I like to free run my dogs. Free running is great for a dog’s coordination and speed. I love to see them bounding through the woods over logs and rocks while never tripping.It amazes me how agile a fit dog can be at such high speeds. For the urban or suburban dog owner this is not always an option. I have been chastised by city dwellers for promoting free running.“A dog should always be on a leash,” they scold. If you live where I live, with thousands of square miles of public land just a stones throw from your threshold, then free running is a real option. On wide open Forest Service or BLM land your dog will never have the opportunity to poop on a lawn, terrify a wiener dog or kill a chicken.An e-collar is standard equipment for gun dog owners. The dog learns to listen to you and there is no need to get physically aggressive to discipline. It is a very gentle way to train. You will no longer have to manhandle your dog, use switches or a slap on the butt as directed in some of the older outdated manuals for training leaders. You do not have to raise your voice. The collar speaks for you. For dogs that are shy or stubborn, the e-collar is a very welcome device.The e-collar has a continuous stimulation function and a nick function. The nick function is used in place of the continuous function to give the dog a gentle reminder. Some collars also have a tone function. The tone is a beep that is used to get the dog’s attention just before a nick or continuous stimulus if necessary.The need for an e-collar arose for me when I purchased a six month old German Shorthaired Pointer. The dog quickly learned to listen to me, but when I was out of sight, the pup would often bolt after the nearest varmint. After a few attempts to let him run loose I could see that he could be lost easily in unfamiliar country as he would not stay close by. A horror story from another competitor who lost a GSP puppy while free running was always on my mind. My older Alaskan Huskies were all purchased right after weaning and had no problem free running. They check back with me frequently and have never left me searching for them for hours while they ran willy nilly through the woods. I think that a very young puppy will learn early on that you want them to stay close by and will be less likely to bolt. Mushers like me, who don’t breed their own dogs, often purchase dogs that are older. Therefore they are not likely to have that special bond that only comes when you adopt at a very young age.After some research I purchased a “Sportdog 400” training collar from Cabelas. The range for the unit is about 400 yards and there are several options available for more than one dog. There is a continuous mode for longer stimulation, a “nick” function for a quick reminder and a tone function. The whole unit is very small, lightweight and rechargeable.The manual and video that came with the unit was produced with gun dogs in mind and did not translate well into mushing. What I needed most of all was the dog to stay in sight when free running.E-Collars for MushersBasic obedience training is not a thing I work on with the e-collar. I train my dogs to sit and stay without the e-collar. Basic obedience is just part of a daily routine and becomes rote by the time a pup is a year old.The e-collar should be used to enforce known commands. The dog should already know what you want when you say the word “Come,” “On by” or “Whoa.” The e-collar is like having a very long leash. If the dog hesitates when hearing a known command then a little stimulus will help the dog focus on you. When the dog responds, the stimulus is ended. Your corrections are instantaneous. Ignoring commands become an uncomfortable option.Some commands can be trained without using the e-collar. The “line out” command is taught by repeating the words when the dog naturally lines out. “Hike” is taught by speeding up your own pace to give the dog the idea is to scoot when you say the word. “Gee” and “haw” are taught by repetition everyday at home and on the trail until they become automatic. Whenever the dog incidentally turns, then use I the word gee or haw to indicate direction and the dog will eventually learn. Depending on the dog, and your methods, you can use the collar for teaching directions but I never found it necessary.Heeling is contrary to my objective. I do not teach a sled dog to heel. I am sure it can be done, but I never felt it was necessary. I want the dog to get in front and pull unrestrained and flat out . Walking a dog is just not part of my routine. I run dogs.In the case where I need to walk a dog, such as in a parking lot before a race for the “poop” walk, I might use a head halter to discourage pulling.Starting Out with the E-CollarTo teach a dog to respond to the e-collar you should hook the dog up to a canicross setup. A skijor line, belt and an X-back harness for the dog is ideal. The line does not have to be as long as a skijoring line. A five to seven foot line is fine. The intimate one on one that you will experience while canicrossing will greatly help the dog to learn the “lead dog” commands. The first four to ten times you use the e-collar it should be turned off. Practice using commands and pointing the control at the dog when you voice the commands. That way the dog will not be associating your behavior with the collar when you do turn it on. You may purchase a dummy collar for the same purpose. Some dogs will learn quickly that they only need to listen when the collar is on. The dog should be familiar with all the commands and what you expect before you resort to the collar. The exercises with the collar turned off will hopefully disassociate the stimulus with the collar.When you are ready to use the e-collar be sure it is fully