Fun with Your Dog: Mushing on a Bike

11 steps that show how to have much fun with your dog mushing on a bike.

1. 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.

2. Assess size and age

To be suitable for mushing, your dog should be at least medium-sized, 30 pounds and up. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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. 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.

5. 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.

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.

6. 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.

7. 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 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.

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 distanceof 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.

8. 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 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. Go 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.”

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:

  • “hike”
  • “whoa”
  • “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.

What do you think?

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