The first question that often comes up in approaching snowless mushing, whether in a suburb or urban environment, is simply…how do I get started?
What do I need? Do I need a certain size or type of dog – does it have to be a husky? What about gear and equipment?
My dog doesn’t know what to do…how do I teach them (and learn myself) what to do? If you recall from the previous column, we told you our stories about how we got started. Barb and her husband traded off being the lead dog by biking or skiing in front of their Siberian so that the dog would have something to chase.
Liz’s Aussie deciding to run between her legs so the cross-country ski tips wouldn’t bite him. We can entertain everyone with many hours of stories of how the dog(s) chased the squirrel up the tree, trying to fly after a bird they flushed, gave chase to a passing jogger or stopped to bark at a dog statue in someone’s yard as we attempted to pass by. Many of us have these stories of how not to get started, and some are definitely more entertaining than others.
However, what should you do if you are starting from scratch right now and want to get started on the right foot?That’s what our column for this issue is about. What you need to realize is that everyone, from you or us to Libby Riddles to Lance Mackey to Egil Ellis to Leonard Seppala…everybody at some point had to train their first lead dog.
As we mentioned last time, with a tiny team in a scootering, biking or cani-cross situation, your one or two dogs are full time leaders. You have to learn how to teach them all the skills of leading without the luxury of having “the rest of the team” to help them along.So let’s start with the basics. You need a dog, harness, towline, towline attachment, and supplies for the dog and musher depending on terrain, distance and temperature.
We’ve spent many years and thousands of dollars making mistakes and doing things the wrong way, so we’ll just skip over all that and cut to the chase.First things first: The DogNo, a husky, malamute, or other northern breed isn’t a requirement. For most people, any medium sized dog or larger will do just fine. We even know folks who are pulled by their Portuguese Water Dogs (no, not the Obamas…yet!) or Boston Terriers.
Pulling games and activities are a great way to work on the necessary skills to socialize your dog, bond with your dog and certainly exercise your dog. Remember that exercising your pooch has a mental component as well as a physical one, so learning a new skill or game doubles up on the exercise benefit well beyond just the physical workout. As everyone with an energetic dog knows…a tired dog is a good dog!Most of you will, like we did, use your house dogs and that’s great. Just like with a human exercising program, jumping right into something involves new habits, new muscles, new responses.
Make sure Fido or Fluffy is able to take on the challenge, and build up slowly. If you are turning your couch potato into a pulling machine, their bodies will need time to adjust, especially if they have some weight to lose. Dog-powered travel is a great way to have fun helping your dog lose those extra pounds, but again, do it prudently. recognize that as the athletes they are they need adequate time for rest, refueling and rehydration and give their bodies time to adapt to the new schedule/activity level.
Always consult with your dog’s veterinarian if you have questions or concerns about your dog’s physical abilities, structure or condition. Next up: Harness 101 trainingSome dogs need to develop the pulling game and motivation, because it is more of a learned skill than instinctive urge. Others are all gung-ho and need to learn to control all that enthusiasm so you maintain control and they are welcome on your local trails and pathways.
Either way, the key to enjoying dog-powered sports is a little training, so get everyone started in the right way and enjoying himself or herself from Day 1.Think of this as the sled dog obedience step. Not only do you and your dog need to learn the ropes, literally and figuratively, but you also need to practice and develop your skills with experienced supervision so you don’t inadvertently instill some bad habits you will have a hard time breaking later on.
Harness 101 includes learning to pull on command, running on the right-hand side of the trail for safe passing, basic directional commands, learning to hold the line tight and not tangle, and learning to mind their own business and pass distractions (what’s called “on-by”) and of course the ever important “Whoa” and “Wait.”
Clothes make the dog: Getting the right harness fitNotice we put training as the step before a properly fitting harness. That is because harness fit is so critical we feel beginners should team up with their instructors or friends who have been properly fitted by instructors. Unless you know what you are doing, the harness you are likely to buy mail order or without understanding how your dog pulls and what they look like when they do that will most likely not fit well.
Think of it like a pair of shoes that don’t fit quite right…you can’t really enjoy whatever you’re doing because all you can think about is how much those bad pressure points make your feet hurt.Mostly we see harness necks that are way too large, laying back too far on the dogs shoulders and impeding the motion of their front legs and their ability to move. We also see many unbalanced necks, meaning as the dog wears the harness the neck and chest piece will slide up on the dog’s neck, cutting into their windpipe, restricting their ability to breathe and work.
Many dogs will run with their heads up simply due to poor harness neck fit, and once they get in the right set of clothes, they really enjoy it – almost like saying “Gee, I can breathe again! Now this is fun!”Tieing it all together: Towline and attachmentsThe easiest thing for a beginner in dog powered sports to do is to buy a package. Lines and attachments are relatively easy to make, but again, just like with the harness, unless you know what it should look like and how your dog pulls, then you can’t optimize if for what you need.
