A dog and runner are connected by an elastic leash when competing in Canicross

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Running With A Dog That Pulls

It’s been a little over 18 months now since myself and Birch the Wirehaired Hungarian Vizsla were first introduced to the sport of Canicross. 

Each strapped into a harness and linked by a long elastic lead, on our first ever trial run we were ready to take on the forest trails and get fit at the same time.

Whilst we both went home happy and most definitely slept well that night, our first run was an eye opener that didn’t quite go as smoothly as planned!

Using that experience and the months that have passed since, whenever helping friends and family start running with their dogs I always pass on a few hints and tips that include the things I wish I knew before running with a dog that really pulls!

The most important and useful pointers are summarised below.

Don’t worry if your dog doesn’t initially like a running harness

If you’re going to ask your dog to pull you round the forest trails then a well designed running harness, over and above a collar and leash is the safest option for both of you.

These running harnesses, (such as our favourite the Non-Stop Freemotion) are similar in design to a sled dog harness in that they aim to prevent pressure upon a dog’s airways and instead places emphasis on the dog’s shoulders to carry the burden.

A non-stop dogwear harness used to compete in Canicross

!!! Collars and even some harnesses that have vertical chest straps can choke a dog when they begin to pull hard !!!

To stay stable and secure when running, Canicross harnesses are understandable a rather snug fit on your dog, so it can take a little practice and familiarisation on the dog’s part to get used to slipping in and out of it. 

There are no clips or fasteners on the Non-Stop Freemotion harness so this means the head, and front legs are slotted into compartments made by the webbing (imagine stepping into a climbing harness. It’s the same principle with the Canicross harnesses).

At first, Birch was barely tolerant to squeezing her huge ears through the head slot. Now however no problems exist as she quickly recognises what activity is fast approaching when the Canicross gear gets brought into view. 

Running with a dog that pulls does not hurt your back

In canicross, humans as well as dogs run in a harness. 

It’s a well fitted human harness combined with the elastic lead that links you and your dog that buffers any force generated by your between the two of you. This prevents your back from experiencing any rapid jolts.

The human harness actually has a saddle strap that sits more across your backside than your lower back, so when your dog does take off (which they will at one point or another) it propels your legs forward as opposed to yanking your midriff suddenly.

If you’re running with a dog that pulls this piece of relatively inexpensive kit is essential.

Wear a top with zipped pockets or a running belt

Having your hands free to gather in a loose lead and guide it away from becoming a trip hazard is just one of the reasons that you need to have your hands free whilst running with a dog.

This means it’s wise to kit yourself out with a wearable storage compartment of some description that can hold your essentials (keys, phone etc.) while you’re on the move.

In addition to storing your keys and phone, keep in mind that running with your dog also requires packing poop bags and some treats as rewards (especially during the early days of learning to run together). 

We use a really basic zipped waistband similar to this one that’s sold on Amazon. You really don’t need anything fancy.

A runner and his dog practicing canicross

Your dog might be reluctant to lead at first

If you have conquered loose lead walking, congratulations! Seriously, well done.

A pleasant stroll with your dog walking close to heel is always prefered over trying to restrain a wild beast that might yank your shoulder out of its socket.

Unfortunately, having such a well trained dog sometimes works against you when learning how to run as a team.

The aim of running with a dog that pulls is of course to have them lead and reduce the amount of effort that you have to exert to run comfortably.

Initially you might find that all the years of obedience training means your dog isn’t willing to run with a tight lead, or even out in front of you at all, and instead prefers to run by your side.

This means you are both then at risk of tripping over the elastic lead whilst it is slack.

What I would say if your dog isn’t a leader is to not worry. 

Some dogs take months to learn that pulling you during a run isn’t just allowed but that it’s encouraged!

In some cases dogs will just never gain the knack of running out in front of you.

This is totally understandable when you consider that to lead means a big clumsy human is continually stomping just a few short feet from their rear legs.

Running alongside some experienced Cancross runners really made a huge difference for Birch, who was more than happy to pull at full strength if it meant she could get closer to a dog friend slightly ahead of her on the trails.

Tip: If you are unable to join a running group then start off with a shorter elastic lead (they come in lengths from 1.2m to 2m) and make a huge show of pleasure each time your dog pulls the lead tight. Even by accident. 

They soon begin to associate the taut lead with a positive experience.

There are plenty of in run distractions

Running together as a team or in a pack is what makes running with a dog special.

But even with a strong bond between a dog and owner, dogs will be dogs at the end of the day and what that means is when running you should expect frequent in-run distractions.

New scents, other dogs, birds, toilet breaks….all of them can interrupt the flow of a good run with but a moments notice. Sometimes when you are travelling at full speed!

It might be difficult to do when your own heart is racing and you’re struggling to catch your breath but try to remain alert and focussed on your dog at all times. 

Begin switched on to the possibility your dog might veer quickly off course will inevitably save you from a few tumbles. 

Tip: It might sound obvious but don’t just jump straight out of the car and begin running. A couple minutes walking initially will reduce the number of bathroom breaks mid-run. 

Other than that, until you begin to become more experienced with running with a dog try to use the pauses as rest break for you both. 

Vocal commands are crucial

As in sled dog racing or mushing, there are a few commands which are integral to negotiating turns or obstacles. 

If your dog has mastered the skill of pulling during a run you’ll quickly be required to ‘steer from the rear’ so to speak and give out some directional commands. Here are the key phrases which should get you 

“Gee” – Right 

“Haw” – Left

“On By” – Keep Going

“Go, Go, Go” – Speed Up

“Line Out” – Take Up The Slack In The Lead (At The Start Line)

“Ready, Steady, Loose” – Get Ready, Let’s Go!


In addition to commands for the dog, it’s also really courteous to let other trail users know that you are behind them and are about to overtake. For this we shout clearly “coming by on your right/left”.

Tip: Practice commands that tell your dog which way to turn in advance of running. Left and Right (or Gee and Haw) actually come in really handy when out on a normal walk 

A large powerful Doberman pulling its owner whilst out walking on a lead

Handling downslopes at speed is exhilarating

Uneven ground, loose rocks, tree roots, potholes, walkers, children on bikes…. ..all of them come at you a heap faster when you’re strapped to a four legged engine.  

The additional pull generated by your dog is very welcome on the upslope gradients but can make you take a few deep breaths when the gradient turns into even a slight decline. 

This is where having a robust set of commands comes in handy. We’d recommend adding in one which asks the dog to ease off the gas

Our command for this is simply ‘slowly‘ (usually said with a bit of urgency mind!).

It’s very tempting to get carried away by running at a new top speed Always remember that you are heavier than your dog and so slowing down your own pace will have the effect of braking. 

Round up

Don’t expect to nail running with a dog that pulls on your first outing (or second, or third!). 

Even if you are an experienced runner, only consistently practicing as a pair will allow you both to get used to the canicross kit, the verbal commands and the nuances of your running partner. 

Stick with it however and you’ll soon be rewarded with the experience for running as a part of a pack.

And doing that with your four legged best friend really is hard to beat.