Dog Powered Sports: Lesson 2

Continue on with “Line Out” training- we want to see the dog confidently going to the end of the line and holding tension. Here is Willy’s 3rd practice session (first one was shown in the previous lesson, I did not video practice 2). This is our first time doing ‘line out’ outside, and it’s giving us a little more room to spread out the treat targets – don’t go too wild on that unless your dog is driving well to the 2nd one after eating the first treat. If you can get a helper to load the treat stations for you, that would be super helpful to the flow of your training session. I do suggest only working in one direction with the two treat targets, as we don’t want to accidentally build in an expectation that the dog will be able to turn around and be rewarded for going in the opposite direction.

Note that while I’ve got Willy on the canicross line attached to my belt, I am holding the line like a leash so that I can keep her a little bit closer to me (which results in a more confident and quicker line out) and my hands do absorb a bit of the shock when she gets to the end of the line. I do want that enthusasiam, but especially in the early stages of learning this, I don’t want her hitting the end of the line so hard that she bounces backwards, so I’m aiming to let her put her full weight into it somewhat more gently.

Sometimes she is still a little reluctant to go, due to previous heel training, but if I take a slight step or two forward she moves eagerly ahead and holds steady tension on the line, waiting to be sent ahead. Now, I’ll be starting to increase the duration that I have her wait before she’s sent to the first treat station – and the 2nd treat target will gradually move further out (and I’ll always want her going to that one as soon as she’s eaten the first treat, we only build a waiting duration prior to the first target).

Video: Practice 3 of “Line Out”:

Hitting The Trails!

You do not need to wait for your dog’s line out skills to be perfect to start hitting the trails. If you are planning to do some training runs before your dog has mastered this skill, I do suggest hooking your dog up at the last possible minute before you are ready to head out, and then just go- that way, you are not accidentally training a bunch of restless behaviors that are counter to your line-out training sessions.

Before you do head out, here are some things to consider. Canicross is a pulling sport. Your dog can pull as hard or as softly as you prefer, and speed is your choice, but the dog should be pulling. While they are learning, it is going to be your responsibility to keep the line tight. I walk with one hand on the the line initially so that I can keep it tight, even if the dog slows down, or stops. Keeping the line tight is imperitive because it prevents tangles, and it also prevents your dog from being able to jerk you over if they get excited and try to speed up. With some tension always on the line, you have much more control over the speed and direction.

The canicross dog should not stop to sniff or pee, and should not leave the trail. Therefore, you need to make sure that the ‘trail’ is obvious to the dog visually- whether that is a sidewalk, a groomed ski track, or just a set of footprints in the snow. You will teach the dog to stick to the trail by stopping forward progress if they try to leave the trail. You’ll teach the dog not to sniff or pee by first ensuring they are empty before you start your run, but you’ll also encourage this by continuing to walk on when your dog tries to stop. Watch for your dog’s body language and try to give them encouragement to go on, before they actually stop. Because sniffing and peeing are both self-reinforcing, those behaviors will just increase if you allow them to happen.

Rewarding your dog on the trail- While we use treats to teach the line-out skill, for pretty much every other canicross behavior, we are using movement as our reward. If you’re into this sport, I am assuming that your dog likes to move and they probably like to move faster than your basic walk. If you want to reward your dog for something like pulling harder, or passing by a particularly tempting sniffy spot- then take a few faster steps at that moment while praising. If you’re able to run a few steps, even better. Just like any other dog sport, the faster the dog is moving, the less likely they are to be distracted- so if you’re already on skis or using a kicksled or bike for your training, you’ve got a bit of an advantage in that your dog is probably already moving fast enough that they are less tempted by smells- and you can much more easily speed up as a reward. Don’t speed up so much that you cause slack in the line, however. On foot, run for a few steps or if that is not possible, take a few extra fast steps. Your dog will hear and feel the difference and be encouraged by it. Be patient but stick to your criteria- your dog will learn the difference between a ‘regular’ walk and canicross, and the different rules for each, if you are consistent.

