the correct style of harness has been chosen unfortunately the sizing is wrong and most commonly, too big. As a general rule a dog sport harness should fit snugly, many people feel that the neck is too tight, when in actual fact the neck of the harness should make it snug to put on and pull off over the head of the dog. You only need to be able to fit a few fingers in the neck of a proper fitting harness and there should be no gaping along the body when the harness is pulled into. If the harness is just sitting on the dog with no tension through it then it may bunch up or slide about, this is normal, these harnesses are designed for dogs to pull into. If you have a dog who doesn’t pull, there are harnesses which don’t do this and we can point you in the right direction for these particular harness styles.

The Non-stop Half Harness, one of the selection we have which suits pullers and non-pullers

It is actually quite rare for a harness to be too small, it isn’t easy to get a dog into a harness which is too small and unless your dog is young and has been growing, or put on a bit of weight, then it’s usually very easy to tell if the harness is too small straight away. If you think your harness is putting pressure on your dog’s neck (you might hear a coughing noise) this is not necessarily down to it being too small, in most cases the style of harness doesn’t suit your dog and in some cases the harness might actually be too big but is pulling back because of this and causing an issue.

Most owners will recognise a properly fitting harness as soon as they see it on their dog but without having anything to compare it to or someone to confirm the harness fits, it can be difficult to know for sure. We get asked all the time to check harness fit and we’re honest, if you don’t need a new or different harness we won’t try and persuade you to buy one and if your dog is running happily in a harness then 9 times out of 10, it is suitable. But if your dog isn’t in the correct style and size of harness to suit them then it’s a bit like wearing ill fitting shoes, they will pinch, restrict, rub or even stop your dog wanting to run. If you own more than one dog you might even find that each dog you own is suited to a different style of harness.

Choosing the right harness for your dogs might mean each dog is in a different style of harness, not every dog suits every harness, they are individuals

There’s loads of information on our blog about choosing a harness and we’re always happy to help anyone who wants to find the perfect harness for their dog, just drop us an e-mail to info@k9trailtime.com and we’d love to help. It really is the most important part of your dog sport kit, so it’s worth spending the time to get it right! Happy trails 🙂

 

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The Puppy Diary – Continuing to train (6-9 months)

So now that your puppy has grown up a bit and looks a little bit less like a puppy and more like a proper dog, it can be tempting to up the game in terms of training at this point. It is at this age that I feel people get a bit too excited about getting their dog trained up and it’s really important to remember your dog is still a puppy no matter how grown up they now look.

Your dog might look grown up but is still a puppy on the inside (Photo courtesy of Becky Harding)

This is where the debate kicks in. In many sled dog kennels the youngsters will begin going out in harness in teams (and this is the crucial thing) from about 6 months to learn the ropes. Whilst that might be all well and good for a big kennel where larger teams of dogs are run together and the pull is distributed between the team, it is not the same as one dog pulling your weight on it’s own. It is also worth pointing out that many of these dogs are not expected to have long running careers and although many do, there is a big difference between a racing kennel dogs’ experience and your pet dog.

It has been proven that a dogs’ growth plates do not fully close until they are a lot older and in the case of some of the bigger dog breeds, 2 years is normal for full skeletal maturity and full maturity isn’t reached until the dog is about 3 years old. With this in mind, wouldn’t you rather wait a few months and ensure you will not be harming your dog? I’m not a fan of putting a specific date on when you should start doing proper harness training, as every dog is an individual and should be assessed on their own development, not against other breeds or even other individual dogs of the same breed.

Dogs can take up to 3 years to reach full maturity, so why not let them stay puppies for as long as possible? (Photo courtesy of Becky Harding)

For example you might get one GSP (German Shorthaired Pointer) who when fully grown can weigh in excess of 35 kgs and will have to have developed the bone and muscle structure to support that weight before doing any pulling in harness. Then another GSP who barely weighs in at 20 kgs and will be physically fully grown a lot quicker than the bigger, heavier dog. Even this doesn’t take into account the dogs’ own ‘head space’ and this is something I feel is equally as important as their physical development.

To explain this further, some dogs (like some people!) mature a lot slower mentally than others and need more time to process information to be able to follow commands confidently. If you’ve got a pup who is easily distracted or nervous in new surroundings, it is worth building the dogs confidence in both you, and new situations, before you expect them to work for you, particularly in a racing environment. Unfortunately there are some dogs who don’t get the time they need to learn about working in harness and when put in a race situation can become very nervous or even aggressive if they are not confident, so it is really, really, important you go at your dogs’ individual pace when considering increasing the training you’re doing with your dog.

