Let’s Go Mushing! An Introduction to Dog-Powered Sports

Mushing: Man sledding with his Siberian Huskies

 

Admirers of working breeds may have seen movies like Togo or may have dreamed of riding a sled on a snow-covered trail behind a team of focused and hard-working sled dogs. While this may be unrealistic for most dog owners, many of us experience the frustrations brought on by under-stimulated dogs that need more exercise. Fortunately, there is a solution that can address both your dreams and your reality—dog-powered sports!

As an off-season training activity for sled dog teams, dryland mushing sports have evolved into year-round sports that are enjoyed by people around the world. Living somewhere that lacks snow—or having a nontraditional sled dog—does not have to exclude you from enjoying the thrill of mushing! Many teams, in both hot and cold climates, are learning that dog-powered sports are a great way to stay in shape and cultivate strong canine-human bonds.

Dog-powered sports are those that involve you and the dog working together as a team. The dog (or dogs) are attached out in front of the musher. You can participate on foot or on wheels and can get started no matter where you are in your fitness journey.

Dog-powered sport - Mushing: Woman and a Belgian Malinois dog doing Canicross sport

The most popular and most beginner-friendly dog-powered sport is canicross, a sport in which the human wears a specially designed belt and runs behind a harnessed dog that pulls. Canicross is a great way for you and your dog to get in shape together, work on mushing cues, and start developing strong teamwork.

Once you’ve established the basics of canicross, you may feel adventurous enough to get on wheels and try bikejoring (riding a bike that is pulled by a dog), scootering (riding a scooter that is pulled by a dog), or even a rig (riding a three- or four-wheeled dryland cart being pulled by a dog)!

Dog-powered sport: Man and Alaskan Malamutes dogs bikejoring

If you do have snowy winters, you may be interested in skijoring (cross-country skiing while being pulled by a dog) or sledding. Intrigued? Let’s cover some of the basics on equipment, training, and safety.

Dryland mushing equipment does not need to be expensive, but it does need to fit right! Two essential pieces of equipment that you’ll need for dog-powered sports are a harness for your dog and a line.

The most common harness styles are x-back and multi-sport.

X-back harnesses feature an attachment further back and distribute weight over a large area, which is preferable for many mushers.

Multi-sport harnesses feature a simple design and higher attachment point, which can make them versatile for a variety of mushing activities and makes them ideal for dogs that may not be as keen on pulling. Lines generally feature a bungee cord section, to help ease the shock of any sudden starts/stops, and come in a variety of styles such as single-dog lines, two-dog lines and ganglines for connecting larger teams. Harness and line preferences are often very personal and depend on what feels best for you and your dog.

For canicross you will also need a canicross belt, which will allow you to connect your dog to you at waist-level. These belts feature leg loops, to help stabilize the belt, and sit lower around your hips for a comfortable point of attachment and pressure.

For wheeled mushing you will need a bike, scooter, or a rig, and you should keep in mind your local trail type when shopping around. Rockier, more technical trails, may require more shock absorption and wider mountain bike-style tires. You will also need a bike antenna to prevent your line from becoming tangled in the front wheel of your bike/scooter/rig.

Mushing - Dog scootering: Woman on a scooter with German Shorthaired Pointer dog called "Finn"
Photo credit: Emily Ferrans

While you are researching equipment and waiting for that shipment to arrive, you can begin training! Basic Obedience training will help you in your dryland mushing journey, but there are a few additional cues you will need to train, including:

  • gee (turn right)
  • haw (turn left)
  • gee over (move right)
  • haw over (move left)
  • hike (move forward)
  • easy (slow down)
  • whoa (stop), on by (pass/leave it)
  • line out (put pressure on the line)
  • stay

It’s best to work on new cues in a low distraction environment. Keep training sessions short, 2-3 minutes at a time, focusing on one skill at a time. Once you have had success with the directions, you can clip a leash on your dog and practice during walks! As you begin running, you can continue to reinforce those cues on trail by praising your dog for responding correctly.

Generally, pulling comes naturally to many dogs. However, if your dog is worried about pulling out in front of you, try having a friend (with or without a dog) run ahead of you. Having a “bunny” to follow will do wonders for motivating your dog to run harder.

Interested in building up your own team of two or more dogs? If so, I recommend starting by working with each dog individually on direction cues. Each dog should be able to respond to all cues on their own before being connected to another dog.

Dog-powered sport: Woman and a Toy Fox Terrier bikejoring

As you get out on the trails with your dogs, you will learn a lot from your adventures. Here are a few starter safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Softer trails are best. Just like with people, pavement running can be hard on joints and feet.
  • Be mindful of your (and your dog’s) current fitness level. If you and your dog have been out of the fitness game for a while, try looking into a Couch-to-5K program as a guideline. We want to make sure we are easing the dogs into this just as much as we do ourselves.
  • As with any biking and running activities, be sure that you have appropriate protective clothing, including proper footwear (such as trail running shoes) and a bike helmet. You can also purchase booties and/or paw protection wax for your dog in order to protect their feet from rough surfaces.

Good luck to you and your dogs as you explore the world of dog-powered sports!

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  • Chelsea Murray is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer Knowledge Assessed through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA), a Karen Pryor Academy graduate and Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI), and an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator. She is the head trainer and owner of Pawsitive Futures Dog Training and Behavior in Atlanta, Georgia. Chelsea recently became a Board Member for the United States Federation of Sled Dog Sports (2021) and enjoys recreational and competitive sled dog sports with her Alaskan Malamutes. As a part of Pawsitive Futures’ program, she teaches people how to get involved in dog-powered sports both in-person and virtually. She also hosts the podcast, Pawsitively Dog-Powered, helping to connect people with other mushers and pet professionals for more information and training tips on sled dog sports.

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