Mushing 101

People ask all the time about how to get started with dog powered sports: Mushing, Scootering, Dryland, … Over the years we've put together some "beginner" notes. They are targeted at beginners and small teams (1-4 dogs).

If you are interested in sled dog racing and want to know what to expect in a first race, check out Racing 101.

What You Need

Besides your dogs and what they are pulling:

Required:
  • Helmet – bike, ski, snowboard, skateboard are OK.
  • We recommend a "MIPS" helmet: http://mipshelmet.com/home
  • Helmet is required for dryland racing.
Optional:
  • Goggles, Knee Pads, Elbow Pads, Wrist Pads, Gloves, Chest protector.
  • Eyeware is required for dryland racing.

Other Accessories:
  • Bike Computer, Fanny Pack, Head Lamp, GPS, Helmet Cam, Snub lines.
  • Dog Truck (picket line, drop cables).

For Sledding:
  • Snow hook, sled bag and snub line (all required for racing).

What Your Dog Needs

Required:
  • Collar: circle or limited slip release only. No buckle or choke collars!
  • Harness: X-back, H-back, Urban trail (fitted by size).
  • Appropriate gang line to connect your dog to what it is pulling (more below).
  • Trimmed nails: 1/8” above surface (run on pads, not nails).
  • Lots of water.
There are lots of great places to by gear.  Everyone has their favorites (we do).  Don't be afraid to mix and match from different suppliers to get what you need.

Optional:

What to Pull

  • You, while jogging – Canicross.
  • You, on skis – Skijoring (no metal edged skis; you need to know how to ski first!).
  • You, on skis + you small sled – Pulka.
  • You, on bike – Bikejoring (may be a bit more dangerous, not as easy to get off, or to connect dogs to the bike).
  • You, on sled – Sledding.
  • You, on a cart/sulky – Carting.
  • You, on dog scooter or rig (designed to hook up dogs, big wheels, suspension, brakes!) – Scootering, Dryland.
  • Kickbikes and scooters are essentially the same.
  • Kick sleds are not designed to be pulled by a dog.

Avoid: skateboards, roller blades, razor scooters, unicycles, kicksleds (anything without brakes).
Avoid: anything where you directly hold the dog’s leash through your hands.

Connecting the Dogs to What They Pull

Gangline: (from dogs to what they pull). Rope only (no chains, cables). You should have a bungee/shock cord section.

Standard, ready-made scootering/skijoring lines have 2 tuglines for 2 dogs and include a bungee: connect both tuglines to the harness if running one dog. You can get a single dog scootering line, but its just as easy to use a 2-dog line and connect both tuglines to one harness (and you can always get another dog).

Double neckline: connects two lead dogs together. Leader necklines are required for dryland racing. Can be used as a tab for walking or holding a single dog (connect BOTH ends to collar or one to the collar and one to the harness). Don’t run with a looped neckline only connected to one dog's collar; dogs can get legs tangled in it.  Take the neckline off, or connect the second end to the harness.

Sectional ganglines: Use multiple gangline sections for more dogs. Ganglines are modular to link end to end. You can use a 4-dog line to run 2 dogs with one in front of the other instead of side-by-side. You will also need single necklines to connect collars to the gangline (the harness connects to tugline). A lead section is just two tug lines for 2 lead dogs. Always use a bungee section on the sled/scooter/person end. For a sled/rig you want to keep the gangline section between the sled/rig and first tug lines short to have better control in turns.

Canicross and skijoring require an additional waist belt to connect the gangline to you. Skijor lines have quick releases. May use different length (longer) ganglines.

