It’s an odd thing, strapping yourself to a jumping, slobbering, overeager animal for the first time. Yet here you are, about to be yanked through the forest by your crotch, harnessed to something that barks when it’s mad, pees when it’s excited and has a brain roughly the size of a plum. What if the poor bugger’s heart explodes from pulling you, a two-legged mass about seven times its weight? What if a squirrel shows up? What if your friends do?
Funnily enough, no one else here in a wooded Quebec City park on a shivery Sunday morning, their dogs duly tethered, seems to be asking themselves these questions. In fact, despite being as novice as I am, the small group that’s gathered here is almost as eager as their pets are to run between the trees, harnessed to their proverbial best friends. The act of running behind one’s dog is called “canicross.” Part sport, part group activity practised by a sprightly, spandex-clad bunch to the point of obsession, canicross is the suddenly de rigueur alternative to walking your dog. In fact, you let the dog walk you—usually very quickly.
Quebec, the North American ground zero for canicross, has Canicross Québec. The group had 16 members in 2006; today there are 300. The association is the brainchild of Amelie Janin, a 28-year-old French chemist who emigrated to Quebec that same year; Héryk Julien, who runs the FouBraque canicross training school with his partner, Laurence Boudreault, sees Janin as something of a proselytizer. “She brought canicross to North America,” he says reverentially.
You might say Julien and Boudreault are North America’s first canicross couple. They met at a canicross function organized by Janin in the winter of 2010; one year later, they moved into a house in Quebec City’s exurbs, near a forest and a river, so that they could canicross from their front door. “Canicross is a way of life,” says Julien. “I got into it in 2009. A few months later, on Christmas Day, I got sick with a heart virus. I said, ‘If I get out of this alive, I’m going to do canicross.’ It motivated me to get better.”
In the past six months, they have trained over a hundred people and their dogs how to properly and safely run while attached to one another. Every weekend, Julien, Boudreault and their four dogs drive to one of several nature reserves around Quebec City. On the day I’m there, all but one of FouBraque’s clients are female—which is apparently par for the course. “Women are usually the first to try it,” says Boudreault, 30, a yoga teacher with a spiky bob and a near-constant smile. “If they like it, they get their boyfriends to sign up.” The lone guy in the group, a military officer named Jean-Pascal Levasseur, is pinch-hitting for his girlfriend, who is away at a university course. Like everyone else, he is outfitted in running shoes, clingy running pants and a headband, with a tremendously excited dog straining on the leash beside him.
It’s a common theme. My own dog, a loaner from Julien named Gayette, is a seven-year-old cocker spaniel-border collie mix who bounds out of Julien’s Toyota as though it were on fire. Like many canicross dogs, Gayette is a rescue from the SPCA. “The shelters are full of dogs who were put there because their owners couldn’t handle their energy,” Julien says.
I don the canicross harness. It fits around the midsection and loops snugly around the inner thighs. I feel like the world’s kinkiest mountain climber. Julien then attaches Gayette, who is already wearing her own (slightly less constraining) harness, to me with a two-metre leash. She pulls off right away, in the direction of the forest path or another dog’s privates, I’m not sure which. “Be in control of your dog at all times,” Julien tells the class in his opening instructions. “Each person should have a bubble around them. The dogs shouldn’t interact physically with anyone.”
The consequences could be grave for the burgeoning sport, Julien says. “We are ambassadors,” he says. On hiking trails, “we are tolerated, that’s all. It only takes one bad incident for there to be trouble.” Many uninitiated dogs don’t quite grasp the concept, conditioned as they are to be yanked when they try to run in front of their owners.
And there are dangers to consider: rolled ankles, dehydration, natural obstacles, sudden bathroom breaks. The dogs squirm throughout Julien’s spiel; after two minutes, they’ve worked themselves into a yelping, tugging, drooling mania. When I finally give the go-ahead, Gayette yanks me into the trees. I follow. I don’t have much choice.
Like Lego and safety matches, canicross originated somewhere in Scandinavia. It isn’t exactly clear where or when it became a sport rather than just a way to run sled dogs during the summer months. According to French canicrosser Yvon Lasbleiz, an amateur historian of the sport, it spread to France, thanks to a veterinarian named Gilles Pernod, who organized the country’s first canicross meet in Paris in 1982. Categories are based on the age of the (human) runner, not on the size of the dog, and there are one- and two-dog categories as well. The sport is far more advanced in Europe, with several yearly championships, including CaniX UK, Britain’s most elite canicross event. The winner of each category takes home a year’s supply of dog food.
Amelie Janin heard about canicross in France, but only started practising it when she arrived in Quebec in 2005, as a way to exercise herself and Baska, her white Swiss shepherd. She and Baska ran on the banks of Quebec City’s Rivière St-Charles; the spectacle of this rather striking woman behind her cloud-white shepherd dog seemingly convinced others to join her. “It was like a snowball,” she says. “One day it was one person. Then it was two.” There’s also skijoring, bikejoring and parajoring, for those confined to wheelchairs (“joring” is the Norwegian word for driving). “It’s so logical,” Janin says of running (or skiing or riding) behind a dog. “Dogs love to run; we humans run less and less. Your dog always has motivation, even if you don’t.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with the concept. It took People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all of four hours to become thoroughly outraged at the apparently virulent canicross scourge. “I hadn’t heard about it before you called,” says Delcianna Winders, PETA’s Washington-based director of captive-animal law enforcement. Nevertheless, “canicross doesn’t have a place in civilized society. Dogs can suffer pulled muscles, stress fractures, ulcers and intestinal viruses as a result. I have two hounds myself, and if they were given a choice, they wouldn’t want to pull a 200-lb. person through the forest.”
This would probably be news to Gayette. I’m sweating within five minutes of forcibly trying to keep up with her. The two of us are panting after 10. Thanks to the torquey little hairball in front of me, my stride is like a runner’s on steroids, with each step covering about one-and-a-half times the distance I cover when jogging alone. Also, the worst part of walking a dog—struggling to keep the damn thing from pulling off your arm—is the best part of canicross: you are obliged to keep up.
We run five kilometres in 40 minutes, including four water breaks and an impromptu dog switch while Gayette sniffs at a puddle of slop. My next dog, a three-year-old mixed-breed German shepherd named Luna, is as bonkers-keen as Gayette. Sweat drips into my eyes as this sweet, slobbery creature relentlessly pulls forward. We both finish spent. Thanks to the run, Luna won’t chew the furniture when she gets home, and I won’t feel guilty about the half-dozen doughnuts I’m going to eat for breakfast . You see? In canicross, every beast wins.