You’ve officially taken the plunge and signed up for your very first harness dog race. Almost immediately, there is a sense of nervous anticipation that sets in. Am I ready? Is my dog ready? OMG…what have I done? Whether you’ve never participated in a race in your life or you’re a seasoned runner with lots of races under your belt, your first harness dog race is sure to be a very exciting and dynamic event.
If you’re relatively new to harness dog sports, then you’ll likely be participating in a canicross and/or bikejoring race for your first event, so we’ll focus on those sports in this article.
In this blog, we’ll break down what you can do prior to race day to make it more successful, what to expect on race day, and what you can do post-race to ensure that you and your dog have a fun and successful first event.
BEFORE THE RACE
Without a doubt, taking part in an Intro to Canicross class is the best way to get started in harness dog sports. Learning the basic tools, commands, and best practices will give you a head start in knowing how to practice these sports safely.
Join a club
Joining a club in your area is a great way to put theory into practice. Training in a group setting is a great way for dogs to truly understand their new job and helps to build confidence in both you and your dog. It’s also a great way to meet new people who will also be running their first race soon!
Your local harness dog club is also a great resource to test out different start types through time trials and focused group training. Time trials will give your team an idea of what a race start looks, sounds, and feels like in a low-pressure setting.
Know the rules
In order to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations surrounding races that are sanctioned by the Maritimes Association of Harness Dog Sports (MAHDS), we suggest that you take the time to read two important documents. The MAHDS Code of Conduct sets out the guidelines and recommendations for the safe practice of harness dog sports in the Maritimes in accordance with the national and international standards for the sport.
The Rules and Regulations for Participants are based on national and international standards designed to ensure the safety of all dogs and human participants, as well as fairness in competition. These documents will help you understand the care and consideration that goes into every sanctioned event in order to ensure a safe and fun event for all participants.
The right gear
Of particular importance is the choice of gear. You need to make sure that your dog is outfitted in a properly-fitting running harness that is designed for harness dog sports. In order to avoid any race-day disappointments, you need to make sure the length of your bungee line is within the allowable range for the sport you are competing in. Once your line is connected to your belt, you should measure the distance from your abdomen (or your bike's headset) to the base of the dog’s tail when the bungee is straight, but not stretched out. The recommended length for canicross is 1.7 meters and 2.2 meters for bikejoring. You can find more information on required gear here and in the Rules for Participants above!
If you have any concerns related to gear, we highly recommend contacting your local harness dog club for further assistance.
By this point in your training, you will have come across many different situations on the trails (other walkers, runners, bikes, dogs, and harnessed dogs). Sportsmanship is highly valued in harness dog sports, so it is important to respect trail etiquette while racing. For more information, consult our blog on Trail Etiquette here!
Food and sleep
The day before the event, you should be conscious of your dog’s food and water intake. Each dog is different and it’s important to adapt their diet to their reactions and needs. Some dogs will forego eating supper the night before, whereas other dogs would be ok simply to skip breakfast on race day. This is done for two reasons. First, some dogs run better on an empty stomach. Secondly, it's important to not feed too close to any intense exercise session (or race event) to avoid a condition called bloat (twisting of the stomach). You know your dog better than anyone, so it’s important to be able to detect signs that might cause discomfort.
Get a good night's sleep. Most races begin early in the morning to avoid warm temperatures and if there’s any travel involved, you’ll need to allow enough time to arrive at the race site in time for registration check-in, a warm-up for both you and your dog and to ensure your dog does their business before you hit the start line!
This is it! The day you and your best teammate have been training for! You’re ready to conquer the trails and have an amazing experience!
Fuel & Hydrate
First thing's first, make sure your dog skips breakfast. You, on the other hand, will probably want a light breakfast to fuel up for the big day ahead. We recommend packing some snacks for yourself, a meal for your dog, and lots of water for both of you. You should also make sure your dog is well-hydrated before hitting the trail. Bone broth is also an excellent post-race recovery fuel for your dog.
Yummy bone broth...yes, that's a chicken foot!
Guaranteed, your dog will love you for this!
The Race Site
Upon arriving at the race site, often the first thing you will notice is that it can get loud! The dogs have a 6th sense when it comes to race day and they know this is not a regular training run - this is something much more epic. Most dogs will have an intense energy level, which could be displayed in several different ways. They may express this by barking, howling, shaking, or even being a little bit fearful. It’s important to remember that this is a BIG new experience for them too, so you’ll need to be conscious and considerate of how they’re feeling and make sure that they try to stay as calm and relaxed as possible leading up to your race(s).
