New Hampshire Mushers Construct Portable Canine Treadmill“When things are going well on a long training run, there’s plenty of time to think while standing on the runners.”From such times are born great—and arguably somewhat crazy—notions.Take Mitch Ingerson, for example. The owner of Nevahome Kennels in Jefferson, New Hampshire, has been fielding winning Alaskan Husky sled dog teams for years.The kennel holds ten first places, seven second places, and six third place finishes, coming in the top three out of 25 races entered to date.Nevahome’s top dog driver Matt Carstens is a three-time Can Am Crown International 250 winner and has placed in the John Beargrease Marathon, the UP 200 and this year won L’Odyssee Appalachienne 120 in Quebec.Any musher will tell you performances like that come down to one thing—training; and that means hook ups. Lots of hook ups in all kinds of weather.“You ride a four-wheeler training 24 dogs at a time for 1,400 miles in a season and you have a lot of time to think about stuff,” Ingerson said. “Every year in the fall there’s that three weeks when it’s cold and wet in the wind and we’re out there riding that four-wheeler before there’s enough snow to switch to the sled and I started thinking, ‘You know, I would not mind not being out here.’”But every musher knows training does not stop when the weather goes south and when it comes to conditioning the dogs, the comfort of the driver comes last.So, how to keep the dogs running in that transition time but stay high and dry at the same time?If you’re Ingerson, you mix a bit of ingenuity, engineering, imagination and a whole bunch of hard work and end up with what could be the largest climate controlled canine treadmill in the world.Housed in the box of a semi-trailer, Ingerson’s Cool Runner treadmill—he’s working on trade marking the name—can put a team of 24 dogs through its paces regardless of what the weather is doing outside.For the dogs of Nevahome, that means training never stops—not during those fall transition weeks or even in the summer when temperatures rise well above what is considered safe to run dogs.“This idea was in my head for three years before it became a reality,” Ingerson said.The nuts and bolts of that idea were born after Ingerson and Carstens each completed the Can Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Fort Kent, Maine.“We were driving home from the Can Am and we brought up the idea of the treadmill,” Carstens said. “The whole way home that’s all we talked about.”That discussion continued, Ingerson said, with longtime friend Anders Ragnarsson, the owner of Continental Biomass Industries, Inc., in Newton, N.H.“We go back to 1991,” Ingerson said. “Anders and CBI were a huge help with engineering and figuring out all the details.”Powered by a four-cylinder diesel engine, the 50-foot-by-50-inch-wide treadmill sits inside a trailer that is 53-feet long and 8-feet wide. The treadmill surface is a quarter-inch, two-ply conveyor belt supported by an oil-based plastic.Ingerson moved the rig’s reefer—or refrigerator—unit inside where it now keeps the interior at a sled dog friendly winter like temperature.“I can get it to 20-below if I want to,” Ingerson said. “I’m not sure I want to.”CBI helped supply the computerized brains of the treadmill—a panel originally developed to run a wood grinder.With that unit Ingerson can pre-set and control the treadmill’s speed and duration of the run. All the data is then stored in the control panel’s computer for later analysis.“This will hold 60,000 events,” Ingerson said. “We’ll never run out of memory.”In time, Ingerson hopes to add hydraulic elevators to the treadmill to change elevation and simulate hill running for the dogs.Taking the idea from concept to design to working reality was one thing, but what would the dogs think of it?As it turned out, the treadmill was completed and up and running about the same time much of central New England lost most of its snow during an unseasonable winter warm-up.With races like the John Beargrease Marathon and Can Am 250 looming, Ingerson and Carstens figured there was no better time to try out the practical training applications of the treadmill.“The first time we tried it out we put two or three dogs in harness and on the treadmill,” Ingerson said. “They all kind of looked around like, ‘What’s going on?’”When Ingerson flipped the on switch the first time with dogs in place, it was a major breath-holding moment.“I’d spent a couple of years listening to naysayers,” he said. “I did not want to see if they were right.”When the treadmill began moving at the snail’s pace of 1 mph, Ingerson said the dogs maintained an awkward crab walk. But as soon as those speeds were gradually raised to more race familiar 5 to 7 mph, the dogs’ pace picked up just as if they were on the trail.Gesturing to the front of the trailer, Ingerson points out a large photographic mural of a 24-dog string heading down a trail, seemingly picking up where the dogs on the treadmill leaves off.“I thought the mural would help the dogs,” Ingerson said. “I could put a picture of Marylyn Monroe up there and it would not make a difference. The dogs look down or at each other, the photo is really for the people.”Initially Ingerson was thinking the true value of the unit is getting in the hookups during the hot summer months.“When it’s really warm out for the dogs it’s really going to be a relief for them to come inside this trailer,” he said. “We’ll water them heavy just like before a regular run and water them again before putting them back outside to help them transition to be out in the heat again.”Watching Ingerson and Carstens harness and hook a string of 14-dogs on a March afternoon, it was easy to see the dogs had caught on.“We’re training Matt’s team on here now,” Ingerson said.As each dog was brought in and hooked to the line, the sound level increased exponentially with barks and yelps as dogs banged the line and harnesses. Easily as much noise and excitement as found at the start of any race.The noise stopped the second Ingerson flicked on the power. Suddenly ears were straight up, heads cocked and looks of expectation appeared in every dog’s eyes.When the treadmill began to revolve, each dog instantly fell into a pace until they were trotting as easily as on the trail.“We run them at a speed that simulates pulling,” Ingerson said. “This is not the total answer and will never replace sled and cart training but it can replace 50 percent, easy.”As on the trail, safety is the key. The back doors of the trailer are designed to spring open if a dog hits one and a kill switch cord is within reach regardless of where the trainer stands in the unit.“We never leave the dogs unattended in here,” Carstens said.Dogs are not a finicky bunch and there is a special scrape at the end of the unit to collect the inevitable droppings.“You don’t want to be standing directly behind this thing when it’s running,” Carstens said with a laugh.It didn’t take too many runs for Ingerson and Carstens to see applications beyond conditioning for the treadmill.“We can see uses like injury rehabilitation and nutrition research,” Ingerson said. “As far as I know, this is the only place I can see large groups of dogs working together in a controlled environment.”For that reason Ingerson anticipates large research universities or dog food companies as possible customers for any treadmills he builds in the future.Gear and equipment could also be tested out in the trailer before seeing action on the trail.“We can look at gear out on the sled for 8 weeks before we know if it’s going to work or not,” Carstens said. “Or we can work with it in here for two or three days.” By its very nature, it gives Ingerson and Carstens the opportunity to view the teams from the perspective other than the north end of a southbound dog team.“We can walk right up next to them and take a good look at pacing and gaits,” Carstens said. “At first the dogs were a little nervous when they saw us standing next to them and they weren’t moving at all.”Troublemakers and dogs that do not get along with other dogs can also be dealt with in the fraction of the time it takes to stop a team, sink a hook and walk to the conflict.Among those interested in this and future treadmills are the folks at Loyall Dog Food, one of Ingerson’s sponsors.“Loyall wants to develop a special food just for distance mushers,” Ingerson said. “This is the perfect tool to test that nutrition under controlled conditions.”Ingerson even sees connecting the dogs to heart rate and oxygen monitors as part of the testing and overall training regime.Ingerson figures about 700 hours went into construction of the treadmill—all off plans he had drawn on a napkin.Watching his team trot along at a happy pace, Ingerson smiled.“This is going to give us an edge,” he said. “Of course, gee-haw training won’t happen in here.”


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