DRYLAND BASICS: PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEATH ISSUES FOR DRYLAND MUSHING

This issue of “No Snow, No Problem!” is taking a look at a number of health and fitness issues and considerations for your 4-legged teammates as you ramp up and enjoy your scootering, cani-cross, carting, bikejoring or whatever flavor of dryland mushing strikes your fancy.Some of the physical and mental challenges for our canine athletes are similar throughout all mushing sports – things such as importance of good structure, temperament, weight and conditioning. As with any athlete, dogs enjoying dryland pulling need to be treated as the athletes they are and given the benefit of working to their potential, proper maintenance of weight, good nutrition, appropriate conditioning and so forth.Special Dryland Mushing ConsiderationsThe first and perhaps most obvious difference between dryland and snow mushing is the trail conditions. Many dryland mushers train and recreate where they live, meaning often working their dogs on unforgiving hard packed surfaces – trails, bike paths and roads surfaced with asphalt, cement, or gravel. This trail surface is especially tough on feet and joints, both in the short term such as pad wear, or toenail or pad bruises, and also over the long haul in terms of wear and tear on joints such as wrists and shoulders.Temperatures and humidity are often a physical consideration as well. Most folks who enjoy the sport are not in cold environments while they are running their dogs, and as a result, the ability to effectively dissipate heat is critical to the dogs’ well-being. Just as with trail conditions, there are a number of steps the dryland musher can take to help their dogs enjoy and excel at pulling in warmer conditions.For those who bikejor/cart/cani-cross or scooter with their dogs along neighborhood or park trails, paths, streets and roads, your dogs are subject to a highly variable and interactive environment—often constant and continually changing stimulus and distractions of every conceivable kind. This type of mental and physical stress is often quite different from those who run their dogs in the woods, during the quiet and less crowded winter season, and thus dryland dogs need some special adaptations to deal with this sensory overload.The final dryland mushing specific consideration we want to address in this article is simply the dogs themselves. Some folks enjoying the sport use non-traditional breeds or mixed breeds. Often dryland mushers use their family dog(s), and that may be from a breeder or may be a rescue dog. Even within the traditional sledding breeds, not all dogs are bred along working lines, and there is great variation in their natural aptitude and ability. Whether a given dog has a natural aptitude for working in harness is highly individualized. Most people are not able to get their dryland dog from a top mushing kennel bloodline (which is no guarantee of success). Therefore the realities of your individual dog, coupled with your situation, are critically important to how you approach and enjoy the sport. Once you recognize that all breeds were bred for something, some purpose, which may or may not have been pulling and working in harness, then you can work with what you have and adapt accordingly. Your herding breed or field dog or rescue dog can all excel at dryland mushing, once you take into account some of these basic considerations. Physical Health and Fitness TipsLet’s look at the top ways in which these dryland mushing considerations impact the physical and mental health and fitness requirements of our canine athletes.Feet – As with all mushing athletes, success and enjoyment of dryland mushing starts with good feet and good foot care. Foot size, shape, pad quality and how they use their feet based on their structure all directly impact how hard they have to work and what affect working in harness will have on the dog. Dogs with good sized feet relative to the size of their bodies will have more cushion supporting their running and pulling, and less impact on the rest of their bodies. Foot shape is also important, the optimal shape being a snowshoe or hare shaped foot which maximizes pad surface and support vs. round shaped for example like a Lynx. Pad quality is critical, particularly because of the surface considerations. Some dogs’ pads wear or tear much more easily than others and proper pad conditioning is a must. Finally, how the dog uses their feet—whether they slam them down or run lightly and whether they are balanced in their foot placement and emphasis—will have a huge impact on whether they are easy on their feet or whether you need to take extra foot care steps.When you examine your dog’s feet and watch them run and pull, you will observe all of these characteristics and can compensate accordingly. You should expect a dog with good feet will in general have an easier time with pulling and working in harness. You can help your dog with imperfect feet enjoy the sport through a good conditioning program (which benefits their pads in addition to weight, aerobic capacity, strength, etc.), judicious use of booties (1000 Cordura, either alone or with a cushioning inner bootie in case of an injury), keeping toenails well- trimmed, and continuous vigilance by examining their feet after every run.Wrists – Wrists can be greatly impacted especially with the hard surfaces which most dryland mushers deal. Sore wrists typically will cause lameness, and depending on the dog’s drive, can lead to compensation injuries in other parts of their bodies like shoulders and back. The good news is that wrists are easy to monitor and treat. As with the rest of their physical condition, observe their wrists throughout the year so that you know what “normal” is for them before you start running. Then if you see any change in gait, lameness, or soreness when removing the harness after a run, you can zero in on a potential wrist problem. If you feel fluid on the joint, and if the dog is sore when you bend the wrist (be careful to isolate the wrist joint and not bend the foot and confuse a foot problem with a wrist issue), then an easy treatment is applying a liniment such as Algyval and a wrist wrap for a few hours to ease the swelling and soreness. Wrist problems are easily treated and dogs can work through them, so be careful to treat the symptoms when you see them so it does not develop into a chronic problem.Coat – Your dog’s coat requires some basic maintenance for good health and to avoid hot spots and harness rubs. We’ve worked with many