As with humans, dogs don’t need to be fit to start canicross. However, great care should be taken to give them time to build fitness in a safe and enjoyable manner. Ask your dog for too much too soon and you could put him off for life.
Sports science is essentially the same for dogs as it is humans. Build up nice and slowly and give the body plenty of recovery time between workouts. A rule of thumb is to increase mileage or intensity by no more than 10% per week. An important thing to understand is that overuse injuries rarely surface immediately. You may well get away with a very long run without any sign of discomfort. The consequences will typically be felt two or three weeks later. It’s wise to stick to the rule no matter how well your dog seems to cope. This is particularly important with older dogs – don’t forget that a few years old is middle aged with some breeds!
Even if you plan to ultimately run with your dog, a very unfit and/or overweight dog might make better progress starting with a walking program (or even swimming) to shed pounds and to build basic fitness and protective muscle. When you progress to running, if possible build up his fitness running off-lead before putting him in harness. This gives him freedom to find his own stride and vary his pace (a varied pace is more natural for most dogs). It also delays the extra effort of pulling until he’s in better condition.
Always aim to stop while your dog still wants to do more. With a very unfit, lazy dog this might not be practical – in which case vet advice may be wise to rule out underlying medical conditions.
If a human runner feels a little niggle in a calf or hamstring they know they need to ease off a bit and perhaps ice or massage. It’s a warning that you’re progressing too quickly. Your dog won’t stop until the pain makes it impossible to continue by which time the damage is already done. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when deciding how quickly to increase your dog’s speed and mileage.
Your dog will be less injury prone if you give him a warm-up, cool-down and ideally a little stretch and massage after a run.
Fit, capable human runners should be particularly careful when running with a novice dog – it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a beginner!