Interactions with Other Dogs
As a general rule for most dog sports, it is not advisable to allow your dog to socialize during an event. The dogs are working and need to keep their focus on the task ahead without distractions. Even though most dogs are very friendly and very willing to meet and greet every human and dog they see, it’s impolite in this setting and best to keep a safe distance from other teams. Do not approach other dogs without first asking their handlers and be sure to give extra space whenever you see a team using a yellow ribbon. Keep your dog close at all times and if you feel your dog needs extra space for any reason, please consider using a yellow ribbon and placing it on your dog’s harness, collar, or bungee. At the race site, it is your job to keep your dog under control at all times. When they aren’t working, your dog will be most comfortable resting in a crate, car, or vehicle tie out. This helps to minimize your dog’s stress in a new environment and ensure they are not in the way of other dogs warming up or racing.
The comfiest place to relax at a race!
It is important to make sure you give yourself enough time for a warmup for both you and your dog. Taking the time to go for a light jog or walk prior to your race will help to warm up your muscles and reduce the risk of injury - the same goes for your dog. This is also the perfect time to ensure your dog has an opportunity to relieve himself.
If they poop during the race, you are obligated to pick it up, either during or after the race. Harness dog races are often held in public parks and it's important to respect their rules.
When it comes time for the race meeting, keep your dog in the car or a kennel. It’s important to pay particular attention to your position in the start order. The event organizer will explain the race routes, start line, introduce any key officials at the event, and give you a general idea of how the day will unfold.
At the start line
Now it’s finally time for the fun part…the race start! Make your way to the start line, keeping your dog close and under control by holding the collar or harness. The race director will have announced the type of start and the time intervals for your race. Depending on the number of participants and the type of course, there are a few ways harness dogs sports events can start - teams might start one at a time (individual starts), 2 at a time (dual starts) or in groups (wave starts). In the Maritime region, there is usually an interval of 30 seconds between each start. The length of the intervals and the type of start is also dependent on the event class. Bikejoring races are often individual starts. At the start line for a canicross race, you’ll hold the back of your dog’s harness or collar and wait for the official timer’s cue to go. For a bikejoring race, it is often helpful to bring your own handler. They can assist you by holding your dog's harness or collar and keeping your dog calm or by holding the seat of your bike until you are ready to go. For canicross events, you’ll want to be careful to keep your dog’s nose behind the line until you get the cue to go. For bikejoring events, it's usually the front wheel of your bike that must stay behind the line. The official timer will give you a countdown as follows: “30 seconds, 20 seconds, 10 seconds, 5-4-3-2-1 GO”!
Wave start of 4 teams
During the Race
This is it! You’re past the start line, you’re doing it! Don’t be surprised if your dog runs a lot faster than in training. All the nervous anticipation of the pre-race prep is now translating into your dog’s energy output. This is normal and expected. Just like on your own, your race pace together will usually be faster than your regular training pace. While on the trail, be mindful of other participants and respect trail etiquette and sportsmanship standards.
Remember to have fun!
And now for the most important piece of advice that we can give you: HAVE FUN! It’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself or your dog at your first event. The opportunity to do something new - to race together as a team working toward a common goal - is an incredible reward. The best thing you can do is go out with the intention to have a fun and positive experience together. No matter how fast or how far you go, your 6-legged team is doing something special!
AFTER THE RACE
You did it! You and your canine partner have conquered your first race! What an amazing feeling! Don’t forget to praise your dog for a job well-done. That sense of accomplishing such a great feat with your canine partner is like no other. Comparable to a runner’s high, but better because you share it with your furry best friend! Six legs really are better than two!
Move, Move out the way!
Once you’ve crossed the finish line, be sure to move out of the finish zone, as more teams will be approaching from behind. Make your way back to your vehicle and allow your dog to get a drink, but make sure they don’t gulp down too much water right away! Let your dog walk around, slowly cooling down and taking frequent trips back to the water bowl. This is also a good time to check your dog’s paws and give their muscles a good rub-down. Get them settled comfortably in their crate or your vehicle and ensure they have access to water. If your dog is done competing for the day, you might want to feed them an hour or so after the race.
Depending on the events and your dog’s conditioning, your teammate will be both physically and mentally tired after the race and perhaps most of the next day. A full-body massage and some stretches are always appreciated by your dog - and for yourself too! We tend to focus all our attention on the dogs and sometimes neglect our own post-race recovery, but it’s important to make time for yourself to stretch and roll your hard-working muscles and rehydrate and fuel your body post-race too!
Harness dog races are a great way to showcase the immense talent that we have here in the Maritimes. It’s important to participate in your local races so these sports, and the incredible bond they foster, can continue to grow in the Maritimes! Races are also a great place to meet like-minded individuals who share the same passion as you. It’s a growing sport and the Moncton Dog Runners are very excited to be a part of it!
So, (once you’ve come down from that runner’s high!) don’t forget to register for your next race!
Check out the MAHDS Event Schedule for a full list of races that will take place during the Spring 2019 Season.
NEXT UP: Little River Reservoir Canicross in Saint John, NB on Saturday, May 4! Registration closes at MIDNIGHT, so get your registration in ASAP! REGISTER HERE!