That will come with practice and experience.The sure-fire way to get started is to either buy the package which comes with a particular scooter or cart you’re looking to purchase, or consult those manufacturers for their recommendations, with pros and cons of each. Most mushing equipment providers also provide supplies and gear for skijoring, which can be adapted to scootering and cani-cross. As an example of an independent supplier, we’ve been quite happy with lines and gear from Adanac Equipment.Accessories:
Carrying water and other suppliesA handlebar bag, fanny pack or small backpack is a must for carrying what you and your dog will need to enjoy the run and deal with minor things that might come up. Always carry water and a collapsible water bowl, even if you are running along a creek or river. In addition to drinking water, a water bottle is quite handy to have if you need to flush something out of your dog’s eyes, clean a pad injury, insect bite, or do some extra cooling off, etc.
You might want to tuck in a couple of Benadryl tablets just in case you run into some ornery insects and a set of booties is always in order in case your dog gets a torn pad or toenail, rub spot, etc. If a paw is injured, you should always put on at least 2 booties – if one paw needs a bootie, also bootie the opposite leg on the other side, so as to not upset their gait and cause more problems. Remember, bootie the “whole axle”, not just one “wheel.”
Lastly, don’t forget contact info in case you have an emergency and need to get hold of your dog’s vet or emergency service. With that small pack you can go forth with confidence with your dog-powered travel, knowing you are prepared to have a blast.Finding where to run/Finding a group to run withYou may be lucky enough to already live in a neighborhood where you can run your dog, or have local bike or walking trails where you and your pooch are welcome.
Those are the best for starting out, since you both already know the area, can relax and concentrate on developing your new skills in this adventure together. If you want to find others to run, train or exercise with, the Internet has a variety of resources available for many areas.
Meet-Up groups have been formed in many urban and suburban areas, or start your own. When you get in contact with a trainer or training group, many times folks run together afterward because they can remind and reinforce with each other the training skills they just learned. Yahoo, Google groups and the like abound, are focused on specific local areas, and are a great way to network not only for daily/weekly exercise but also group activities and outings.
Many local rescue groups also facilitate informal groups who get together to enjoy their dogs in their new forever homes, and even if you haven’t adopted a dog from them, they can give you pointers as to who is doing what, when and where. If all else fails…put the word out and see who is interested in joining you. This sport is growing so quickly you may be surprised at the response you get…it could be the start of something big!
Q. I’m trying to cut back on my dog’s food to drop his extra weight. Now he’s telling everyone he’s starving and my husband insists on feeding him treats. What should I do?
A. Decide how much a daily ration of kibble is, and then divide it up to feed several small meals throughout the day, 2 or 3 times a day, so he thinks he’s getting more. Add water, carrots or frozen green beans to the kibble to add bulk while keeping the calories down. If you know your family members aren’t as trainable as the dog…you’ll just have to take that into account and reduce the dog’s food accordingly.
Q. How do I tell if my dog’s harness is too big around the neck?
A. Remember, dogs pull from their necks, and all the harness does is transfer that pulling power from neck to towline. If the harness lays on top of or behind the dog’s shoulders and/or if the harness lays below the breast bone, it is too large for them to be comfortable or pull effectively.
On many dogs, you can visually see the harness sitting on their shoulder blades vs. snugly cupping the base of their neck. If you are unsure, put your thumb in toward the dog’s neck at the “V” or notch in the front of the padded neck of the harness. You should be able just to feel the notch of the breastbone with a small effort, and the harness neckline should fit snugly right up to that notch. If you can easily feel the notch, or even below the notch, the neck of the harness is too big.Also, observe your dog when they are pulling, especially after just having started out. Are they running with their head down, body arched, flowing into the harness and back to the towline?
If not, especially if they are running with their heads up, something is amiss. The first and easiest thing to check for is to see if their harness neck fit is compromising their ability to breathe and work, and they may be running with their head up to compensate.
Liz Parrish, is the co-author of the inspirational book Crimp! On-By!!,
Barbara Schaefer has been raising and training Siberian Huskies (Qualobo.com) in California for over 20 years competing in obedience, conformation, and dog sled races.
Together their joint venture is known as Life…Through DogsSM, which provides hands-on urban dog sledding clinics (UrbanGoDogs.com) and ultimate dog sledding adventure experiences (RunYourOwnIditarod.com), as well as presentations, coaching and more. Their latest book is Be the Lead Dog: 7 Life-Changing Lessons Taught By Sled Dogs, available January 2010.