Every dog is an individual when it comes to development both physically and mentally (Photo courtesy of Becky Harding)

My own pup at the time of writing is 7 months old and we’ve been doing a lot of training but it might not be the type of training you would necessarily expect when talking about training a dog for harness sports. We go to new places almost daily and don’t stick to the same walking routes, so that he encounters new things all the time. I use the voice commands consistently on all our walks and I am really keen to get a good ‘wait’ command instilled in his brain (because he’s already way bigger and stronger than I had anticipated!) so we stop regularly to reinforce this. In addition to this, I had started to allow him to free run while I incorporated a jog into some of our walks. Recently his prey drive has kicked in however, so this has limited how much free running he can do.

Yogi has done a little bit of free running now

In terms of being in a harness, he has had a walking harness from day 1 and now he is starting to pull into the harness (as he sees the others doing) I have not discouraged this. I have tried some of the longer harnesses on him at home just to see what he thinks of having something longer down his back, as I believe he will need a longer harness eventually. At the moment he doesn’t like having something over his back, so we’ll need to do some more work on that to make sure he’s happy with straps and something pulling over the length of him.

Yogi has not been discouraged from pulling into the harness on walks

We’ve also been to a few races and when I’ve had a chance I’ve had him out and about meeting as many dogs as we can, getting him used to being around lots of people, dogs, and of course the noise associated with the start of a race! I don’t think the importance of getting them used to this can be overstated, as the last thing you want is your dog to feel stressed when running in harness around other dogs and so if they are already comfortable and happy around lots of dogs, this can only be a good thing. I also make sure he’s not allowed to play with every dog we see, as this can be a problem too. You don’t want your dog to be pestering others when out running, so ensuring you can still get your dog to focus on you is very important.

Yogi has been enjoying watching from the sidelines at events

Other than increasing the time and distances of our walks and incorporating the odd jog, we haven’t done much else different in terms of exercise, Yogi has been growing a fair bit and he’s going to be quite tall, so I want to limit how much he does to ensure he doesn’t suffer later on in life. Above all he’s just enjoying still being a puppy and I think it’s crucial to allow your dog the time to be a puppy as long as they need and not push them into something too soon which could put them off further down the line.

So for now, I’m happy he’s learning what he needs to and he’s loving his life as sidekick and van traveller. Training in harness will only increase when I’m certain he’s developed enough both physically and mentally and I’ll post another blog update when we start with the really fun stuff!

Making the transition from canicross to bikejor

Many people who come into the dog sports begin with canicross because it is the easiest way to exercise your dog and also the simplest way to train your dog to pull in a harness. However, if you’ve ever attended a race which has the bikejor classes too, then you’ll have seen how much fun the competitors have at the faster speeds you can achieve with the wheels. It doesn’t appeal to everyone but once you’ve trained your dog to pull you, it can be very tempting to have a go at either bikejor or dog scootering to get that extra speed for a more exciting run.

Bikejoring is great fun and you can really get up your speed on a bike to go at your dogs’ pace – Photo courtesy of Horses for Courses Photography

If you are thinking of giving bikejor a go then there are a few things you should know which will help you get the best from your experience.

The first thing you need to make sure of is that you have trained strong voice commands. When canicrossing it is easy to correct your dogs’ direction and quickly grab your bungee line to prevent any mishaps. However when you are on a bike there is no option to do this, so your dog must respond to your voice signals for directions and control otherwise you could end up causing an accident if your dog isn’t listening to you.

It doesn’t always go right at the best of times, so make sure you’ve trained your voice commands as best you can! – Photo courtesy of Horses for Courses Photography

You also need to make sure the equipment you are using is suitable, don’t be tempted to ‘botch’ it with home made bikejor arms and lines. There are plenty of clubs now who may have equipment they can loan you to have a go with your dog and there are a small number of businesses offering training for the dog sports now. If you choose to borrow club equipment remember they are not liable for anything you do and might not be able to offer the ‘training’ you require but using the correct equipment will at least give you an idea if you’d like to do more bikejoring, so you can get your own kit to use later on.

Getting the right equipment for bikejoring will give your dog the best starting experience

We would suggest that it is quite important that you train solo on the bike first before attaching your dog. You might already be a skilled mountain biker and in this case you will be giving your dog the best chance of doing well at bikejoring by being in control of the bike and yourself first. However if you’re getting on a bike for the first time in a number of years (which was the situation we were in) then it is worth hitting the trails without your dog to gain some bike skills that you can utilise when you do attach your dog. Without having a basic skill level on a mountain bike you could be putting yourself and your dog at risk of harm, so just get used to being on a bike again and then you can help your dog get the best possible start to bikejoring.