Because movement is meant to be fun and rewarding, be careful not to over do the difficulty and duration of the runs for your dog. If they are hustling along and pulling with gusto, and suddenly slack off while continuing to move at a slower pace (ie not distracted, just slowing down), your dog is getting tired. Take a break. Start up again when you feel he’s had a bit of a rest. Be mindful that temperature extremes can be dangerous- dogs should exercise at a temperature that they’ve been acclimated to, so for example, if you are canicrossing outside in the winter, don’t do a run longer than what your dog can comfortably tolerate in those temperatures. For us, we are able to let our dogs outside year round in all but the most extreme temperatures- this means they are also comfortable running in those temperatures. But it’s a pretty big switch for a dog to spend all day in a heated house, and then be expected to enjoy an hour long outing at -15C, or the reverse (spending all day in air conditioning and then be expected to run in very warm temps). Before your dog can ‘work’ in a variety of outdoor conditions, they first need to get comfortable just being in a variety of outdoor conditions.

Anyway, back to the training. Be prepared to use your hands to hold tension on the line. Especially for dogs who’ve done a lot of leash walking or heeling, they do not always start out with the urge to run and pull ahead of you. Sometimes there comfort zone is only a step or two ahead of you, and that is okay, but you”ll need to gather up the slack in the line and put tension on it. As they gain confidence, you can reel out a little more line until the dog is entirely ahead of you, and leaning into the line attached to your belt. Sometimes a dog can go ‘hands-free’ in the first session- for others, it may take a few sessions. As a safety precaution, even once you’re past the point of holding the line with your hands, never take your eye off your dog. Sudden stops, slowing down, or darting off the trail shouldn’t take you by surprise.

Here is Willy’s first real canicross run. I took cell phone video at the start of the run, and some more at the end of our 2 mile jaunt. The trail was very soft and it really wasn’t ideal conditions but we made it work. In this first clip, Willy and I are just heading out on the trail. She doesn’t want to be too far ahead of me so I am holding most of the line in my hand (never wrap it around your hand, by the way, unless you’re okay with the potential for broken bones). You can see that she is looking back at me a lot, weaving back and forth on the trail, and even when she is moving forward, her tail and head are up. A dog cannot pull while there tail is up and they aren’t really paying attention to the trail if they are looking all over the place. She’s happy, but she’s not really canicrossing.

Video: Willy at the start of her first canicross run:

Now here is another short clip from the end of the run- about 40 minutes later. There were a lot of things to sniff on this trail so we got a lot of practice avoiding sniffing stops and rewarding with a few strides of running for improved pulling and focus. In this clip, I am actually running (as fast as I can, given the conditions). Willy has her head down, she’s confident enough to be all the way out at the end of the line, and you can see her tail is down in pulling mode too. This is more fun for both of us- because she’s moving faster, I can move faster, and this is WAY less work for me than walking in this deep snow, even though my breathing sounds a little rough. Willy isn’t weaving back and forth as much and is sticking mostly to the right side of the trail- I’m not being sticky on that yet, but that is good trail etiquette- always drive your dog like a car when possible by running them on the right, and passing other teams/bikes/pedestrians etc on the left. At the end of the clip, you can see that Willy catches a smell, but she stays on the trail and keeps moving forward which is a big improvement over the course of this run.

Video: Willy at the end of her first canicross run:

On Willy’s next run, I will not expect that she will start out with the same dedication that she was showing at the end of this run- we’ll have to likely build up to it again, but each run, that should come sooner and sooner. We’ll also soon introduce some groundwork exercises for passing and turns, which will improve her skill set further.

I hope you enjoyed this and found it helpful! Please let me know if you have any questions.

One Comment on “Dog Powered Sports: Lesson 2

  1. Great blog once again Erin. I particularly liked the part on rewarding your dog for movement or bypassing something tempting by taking a few quick strides or running. Also works in Kicksledding.

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