charged when you set out. Check the collar to make sure it is turned on. There should be an LED light that is blinking when the collar is on. When you first get your e-collar you will need to set it at the lowest possible setting where the dog can feel it but not cause him to yip. Be sure to test the collar when there are no other dogs nearby because the dog may interpret the sting as an attack from another dog and retaliate. See how the dog reacts and if you get no reaction, turn it up a notch. At first the dog may behave like an insect has stung him and will appear to look around for a wasp. Using a command in concert with the stimulation will help the dog associate the stimulation with your commands. Only use the minimum stimulation that is necessary. Be very restrained. You should test the device on yourself to experience what your dog is feeling. The stimulation is unpleasant but not harmful.Commands for the musher that are easily taught with an e-collar are “Whoa,” “On by” and “Come.” It hardly seems worth it when the device is used for such a limited repertoire, but when you consider that you will enable your dog to run free without running away, it is worth it. The “Whoa” command is the most likely command that a sled dog will only take as a suggestion. For a skijorer the “whoa” command is very important because you are not using a snow hook. You need the dog to really stop. The “whoa“ command is taught by stopping and giving a little stimulus so the dog learns to stop when you say “whoa”. The command to “whoa” is the most important one to learn if you are training to free run.Use the e-collar to keep the dog focused on staying on the trail. Use stimulation when he is distracted by varmints. Say the dog’s name and “on by” and give him a stimulus when you need the dog to ignore a distraction. If you have a dog that likes to mark every rock and stump along the trail, a little stimulus with an “on by” command will teach the dog to stay focused.A dog can also learn “Easy” which means slow down and wait up. Practice “Easy” by keeping a dog a set distance in front of you off lead. When the dog creeps ahead, say “Easy” and give a little nick until he eases up his pace and maintains the distance.If a dog that is well hydrated and still has a habit of dipping snow then a few properly timed nicks will help to keep the dog focused.Line chewing can also be discouraged with a vocal “No” and a nick.Teaching a dog to pull is not something you should attempt using an e-collar. Pulling is best taught by other veteran dogs or by patient gentle persuasion and encouragement.Training to Free RunAfter about ten outings on the canicross trail it is time to begin teaching your dog to free run without running away. You may need to turn up the stimulation level a bit if the dog is not responding right away. Before you go out into the woods I suggest you try controlling the dog off leash in an enclosed area first.You will need to be on foot with your hands free to start training your dog to run loose. At the trail head, set the dog free and start hiking. Always pay close attention to your dog so he won’t get away. When the dog gets too far ahead, give him the “Whoa” command and stimulation until he stops. I like to train the dog to stay within 50 to 75 yards in front. If the dog goes behind me then it will get a little stimulation along with his name and a “Hike” command. Soon the dog will learn to stay in sight when you are on the trail. Hiking will give you a good workout, but will hardly give the dog any work to do. The hiking training is only a step between the sessions when you get on a bike or ATV and pick up your speed.If the dog bolts you may need to stimulate with a longer duration until you get the dog’s attention.The dog will soon learn to respond to your commands without stimulation. Practice until the dog consistently obeys your vocal commands without stimulation. The time it takes will vary with the dog and your methods. Now your dog should be ready to pick up the speed.Free Running Full SpeedI am a skijorer and do not own a sled. I have a small team that I use for competitive skijoring. I have too few dogs to justify an ATV or fancy cart. I use a mountain bike for bikejoring to work my dogs in the off season. Using the e-collar is not as practical on a bike when you need both hands on the bars for control. For that reason your dog should be trained to free run before you get on the bike. I will still use the e-collar when mountain biking even though I may have to stop first to use it.I live where there are hardly any flat trails. Most of my trails are downright mountainous. If my dogs are hooked up to my bike on the down hills it can be hazardous when the trail gets dicey. Free running the dogs while I ride gives us all a great workout. In the fall when I start hooking up the dogs, they already have a few hundred miles of free running behind them. Often it is nice to unhook the dogs and know they will stick around. On skis I like to unhook the dogs for long down hills or if I feel like carving a few turns.One of the best things about free running is that the dogs really love it. To see them joyfully bounding through the woods while I ride is my kind of fun. The speed and agility that the dogs gain from free running will help them avoid injury. If free running is an option where you live, your dogs will thrive and you will be more competitive at the races. I guarantee it.Mike Callahan has earned one bronze, two silver and two gold ISDRA medals in skijoring. He has been skijoring since 1993. He lives at North Lake Tahoe, California with four team dogs and two retired dogs. His team is totally ripped and ready to go on any day of the year.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,