Bike training without your dog can only be on benefit to you and your dog when you do try bikejoring, so try this first if you haven’t been on a bike for a while

It can be very helpful to find someone knowledgable to help you get started, we mentioned above there are a few businesses offering training now and some clubs also offer training weekends and camps which can be a great way to introduce your dog to something new. We recommend that you never try bikejoring first on your own, always take someone along with you who knows you and your dog just in case something unforeseen happens. Bikejoring can be great fun but always make sure someone knows where you are as accidents can happen in the most unexpected circumstances!

Make sure you are not on your own when you first start bikejoring or that someone at least knows where you are – Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

It is also worth educating yourself on the rules regarding insurance and rights of way when bikejoring. Many Forestry Commission sites require permits to be obtained for anything where a dog is attached to a ‘wheeled vehicle’ and the public liability insurance required to obtain a permit is £5 million. This might seem excessive but in a blame culture it is worth checking what you are covered for with your dog, as hitting into a person or another dog with your bike could be costly. Riding on roads is not permitted at all with a dog attached and it’s not good for a dogs’ joints anyway to be moving at speed on hard surfaces. With canicross a few road sections won’t do any harm but long stretches on tarmac at the higher speeds you can achieve on a bike can damage your dogs’ pads and joints.

Your dog might have been canicrossing for years and covered many miles with you on foot but always start bikejoring with short sections, to allow your dog to get used to the increase in speed. Too many people seem to think that because they can run 10 miles canicrossing they can go straight out and ride 5 miles with their dog on the bike. Being able to run at full pelt attached to a bike is a very different experience for your dog, so make sure you are not challenging your dog to begin with and keep it fun for them, leaving them wanting to do more.

Bikejoring should always be fun for you and your dog, so keep it short and simple to begin with – Photo courtesy of Matt Eames

If you want to know more about making the transition from canicross to bikejor we have a few recommendations for businesses, clubs and individuals who could potentially help so get in touch if you’d like to know more but we hope you’ve found this blog helpful as a guide on how to make the experience the best it can be for both you and your dog. Happy trails!

 

 

 

Why we race (when we know we’re not going to win)

When we first got into canicross we’d never done any dog sports competitively (unless you count a failed attempt at a flyball show!) so it was quite daunting going along to a ‘race’ particularly as I’d not taken part in a running race since I was at school. But it was explained to me that I didn’t need to be fast to enter and it was all about having fun with your dogs. That first race with CaniX got me hooked and from that point on, I knew this was something I wanted to do regularly. However I never have been and never will be, a fast runner, so why did I want to keep entering races I knew I wasn’t going to win?

Our very first CaniX race at Stanton Country Park – Photo courtesy of Chillpics

The answer lies in the whole experience of racing, not just the races themselves. To take part in a race there is an element of training, you need to have spent time before the race, building up your distances, making sure your dogs are happy to run alongside other dogs, other people and also working out what equipment will suit you best. This training also builds a strong bond with you and your dogs, you have good days and bad days, all of this can only be achieved through teamwork and working with your dogs to make improvements.

I joined plenty of social canicross runs, driving over an hour each way in some cases to go and run with people I’d never met before. I was welcomed with open arms (and cake in most cases) and began to develop friendships on the back of my training for the races. I could never have imagined myself regularly entering races previously but there was something special about the events that made me want to do more. I just enjoyed taking my dogs to new places and meeting new people who didn’t see my dogs’ slightly unruly behaviour as a problem, they accepted it and helped me channel that behaviour into something positive.

Social canicross runs are a great way to train your dog to get used to being alongside others and part of building up your dogs’ confidence to race

The more races I went to, the more people I met who had similar interests to me and I quickly made some really good friends who I still see regularly nearly 8 years later. Now I still use races as a way of meeting people but also to get my dogs to new parts of the country I haven’t seen before and to socialise them in a way that doesn’t stress them out, with people who understand what it’s like to own dogs who might not be perfectly behaved.

I also started to get a feel for who in my category was a similar standard to me and that gave us something to train for. If I was only 20 seconds behind someone in one race I would try and improve my times at home so I could beat that person by 20 seconds the next time we raced. I also learnt a lot from other people at races and still do, everyone has a slightly different approach to racing and training and so by talking to people about their dogs and their routines, I have picked up great information to use to make changes to my own habits.

