Alberta Tour and Race Team TreadmillAt 54 feet long, is this the world’s longest canine training device?Rich Bittner, a musher for over 20 years, owns Howling Dog Tours based in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. As well as doing day tours up to 50km per day, the Howling Dog Tours race team competes in sprint events around western Canada. The same dogs that are involved hauling passengers during the holidays, later in the season are employed in the race team. “We tour at 15 mph, so the dogs are well conditioned at close to sprint speeds once the racing starts.” Rich explains.One might think of Canada, and its western provinces as a utopia for sled dogs. Vast expanses, compared with other regions of the world, seemingly would provide myriad opportunities for mushing. However, as Rich points out, this is not the case in and around Canmore. The area is very steep and mountainous, and tightly regulated by the parks system. The only area where dog sledding is allowed in the immediate vicinity is a place called “Spray Lake.” This lack of training ground forced Rich to become creative.While living in Yellowknife a few years back, he had his eye on a massive, custom built Canine treadmill. It has a moving belt platform that is 54 feet long and about 4.5 feet wide. An entire 12-dog team of dogs in harness can fit on it, to replicate, as closely as possible, exact running conditions. “The gangline sections and harnesses are exactly how I use them when I race.” Rich explains.The treadmill was originally built by Danny Rumen and Sam Perrino. Danny spent a lot of money and research and development on the treadmill. “I always told them, that if they didn’t use or want it anymore, I would take it. Sam bought it from Danny, and used it the years he trained for long distance racing in Alaska. The time finally came when Sam stopped using it and I got the call. I bought it and shipped the whole thing to Canmore.”“I think an hour on the treadmill translates to 5-6 hours of running. They are pulling hard while they are on it. It has a 25hp, 3-phase electric motor with a precise speed control that can hold the dogs at a certain pace. They can’t overpower it, or make it go faster. We put little pieces of bungee cord in the tuglines, and can see that they are pulling very hard. We have great control over pace, as we can give a command, and speed up the treadmill and the dogs have no choice but to speed up. When I want them to slow down to a crawl, I can do that. This reinforces the speed up and slow down commands once you move to a sled greatly. It provides a pace control you just don’t have any other way.”The treadmill also provides control over individual dogs that would be hard to achieve in a team setting on a sled or ATV. We all know that timing is critical while doling out praise or corrections to a dog’s training, and this controlled setting provides an excellent platform for that. “If a dog is slacking off, we can walk right up to it while it is in action, and pull on his harness. You can’t do that from the back of the sled. The other thing that they learn is to avoid distractions. You can move back and forth beside them and they get used to it, ” Rich explains.How fast does are the dogs running on the treadmill? “At least 15mph, sometimes slower, sometimes faster. We had a runner and track athlete working for us and he couldn’t stay on it after a couple of minutes. It was faster than the pace he could run a mile in,” Rich explains. “If I want to put them into a lope, or a trot I can do that. What I do is a lot of interval training – fast running with slow running breaks. The same techniques you would use with human conditioning.”There is a method of conditioning where an athlete (canine, human or otherwise) exercises at a somewhat lower intensity than a hard workout, but for a longer duration than the expected race or event. Commonly called an LSD workout for “Long, Slow, Duration.” These workouts are done mainly in the early part of a training schedule to build an aerobic base and increase anaerobic threshold. They are an important part of many champion mushers’ training programs. The treadmill would seem to be a natural platform for achieving these kinds of workouts. “The longest we’ve ever run the dogs on the treadmill is 1.5 hours. That is because they are pulling so hard. It is not an easy workout for them.” Rich explains.Asked if the treadmill could replace all of their dogs training, Rich emphatically replies, “Yes. Theoretically if the dogs didn’t see snow at all, we could use the treadmill up until race time and go. Some of the dogs don’t like the treadmill and you can for sure see a lack of conditioning in those dogs. We are now doing summer tours at our place, so we put an air conditioner and a fan system in the building with the treadmill so we can condition them all year round. It used to be the weather dictated when I could start them on the treadmill, but now I can start a little earlier than September, which is when I started in the past.”


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