dryland dogs, particularly rescues, who have a less than ideal coat. Since your dogs’ coat is what it is—just like the rest of their structure and temperament—the most important thing you can do is simply learn how to best care for it. Make sure to brush your dog after a run, since this requires you to put your hands on and in their coat, and you’ll find any hot spots or harness rubs, mats, trail debris, etc. and can treat those accordingly.If your dog’s coat is brittle or burnt looking, look at the quality of food and fatty acids they are getting for coat health. You can also check their thyroid level as a poor coat is a leading indicator, along with lethargy, weight gain and systemic infections. Those dogs with a wooly coat need extra maintenance to work with their coat to prevent the fur from balling up, attracting debris and causing hot spots. Weight – When dealing with urban dogs, we nearly always are working with overweight dogs. This is the one key physical factor which is totally under your control, as overweight dogs perform poorly, don’t enjoy the activity as much, and being overweight puts their overall health at risk. Simply put, your job with having a canine athlete is to maintain them at their proper weight for their age and activity level. Weight maintenance and reduction is a huge topic, far beyond the scope of this particular column. Bottom line—cut out the treats, cut back on the food, increase the exercise, and watch your new reinvigorated dog emerge!Structure – Whether a dog is balanced when they move will have a huge impact on the ease at which they can pull and work in harness. An unbalanced dog can still do and enjoy dryland mushing, they’ll just have to work a bit harder at it. It is important to observe your dog and how they move, both in and out of harness so that you understand what structural limitations they may have and can help them accommodate those. Just like dogs with short legs can have a great time, they just need to take more steps, likewise dogs that are not properly balanced can excel if you help them learn how to do so and compensate for any structural limitations they may have.Other physical considerations – We work with many dogs who have allergies, sensitive stomachs, etc. and those conditions are sometimes exacerbated by dryland mushing. It is the stress and excitement of having fun, much like taking a child to Disneyland— fun, but stressful in a positive way, and the child and parent both need to learn how to deal with that. These dogs with physical stress sensitivities can and do enjoy and excel at dryland mushing, especially as their mushers understand their particular requirements and accommodate those accordingly. Through experimentation and the process of elimination, you can find the right accommodations for your dog so they are a happy and healthy dryland athlete.Mental/Emotional Health and Fitness TipsNow let’s examine how your dog’s mental and emotional fitness are a key component of their ability to excel at dryland mushing.Situational Sensitivities – Any dog can have or develop situational sensitivities to various environments, noises, behaviors, etc. and those can be frustrating to deal with when they are not anticipated. Rescue dogs, in particular, can come with this sort of “emotional baggage” and the musher needs to recognize this is part of the package and take steps to deal with it appropriately. Understanding and anticipation of the dog’s reaction is key. Learn to “read your dog” and they will be able to tell you what makes them happy, uncomfortable, stressed, etc. Don’t coddle them and encourage the stress reaction, rather work with them to help them understand that a) you have the situation under control and b) they too have control over their own response. Win-win for both of you!Appropriate Socialization – Dryland mushing tends to be a highly social environment—other dryland teams in a Meetup Group or outing, other trail users (bikes, horses, joggers, etc), loose dogs, and vehicles are just a few of the stimuli. Your dryland dog needs to be well-socialized in order to be a good canine trail citizen, and understand that their job is to pull and mind their own business. Appropriate socialization is a continual process of graduated training and exposure to new situations once they have mastered the basics. Small steps to success here will yield great rewards, and there are no shortcuts. Enjoy the process!Instinctive Pulling Drive – Some dogs have more pulling instinct than others. However, just like obedience, agility or parlor tricks, any dog can be taught the elements of dryland mushing and become enthused when they see the harness appear. You need to be aware of your own dog’s natural tendencies and adjust your training and running experiences accordingly.Amount of Training Exposure – Just like the other variables in mental preparedness, the amount of training exposure will have a big impact on how you proceed with your canine athlete. If they have been expected to do things when directed since puppyhood, they are more receptive and flexible to learning new behaviors such as pulling and working in harness. Likewise, if they have not been used to even basic obedience such as waiting and sitting to get their food, you’ll need to start with some basics and build a solid foundation to reward the dog for the new behaviors you are teaching them.Age – Lastly, age impacts both physical and mental fitness. Young dogs have a short attention span and “puppy brains,” and your training needs to adapt to that. Young dogs, just like young people, also often have no sense of personal limitations and feel invincible, so you need to be extra careful to do the thinking for them in terms of what they are up to in order to avoid injuries. Older dogs, on the other hand, can be more easily trainable or they can be somewhat set in their ways, depending on their background. Older dogs, like more mature people, have a great wealth of knowledge and experience upon which to draw when learning something new, but their bodies, like ours, require more recovery time. The good news is that the benefits of dryland mushing for the canine athlete can be realized at any age.We’ve used this column to look at a number of the dryland mushing specific health considerations and a number of tips you can use to accommodate those. Any dog, in good health, can learn and enjoy dryland mushing so long as you, their musher, is willing to direct your efforts to their specific physical, mental and emotional needs. Happy Trails!

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