Spending time with other people who are doing the sport allows you to pick up training tips, learn from them and vice versa

Of course we have had some successes too, when you work hard and give yourself goals then anything is possible and together with my dogs we have been placed in many National races and Championships in the 8 years we’ve been racing but the majority of the time we don’t race to win and more often than not we are not being placed these days. Someone said to me last year that the dogs believe they have won every single race if you tell them they have and it really struck a chord with me. So now I tell my dogs every time we cross a finish ‘well done, you’ve won’ and it sounds daft but they don’t know or don’t care if we’ve won but my excitement and praise lets them know they’ve done well and that’s what counts.

So it is everything about racing that we love, not just the race itself. The time you spend, training you do and bonding with your dog all creates an experience which I personally wouldn’t want to live without now. We’ve done local races, national races and European level races and can honestly say all of them have given us so much enjoyment no matter where we have placed. If you’re thinking about racing but don’t feel confident, my advice would be just to give it a go because so much of the fun is in the preparation and social side of it, whether or not you actually do well in the race is down to your perspective on it. My dogs ‘win’ every time and the happy look on their faces is all that matters to us. Happy trails!

Whether or not we win, we enjoy the whole experience of racing and the dogs ‘win’ every time!

 

The Puppy Diary – Starting to train (10 weeks to 6 months)

So it’s no secret that we recently added a 4th dog to the K9 Trail Time team and this time we got our paws on a puppy. Yogi was a pup born in rescue when his husky mum was picked up as a stray and then gave birth to a litter not long after being placed with a foster home. We are not 100% sure of his breeding (other than that his mum was a husky) and it doesn’t matter at all to us what he is, as long as he’s a happy and healthy little dog.

Yogi with his mum, brother and sisters in the rescue.

Not having had a young puppy to train for the dog sports before we thought we would do a little diary blog detailing a few things we are doing to introduce him to canicross from a young age, so he will hopefully enjoy running as much as the rest of the team do when he is old enough.

The first thing to say is that he will NOT be doing any running in harness for a long while yet, he is currently coming up to 5 months old and all we are doing is laying down the groundwork for a happy and balanced dog at this stage. Yogi still has a lot of growing to do and when we got him at 10 weeks, he actually didn’t go for any ‘walks’ with the others for another 2 weeks to allow him to settle in and get used to life in his new home before we did anything physical.

We did quite a bit of training getting him used to coming to his name in the house and the very basics of puppy training to get him started but because he’d had all his vaccinations he did come with us to the Tri Dog event at Box End Park and got used to being outside with lots of others dogs around.

Yogi enjoyed watching the comings and goings of an event from his place on the stake out line next to the van

For us it’s really important Yogi doesn’t feel stressed surrounded by other dogs and particularly other dogs barking. At canicross events you get a lot of noise and activity at the start of races and if you want to have a calm and controlled dog on a start line, the sooner they get used to be around that kind of noise and understanding it’s not frightening, the better.

The next thing we’ve done is get him used to wearing a harness. It might sound obvious but so many people walk their dogs on a collar then just expect their dog to be ok with having a harness put on and learning to pull in it. The feel of a harness can be very different for a dog and so Yogi has been walked in a harness since we started proper walks, so he can learn a harness signals something fun and going out for activity.

The Neewa Running harness being adjustable on the neck and chest was the perfect harness to get him used to walking in one and he didn’t out-grow it within a week!

The other thing we have been actively training is voice commands on walks. It is never too young to start training the voice commands, so we have been working on ‘wait’ ‘go on’ ‘gee’ (for right) ‘haw’ (for left) and ‘steady’ (if we ever get that one mastered it will be a miracle!). So far it appears that Yogi is picking up his cues from the other dogs, as his responses are faster when he is with another of the team and can see how they react to the command but this is all part of his learning process and eventually he will independently know what the voice commands mean.

Yogi is learning a lot from the other dogs, including the reaction to voice commands and what they mean

It will be interesting to see how Yogi gets on with everything over the next few months as he grows and we can begin to do more activity with him. At the moment some off lead running and relatively short lead walks, along with reward based training at home is plenty to keep his mind and body occupied as he learns about life as a K9 Trail Time team member. We will continue his training in this way for at least another few months until he has developed a bit more and experienced being at some more races when the season starts again in September.

We hope you’ll enjoy following his progress and will blog again when there’s more we can do with his training. Happy trails!