Where to Scooter or Sled

  • Rails-to-trails work well. Cooler, shaded, less used trails are better. For local folks:
    • Butler-Freeport Trail – nice, wide, shaded (Cabot to Freeport, deep in creek valley), well drained, crushed stone, not heavily used (10+ miles Cabot to Freeport). Very bad ticks.
    • Roaring Run Trail (Apollo) – nice, wide, shaded, along river, very well drained, crushed stone, not heavily used (3.5 mile out and return). Some ticks.
    • Pittsburgh City and River trails – OK at odd hours, often too busy with other people, dogs & bikes, narrow in places, most parts paved, various short sections (1-3 miles).
    • Montour Run Trail – nice, wide, NO shade for most, not heavily used in some sections, crushed stone, long (30+ miles complete).
    • Pan Handle Trail – reported to be busy from Carnegie to Midway, WV section nice, mostly open, no shade, long (30 miles).
    • Laurel Mt - groomed in winter for sled, shared with snow machines and cross country skiers; rough for dryland.
  • Trail users don’t expect dogs and scooters/rigs/sleds, 17-26’ from wagging tongue to rear wheel, coming down the trail at 15+ MPH.
  • Yappitiziers on flexi leashes with owners talking on cell phones are always a problem.
  • Loop trails are easier than “out and back” since it easier to turn around by yourself.
  • Wider trails are better for passing.
  • Train to keep on the right.
  • Find easy grades (no hills) to get started (rails to trails are 1% grade).
  • During hunting season, wear blaze orange vests (you AND the dogs) on rural trails.
  • Surfaces:
    • Best: snow, pine needles, bark, grass.
    • OK: ice, sand, dirt, crushed stone.
    • Not so good: concrete, asphalt, hard surfaces (can wear away pads on paws) or rough stones.

When to Go

  • Temperature (in degrees F) + Relative Humidity < 100.
  • Above 50 degrees F is marginal with high humidity. Might be OK for trained dogs, shade and short, slow training runs.
  • Winter/Northern breed dogs are OK in cold weather (above -50F).
  • Some other breeds MAY need coats when cold (below 0F).

Distance to Go

  • Start @ ¼ to ½ mile.
  • Run max of 2 or 3 days in a row, rest 1 day, repeat.
  • Do a given distance 2 or more times out, then increase distance slowly (50% increments).
  • A conditioned dog should be able to trot for 30-60 minutes (2 miles in 30 minutes @ 4MPH, 8 miles in an hour @ 8MPH).
  • Most races distances are 1 mile per dog (2 dogs @ 2 miles, 4 dogs @ 4 miles).
  • Dog conditioning is like training to jog/run.

How Many Dogs

  • 1 dog can pull 3x its own weight on a flat, smooth surface (e.g., rails-to-trails crushed stone).
  • 2 dogs are good.
  • It’s hard to stop three+ 50 pound dogs—more dogs require better brakes, and a reliable “whoa” command!

How Fast

  • Dogs can run at 10-20 (or more) MPH.
  • A nice trot is 5-8 MPH.
  • Well-conditioned dogs can go 10MPH for 5+ miles.
  • Keep it to a trot or lope, no galloping (unless it’s sprint racing).
  • No need to go fast unless you want to be competitive in racing. Sprint teams do 10-20MPH.
  • Better to train at slow speeds. Then condition for endurance/recovery. Add speed last!

What Dogs: Breed / Age

  • Age: 1 year+ (wait for fully developed skeleton and growth plates).
  • OK to run with a dog not connected to the line and not pulling before 1 year (free running).
  • Size: 40-50# or up for scootering with one dog. Multiple smaller dogs (20#) are OK.
  • Breed: anything that wants to pull or run.  Small breeds are great for canicross.

Commands

  • Hike – Go.
  • Ready+Let’s Go – Go. (some use "Alright!")
  • Whoa – Stop.
  • No – No.
  • Gee – Right.
  • Haw – Left.
  • On By – Go straight or ignore anything (like leave it + keep moving).
  • Line Out – pull gangline taut and stay (used when setting up).
  • Easy – Slow down.
  • Get Up – Go faster (or use some sound).
  • Gee/Haw Over – Go to right/left side of trail.
  • Gee/Haw Come – U turn, to right or left.
  • Watch/wait for the Gee/Haw – Take the next available turn (advanced command).
  • Trail – Musher to musher to request passing.

