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Canicross – The Hunting Game

Ever since I’ve discovered the sport of canicross, which was a good 6 years ago, I wondered what makes dogs want to run and pull you along for any distance? What drives them to do this apparently without any reward at the end and if you want to train a dog to do this, where do you start? How do you ignite that drive in a dog to want to run and pull you along? It wasn’t until I started training my dogs that I found the answer.

The wolf is the domestic dog’s ancestor and a lot of the wolf’s behaviour is still present in our dogs. Wolves had to hunt to feed the pack and survive and, I know it comes as a surprise, dogs still do the same, just not in the same way as wolves do. Our dogs are hunters and it makes sense to say this because they are predators, domesticated predators. Our dogs though hunt toys nowadays, not real prey – although some still hunt other animals and can be quite successful too. Dogs eye the prey, they stalk it, chase it, grab it, they wrestle with their prey-toy once ‘caught’ (this is the part where the wolf kills the prey), maybe eviscerate it – rip it apart, and then releasing it to the owner (the leader of the pack) so that the prey is shared with the pack. This is the dog’s natural hunting sequence and the sequence always has to end with the prey being shared with the pack in order for the dog’s hunting drive to have been satisfied. A lot of problem behaviours can develop when the sequence is not closed.

Some breeds have been developed with part or parts of the sequence to be exaggerated, Border Collies for example who are genetically programmed to want to control movement – the eyeing and the chase part of the hunt, other breeds, like the Belgian Malinois, were bred to bite – the grabbing and killing part of the sequence. Sighthounds were bred to chase moving animals although now they chase toys like a rabbit’s fur, and grab it, although the grabbing part has been bred out of the sequence for some sporting breeds. The rest of the sequence is almost non-existent in sighthounds because once the prey is caught the hound doesn’t do anything else with it, the dog just waits there for the leader of the pack to claim the prey and share it with the rest of the pack. This is where the hound gets a food reward, either a treat or a piece of the prey and so the hunting sequence is closed because the hunt drive in dogs keeps them and the pack alive. All dog sports rely on the dog’s natural hunting drive. Some people call it prey drive, chase drive, toy drive, bite drive, I heard once the term harness drive (funny). The truth is it doesn’t matter what you call it as long as the trainer or handler understands the predatory motor patterns in the dog they are working with and makes good use of them to achieve the desired behaviour. This is the natural way of training dogs – using their hunt drive.

Now let’s go back to canicross. For all dogs, canicross is hunting. Just like all other dog sports we use the dog’s natural hunting drive to train them to canicross. If you think about it, all we’re doing is running at whatever pace, the dog pulls in harness for a given distance to get somewhere, a destination. In order for a dog to enjoy this journey with the runner, the dog has to think it is hunting, in other words the running has to be for a purpose. Some dogs discover this early on, others need some help but all canicross dogs hunt.

Let’s translate the hunting sequence into canicross: the dog looks in the direction you’re about to go – eyeing, stalking, you start running together and the dog pulls to get to the end of the course – the chase, because at the end of the course the dog is rewarded with a toy (for grabbing and killing) and after the dog has calmed down the dog gets baited water (it is delicious for the dog) or a substantial treat for doing such a great job – sharing the prey with the pack. This is the reason why canicross and all other dog powered sports are so fulfilling for them, because their natural hunting drive is satisfied. All the beahviours we train our canicross dogs rely on the hunting sequence.

Zoe is super focused to get to the end of the course and my son is having so much fun!
My son with Zoe at Box End '22

I know my dogs are hunting when we canicross because they are focused on going, they pull consistently to get there (the end of the course) and when they know we are close to the finish line they always speed up and finish strong because the prey – the toy, is there at the end and they are eager to get it, and after that they always get rewarded with a nice sardine soup (canned sardines with lukewarm water, a bit of raw meat, a bit of kibble, salmon oil and protein powder for recovery) – me sharing the prey with them.

Jess is pulling harder to get to the finish line!
Jess and I close to the finish line at Alcester '23

Don’t ever think dogs canicross without a reason. The motivation to run and pull can drop or disappear if the hunting sequence is interrupted or disturbed or it is not closed in the natural way for the dog. Find out what motivates your dog and use this motivation to ignite the hunting drive in your canicross partner but also remember to keep the motivation high by completing the hunting sequence and most importantly by closing it with sharing the prey with your dog.

Happy hunting, I mean, running :)

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