Step one: fun, not punishment
I probably don't need to emphasize this step to my current audience, but I'll do so, just in case there is any misunderstanding. While engaged in mush training, there must never be any physical punishment of any kind. No choke collars, no pinch collars, not even haltis, as all of these can cause serious injury to the dog in the event of tangles and sudden stops while moving at high speed. In fact, if you are running only one dog, you will not have a leash on him anyway, so technically you do not even really need a collar. Keep one on him anyway for control during rest periods.
Mushing is supposed to be fun for the dog. If the dog does not view mushing as fun, he will never do it well and you should not force him. My dogs consider mushing to be the ultimate reward. Instead of click and treat, I can click and mush. In accordance with standard clicker training techniques, you can let your dog know he is making a mistake by saying "no" or "wrong," but do no more than that. Remember, if you want to be successful, mushing must be playtime for your dog, and not serious training (not yet, anyway).
Step two: assess size and age
To be suitable for mushing, your dog should be at least medium-sized, 30 pounds and up. (Toy breeds are not appropriate.) Your dog should be a minimum of 12-14 months old before starting any serious mushing. Whether you wait 12 or 14 months depends on the breed and its individual rate of maturity; check with your vet to make sure. At 8-10 months of age you can do short and easy training runs, helping your dog by pedaling a lot and avoiding all hills. You must give a dog time to develop his bone structure before putting any serious weight on him.
Step three: assess desire to pull
Assess your dog's desire to pull. Put a leash on your dog—does he try to pull your arm off? Good. If your dog has already been trained not to pull on the leash, put a leash on your dog and run alongside him. See if he gets excited and wants to run even faster and ahead of you. If so, that is good, too.
If not, all hope is not lost, as he may just be too well trained. However, if your dog is reluctant and you end up dragging him, then that is not a good sign. He may hate to pull or he may have a medical problem.
Step four: assess physique
Assess your dog's physique. The perfect physique for pulling is that of the Siberian husky and the Alaskan malamute. If you don't know what they look like, get a book on dog breeds and look at the pictures. The closer the dog looks to the picture the better (the color of coat and eyes is not important, as we're talking shape here). If you do not have immediate access to a picture of a husky or malamute, think of what a wolf looks like and you'll be pretty close. The closer your dog comes to looking like a husky, the more efficiently he will be able to pull and the less likely he will be to incur sprains and standard sports injuries. If he looks nothing like a husky, that does not mean he can't play, it just means you need to be more careful and aware of his limitations.
Step five: assess physical attributes
Assess individual physical attributes—primarily the pasterns. Pasterns are the wrists on the front legs of the dog.
Are the pasterns very straight when the dog is standing, or do they look double-jointed? Excessively double-jointed pasterns can raise the risk of pulled tendons. Double-jointed pasterns do not preclude play, but you must be watchful. Are the pasterns totally straight? If so, this means there is a propensity for the canine equivalent of shin splints. Once again, this is not a disqualifier, just a reason to keep an eye on your dog and not over-run him on asphalt.
What surprises most people is the high speed at which a dog will go when he understands that you are happy to let him go as fast as he wants.
Next are the back legs. Is the dog pigeon-toed or duck-footed? Pigeon-toed means his back elbows (heels) point outward; duck-footed is the opposite. Excess in either can lead to hip problems. Excess is impossible to describe here, so if you suspect excess, take your dog to a vet, let them know what you are planning, and ask for an opinion. A good musher keeps the pet's health as the number one priority. There are plenty of fun and safe games to play with your dog if mushing is not a good choice.
Next check the front elbows. They should be straight and not sticking out or in. Excess in either direction could lead to shoulder problems.
As a recreational biking musher, you can have a lot of tolerance in your dog's physique, as you will probably not go more than five to ten miles at a time. Even in recreational situations, you should be properly informed and know what to watch out for, though. Defects in physique can exist in a Siberian husky or a malamute or any other Nordic northern dog, too, so do not omit the physique assessment for any breed.
If you do not have a dog that is suitable for mushing, go to your local shelter and adopt a young dog with the above-mentioned conformation and disposition. Or, check out husky rescue groups, any of which will be overjoyed to hear from you. If you live in California, access the following website: www.ccndr.org. The Central Coast Northern Dog Rescue will be happy to supply you with as many huskies as you can handle.
Step six: acquire the mushing harness
Order a proper mushing harness. Please do not use the harnesses sold in pet stores. They are nothing more than glorified collars. With the wrong harness, all the weight is put on the dog's neck instead of his breastbone, as it should be.
If you are unsure as to the size, order a few different harnesses. Harnesses are really cheap and you can always give one away or sell it. When you put on the harness, the dog's breastbone should take all the weight, and the back end of the harness should lie right at the base of the dog's tail. Make sure you put the harness on properly and stretch it out to assess the fit. Remember that harnesses always look too small and that the fitting around the neck lies behind the collar. For additional guidance, refer to the picture on my website: www.winterdog.com/shredder (click on Shredder's Hobbies).