Mush is not a command.
  • Commands listed first are most important.
  • Always keep the gangline taut, either stopping to let the dog pull, or slowing down what is being pulled (use your brakes).
  • Give dog’s name, pause, then the command.
  • It’s OK to repeat the commands in rapid succession, e.g., “dog name, gee, gee”.
  • Anticipate turns, …, and give command so dogs can plan what to do. Let dogs think!
  • Do not chatter at your dogs while running – enjoy the outdoors. Give the command and shut up and let the dog figure it out.
  • If you need to give a command more than twice, stop and correct the problem.  Repeating the command doesn't help.
  • Don’t worry – everyone (experienced musher included) occasionally gets gee and haw backwards.
  • Offer simple praise for proper commands (“good dog”), lots of affection at the end of a run.

Training

  • Pulling chains (versus tires or blocks) is good to learn to pull. Start with a 4’ section of 3/8” chain with a shock section and then add more sections for more weight.
  • Remember dogs are facing (running) away and only listening to you – visual cues/commands don’t work.
  • The first thing to train is to pull and get accustomed to weight on harness from behind.
  • Harness + Gangline + Scooter = Pull; Collar + Leash + Person = Heel/Take a Walk. Dogs should know the difference.
  • Make sure dogs are hydrated before the run (may water an hour or two before, or bait water with a little food [kibble, cat food]).
  • Always give water at end of run.
  • When warm, stop often for water.
  • No food before the run (avoid potential for bloat). If you feed or bait water, do it 2-3 hours before the run.  Best performance is to feed once a day; 24 hours before a run.
  • No “marking” while running.
  • Keep the gangline taut.
  • Help by kicking when needed – it’s a kick scooter! (when starting, up hills, …).
  • Vary the trail, pattern, distance, … to keep it interesting for your dogs.
  • Keep a log so you know what works.
  • Use a trained (lead) dog (if possible) to teach your dog!
  • If your dog stops, refuses to pull – STOP – training/running session is over. NEVER force a dog to pull/run.
  • Never let one dog pull another by the neckline (dogs should pull [its really pushing into the harness] only from shoulders and chest, never the neck).
  • Always finish on a positive experience.
  • Keep it upbeat – if you aren’t happy, the dogs will sense it.
  • If you are going to race, make the training conditions as similar to the race conditions are possible (distance and speed once conditioned, dog placement on team).
  • Work on commands and behavior. If the dogs aren't getting it, stop and fix the problem.
  • You can connect a cheap, short leash to your leaders and let them drag it. Use it to handle them to fix problems.
  • Be slow and deliberate -- no need to rush when you are fixing a problem.

Safety

  • Keep your dog hydrated.
  • Stop every mile or so and offer water until you know your dog's endurance.
  • Stop and get help at any sign of dehydration. Pour water on the dog, get into water with it – water by mouth is not enough.
  • Make sure there are no tangles or other problems before starting; “lineout” the dogs first.
  • Give dogs a chance to sort out simple gangline tangles (line between legs).
  • Stop immediately and fix any serious tangle (around legs, neck).
  • Carry a knife and cut the lines/harness if needed.
  • Know your dog’s gait. Stop if there’s a problem.
  • Check for sore pads, wrists, elbows, shoulders after a run or at any sign of problem.
  • Check your equipment before each run (lines, harnesses, brakes, equipment).
  • If going to a remote area, tell a friend where you are going and when you expect to return.
  • If going to a tick infested area, thoroughly check your dogs when you finish a run.

What to Carry

Essential:
  • Water & bowl.
  • Poop bags.
  • Cell phone, 2-way radio.
Recommended as appropriate:
  • First aid kit (for cuts, to make an emergency splint).
  • Knife (to cut lines).
  • Leash (if you need to stop your run and walk your dog).
  • Bike tools: box wrench, Allen wrench, cable ties, tape.

Resources

See Links for more resources.

Local Trails

Facebook Groups & Pages

See Links for more Facebook links.

2014-12-28