K9 Trail Time A-Z of Canicross – S is for Sport

We’re still working our way through the A-Z of Canicross and so now we’re at ‘S’ we can’t ignore the fact that canicross is a recognised sport, with it’s own races and even different championship series taking place all over the UK, Europe and the world. Canicross was also recently added to the Kennel Club listed activities, although we would suggest going to one of the more experienced clubs and organisations who have actually been involved in the sport for over 10 years if you’re looking for up to date information and advice. One such organisation is CaniX http://www.canix.co.uk who set up the first race series specifically for canicross in the UK and are still holding events all over the country today. Another of the largest clubs who organise races and who offer training, advice, and kit to try, is the Canicross Midlands group http://www.canicrossmidlands.co.uk/. Although canicross is now known as a sport, CaniX and Canicross Midlands have always encouraged people to run with their own pets and to just enjoy the bond you can create with your dog through running together. As the sport has developed many people are beginning to take the racing side of canicross more seriously and have invested in purpose bred dogs (mainly originating in Europe) to compete in higher level races such as those organised by the BSSF (British Sleddog Sport Federation) and the IFSS (International Federation for Sleddog Sports). However, whilst these dogs are beautiful athletes, there is no need for you to change from your pet dog to enjoy canicrossing with your four legged friend and we would suggest that the most fun you can have is in seeing your dog simply enjoying activity with you, keeping you both fit and healthy. Our slogan is after all, active dogs are happy dogs, and so for ‘S’ in our A-Z of Canicross we have chosen to highlight the fact that canicross is a sport that anyone with a dog can enjoy!

Although canicross is a sport with it’s own races, it is also something that can be enjoyed by anyone with their pet dog – Photo courtesy of Dylan Trollope

Canicross kit by colour?

Here at K9 Trail Time we stock such a wide variety of canicross equipment now, that there is often a choice of colour in the harness you can choose for your dog and sometimes even in the type of belt for yourself. Whilst choice is a great thing, sometimes having such a wide range can make choosing the right equipment more difficult.

Some harnesses come in a wide variety of colours

For example the Zero DC harnesses come in 132 different size and colour combinations as standard and you can custom order any combination of colours and sizes at an additional cost. This is great if one of the Zero DC harnesses is the best fit, shape and style for your dog, however that might not be the case. We’ve found that many dogs suit a different style of harness based on their individual body shape, style of running and what combination of activities the harness will be used for.

The Dragrattan harnesses only come in one colour of webbing which is red with a silver / grey or yellow stripe through it and though this doesn’t appeal to everyone, we have found these harnesses to be outstanding on some dogs, allowing them freedom of movement, good padding through the chest and a great fit on the neck.

The Dragrattan X-Back comes in one colour webbing only but it is fantastic harness on some working dogs – Photo courtesy of Hound and About Photography

Another harness which only comes in black and the colour of the top strap indicates sizing only, is the Non-stop Freemotion. The Freemotion is undoubtedly one of the best dog sports harnesses you can buy, but people seem to be put off sometimes by the fact it is black and apparently this is ‘boring’. Now we can understand why people would want to choose bright colours and have ‘team’ colours for clubs and individuals, however when it comes to choosing the correct harness for your dog, you have to be guided by what works best for your dog.

Similar colour choice is available for belts, as some of the waistbelts for people have coloured patches on them but others are just in plain black. The belts which come in different colours might not be the ones which suits your body shape and requirements best, you ideally need to try each one on to see how it works and where the pull comes from to make a judgement on if it will be the most comfortable for you.

The belts which come in a range of colours are great belts but might not be the ones for you…

We have found that by talking to people about what their requirements are and finding out what is most important to them, we can help them decide for themselves which belt will be the best option and therefore save a lot of wasted time and money trying out many options before finding the right one.

The purpose of this blog is not to put anyone off buying any of the colourful harnesses or belts but just to encourage you to look beyond the colours when making your choices. We personally love to colour co-ordinate and ideally we like everything in red and black (with a hint of white!). However we also recognise that the best fit for dogs and people might be the plain old ‘boring’ black option or the out of colour scheme webbing and what’s important to us is that you get the best and most comfortable kit for you and your dog.

We like to try and colour co-ordinate (or not as the case may be!) – Photo courtesy of Horses for Courses Photography

If you need any help choosing your equipment, we’ve used everything in the range we stock extensively and so can advise you exactly how it works and should fit, so we can give you our honest opinion based on experience. Feel free to e-mail: info@k9trailtime.com for your free consultation with regards to any of the dog sports equipment we stock.