Step seven: start training
Put your harness on your dog and attach a seven-foot-long cord with a clip to the harness. Attach the other end of the cord to a three-foot-long, four-by-four piece of wood. The best way to attach the cord is to drill a hole through the wood at one end and tie the cord through the hole. Put a leash on your dog and walk/run beside him as you encourage him to pull.
At this point, you can use standard clicker training. Remember, positives only!!! Any negatives or punishments WILL NOT WORK!!!
Avoid asphalt when you can and stick to dirt roads as "mush as pawsible." Asphalt is hard on the paws and legs and usually has too much traffic.
At first, your dog will be startled, and possibly frightened, by the wood rattling and following him, but encourage him over his fears and soon he will be pulling it around faster than you can keep up.
This step may take a few minutes, or it may take a few weeks; be patient. If you mess up this crucial step, the dog will fear mushing and you will have ruined him for the sport, possibly for good. You can start this step as early as 3 months of age. Use lighter pieces of wood for younger dogs.
Extras: Getting the dog to stay out in front
I have had several questions focused on getting the dog to stay out in front instead of coming back to check on you (or the bike) or wandering back and forth. How indeed? It's not easy.
In the step above, you hook the dog to a piece of wood and teach him to pull without being afraid. When he starts to wander off, stop him completely. You do not allow it and you tell him "no" or "wrong." Do not bother with clicker training for this behavior, because your dog could very easily think he is getting rewarded for stopping and sniffing. While this training won't train your dog not to wander off course, it does, however, teach your dog what is expected and what you mean when you tell him no when you are on the bike. Basically, it is a vocabulary drill.
When you finally get on the bike, your dog will get going. What surprises most people is the high speed at which a dog will go when he understands that you are happy to let him go as fast as he wants. When a dog really gets going, he will enjoy the speed so much that he will be much less inclined to stop and sniff.
Many people tell me, "Oh yes, I jog with my dog." The pace and distance of a human jog is nothing compared to what a dog can do. Race dogs go 100 miles a day for 10 days in a row. If your dog is only one third as good as a race dog, he could go 33 miles a day with no thought.
Step eight: teach commands
Start teaching commands: "hike" for go, "whoa" for stop, "gee" for turn right, "haw" for turn left, "come gee" for make a U-turn to the right, "come haw" for make a U-turn to the left.
You can substitute your own commands, as "hike" is the only command the dog really needs to know. When you get on the bike, you will be able to force the dog(s) to turn and to stop. More advanced commands include "line out" for stretch the line out to the front, and "pass gee" and "pass haw" for pass someone on the right or the left respectively.
Step nine: get the bike
Get a bike. It must be one you can ride easily and it must have good brakes. The one I use for mushing is undersized for me, so that when I put my feet down I have total control. It is basically a kid's BMX bike. Do not spend a lot of money on a marvel of biking technology; in fact, try to buy one for less than a hundred bucks. Your dogs are going to drag it through hell and back.
Step ten: create cord loops
Get a one- to two-foot bungee cord with hooks on the end. Loop the bungee around the base of the handlebars on your bike and hook the hooks to each other. Wrap duct tape around the hooks so that they are permanently hooked and cannot come apart. Your end result should be a bungee loop or ring around the base shaft of your handlebars. This will be your shock cord.
Get another strong rope, this one longer than the shock cord, and tie it in a loop around the base of the handlebars with the shock cord. When you are done, you should have two separate and redundant loops, with the bungee version significantly shorter than the cord version.
Step eleven: create the gangline
Tie dog-leash-type clips to both ends of another strong cord. At least one of the clips must be large enough to clip around both the cord and the shock cord on the bike. When you are finished tying, this cord should be about five feet long in total, with a clip at either end. This will be your gangline.
Check the length by clipping one end to the two loops on the bike and pulling it tight. The end clip should be exactly six feet away from the bike. If it is too long, you will not have enough control over your dog. If it is too short, you will tend to run over your dog when he comes to sudden stops.
Once you have clipped the gangline to the bike, give it a good yank to test the shock cord. It should take up the shock until you come to the maximum reach of the second loop.
Step twelve: is your dog ready?
Check your dog. Run your hands down all four of his legs and massage his shoulders. If he shows any signs of tenderness or soreness, then he is not going to mush today. It does not have to be something serious to put off a mushing session. We all get a sore foot or tweaked elbow every once in a while and when that happens, we rest for a day.
If your dog seems sound, then put on his harness. Attach one end of the gangline to the shock cord and loop it on the bike FIRST! Then, clip the other end to the dog. While you are doing this, make sure that your bike is lying down and that you have a good hold on the gangline. Go back to your bike still holding your gangline; when you have mounted your bike you can let the gangline go.
If properly motivated, the dog should run to the end of the gangline and lunge forward, giving the line a HUGE jerk. The shock cord around the handlebars should take up much of the shock. If the dog does run, praise the dog. No more treats can be given, as stopping to eat something you throw to him will be dangerous on the road. If the dog responds in this way consistently, attach the cue "line out," as it is a desired behavior and should be encouraged.
Step thirteen: go!
Give the bike a light pedal and yell, enthusiastically and happily, "hike"—and hang on as your dog begins to pull. If all goes well, he will get faster and faster and may reach speeds of 20 mph. Help him up hills by pedaling, and avoid running him over by braking downhill. When you want to turn, slow down by braking, give the command for left or right, and then turn your bike. With a little practice, you should be able to force the dog to execute turns. Soon your dog will know the commands and you will have what is known as a "Gee Haw Leader."
Once you get going, do not talk and praise your dog continuously. Reserve lavish praise for good deeds or the dog will ignore you when you need praise as a training tool.
A good Gee Haw leader can cost upward of ten thousand dollars. These dogs are very expensive BECAUSE they are so much work to TRAIN. You do not need yours to be of that caliber, but it should know the following, all of which can be clicker trained:
- "get on by"
Once you get going, do not talk and praise your dog continuously. Reserve lavish praise for good deeds or the dog will ignore you when you need praise as a training tool. Do not talk to your dog excessively or the dog will start to tune you out and will not be attentive to commands.
- CAUTION: Remember that your dog is working hard and does not handle heat as well as you. Do not run in temperatures higher than 65°F for longhaired breeds and 75°F for shorthaired. These are only guidelines, and if the humidity factor or distance dictates, then you should abort your daily mush at even lower temperatures. I sometimes have to get up at 5:00 a.m. to get in a mush at an appropriate temperature. Buy a thermometer so you can always know for sure.
- CAUTION: Your dog will need to get in shape slowly. His pads will also have to toughen up slowly. Start your first run at NO MORE THAN ONE MILE—even if your dog tries to tell you he can go more. He is not experienced and doesn't yet know his own limits. At the halfway point, offer water and check his pads. If the pads are raw or bleeding, take a shortcut home. If you cannot take a shortcut, then take the rest of the way home in stages, stopping to rest often. Be sure to give your dog however many days it takes to heal.
- MEGA CAUTION: If the gangline gets slack while mushing, it can sometimes hit the front tire, get wrapped around the wheel, and then whip up under the bike. This will be painful for your dog, as it brings everything to a VERY sudden stop. Try to avoid this problem by always paying attention to what you are doing and to the speed of the dog. If the dog is a trotter who goes at a leisurely pace of about 8-10 mph, it is rarely a problem. However, a fast loper who goes 15-20 mph requires that you keep your eye glued to the dog and the line in front of you. If the line starts to go slack, immediately apply light brakes.
- CAUTION: Dogs who are first learning to mush will often stop to pee and, especially, to poop. For many dogs, running fast tends to have a laxative effect, often within the first quarter mile. As a result, they will be running and then suddenly stop to squat. You must watch out for this and be sure not to run over the dog. As a recreational musher, it is no big deal to stop and wait for him to finish pooping, but do not allow him to stop and sniff and check his pee-mail at every bush, or you will never get anywhere. Your dog will quickly learn to do that on his own time, which is when he is walking on a leash. When he tries to check pee-mail, put on the brakes and back your bike up away from whatever it is he wants to sniff. Tell him "on by," encourage him to run past the object, and veer your bike away from it. You will be able to pull your dog past it with practice.
- CAUTION: Wear glasses or goggles to keep dust and rocks from being thrown into your eyes. Fast dogs, especially, kick up a lot of dirt.
- CAUTION: Do not attempt to mush with three dogs. Three dogs will be too strong and you will not be able to stop them with the brakes of your bike. If you want to try with two dogs, get experience with single dogs first. It is much more of a training challenge by far, and will require some measure of dedication beyond the casual pet owner. In fact, it's pretty hard.
- CAUTION: Avoid asphalt when you can and stick to dirt roads "as mush as pawsible." Asphalt is hard on the paws and legs and usually has too much traffic.
Remember that mushing should be a fun time for the dog. As he gets better at mushing, he will love it even more. When you pull out the harness, he will recognize it and start to go absolutely nuts. He will dance around, bark, and howl; he will act like a completely undisciplined pup. DO NOT REBUKE HIM FOR THIS!! He is about to work his tail off for you; the least you can do is relax the obedience standards for two minutes while you harness him up and get on your bike.
NEVER, EVER lose your temper. If you feel the onset of frustration (and I guarantee this will happen often), stop all training and go get some ice cream or do something else calming and distracting.
Do, however, sing to your dog. Many dogs like to hear you sing, and if they are Nordic dogs, they may join in! Singing can alleviate boredom on a long and slow run. I have loads of lyrics proven to lift a dog's spirits near the end of a long run!
I hope that this training plan works for you. As you train, remember that success is when healthy dogs and trainers are happy together, whether or not they end up mushing.