Thursday, May 22, 2008

Equipment needed for Skijoring, Bikejoring and Canicross

The Dog's Harness

The preferred harness for your dog is the X-back harness which is the standard for most sled dog sports. Avoid pet store walking harnesses that ring the chest perpendicular to the spine of your dog. These type of harnesses can restrict chest expansion and inhibit breathing. They also can severely encroach on the leg room that your dog needs to run. Harnesses that have webbing too close to your dogs fore legs can cause chafing and discomfort for your dog. Other harnesses that purport to be designed for skijoring are not as comfortable for the dog as the typical X-back.

The harness in the photo is an X-back. Notice how much room the fore legs of the dog have. The transverse webbing allows for chest expansion.

The X-back wraps the dog's body and allows the dog to pull with the whole body. Harnesses can be ordered with padding on the neck and chest. Other options are reflective strips for night running and closed cell padding that is lighter and will not absorb water. Harnesses can be ordered online for 17 to 25 dollars depending on the options you choose.

The Towline

You should not use a leash for a towline. A leash will be too short and will also be too jerky when a dog is pulling. The line needs to have a bungee section incorporated into the core of the line to smooth out the yo yo motion of the skier and rider. The bungee is a form of suspension that makes it comfortable for the dog and the driver.

The line should be at least nine feet long. You need the extra length beyond the length of a leash so that you have more reaction time in case your dog stops to poop or mark. Without the extra length, you might be in danger of running into your dog. If you have very fast dogs then you should consider an even longer line. The end of the line that attaches to the dog's harness should have a small brass swivel snap. The end of the line that attaches to your wheeled rig or skijor belt should have a loop. Here is a link that will help you make your own lines. For canicross, it is not necessary to have such a long line. You will still like a bungee section. A canicross line should be about seven feet long.

Always attach the line to the front and center of your rig. Do not attach the line to the grips of your bike. This is a common mistake that will make you fight for control of your bike with your dog. When the line is attached at the center at either the stem or the head tube, then your hands are free to use your brakes and control your steering. Do not use your skijor belt as an attachment when bikejoring or scootering. A line attached to your body will get you dragged in case of an accident. If the line is attached to the bike, then the bike may get scuffed and dragged for a short distance before the dogs will stop. Human bodies are much more expensive and painful to repair than a bike.

This is one of the places your dog team can take you. Left to right, Tempo, Flash

The Skijor / Canicross Belt

Skijoring is a relatively new sport and equipment is still evolving. The driver needs some kind of harness that will be comfortable and allow your dog to pull you without the pulling forces digging into your back. Older skijor belts were lightly padded, narrow waist belts. These belts become very uncomfortable after a few miles with hard charging dogs tugging on you. They also tend to make your clothes ride up exposing bare skin to cold air. A newer innovation is a belt that wraps your butt and pulls you at a much lower center of gravity. Leg loops help keep the belt in place . I call these belts "diaper" belts. The diapers do not dig into your spine and are not uncomfortable after long distances. The same belt can be used for canicross.
There are some climbing harnesses that have been adapted for skijoring and canicross. Some of the limitations of climbing harnesses is that often the padding behind the back is inadequate. The leg loops on some climbing harnesses will chafe when used for running and XC skiing.

In the next post I will discuss the skis and the different wheeled rigs you can use to run a small dog team.
This is the road to Relay Peak. There is a fog layer over Lake Tahoe.

Go With Dog
Mike Callahan

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Training a Lead dog, Part 2

To better understand running dogs, it is helpful to know a little about wolf behavior. Dogs are almost genetically identical to wolves. Wolves prey on varmints but as a pack they can also bring down bigger game. A deer may be able to outrun a wolf in a short distance but the wolf will eventually overtake a deer by "doggedly" chasing it. Wolves typically can run over fifty miles in pursuit of a meal. The deer will eventually become exhausted and have to face the predators.

Dogs have the body and innate drive to run and chase down prey. It is the dog musher's joyful job to harness that dog energy. People who claim you need to force a dog to work are mistaken. "You can't push a rope." Dogs work eagerly and willingly for the driver. Humans typically do not enjoy running, but for a dog, the act of running is a hard-wired primal urge.

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This photo shows Mojo just starting out on a run. Notice how tight his tugline is and how crazy happy the look on his face is. I got my Mojo working! All I have to do is let go of my brakes and I get whiplash from all that enthusiasm. Notice that the gangline leading ahead to Seamus is also piano wire tight. This photo illustrates the fact that contrary to what you see from Hollywood, you do not need a whip to run dogs.

The type of dog running I do is mushing style. The distinction is that the dog needs to be in front of you on a lead or line. There are other methods of running dogs that use a rigid connection that connects the dog to the wheeled rig. The rigid connection puts the driver in more control. This kind of rig can be good if your dogs have aggression problems or if you need more control in an urban environment.

Notice this wheeled rig known as a sulky has a rigid staff that extends out to the dog's harness and keeps the dogs at a static distance.

The rigid connection allows more control for the driver but it is not as comfortable for the dog. The mushing style allows the dog more freedom of movement. You absolutely must have a trained leader to do mushing style.
When your dog is in front, on a line then you relinquish much of your control. You have to be able to trust your leader to turn in the right direction and to keep the rest of the team on the trail. A good leader will be an extension of your mind. Dogs can learn, and rise to the challenge with a little more work on your part.

When just starting to train your first leader I like to use a canicross getup. The equipment required is a well fitted X-back harness for your dog, a line with a bungee section integrated into the core of the rope and a skijoring belt for you to connect with the line and the dog. I will discuss in detail the equipment you will need in a later post. Essentially it is a skijoring getup without the skis. The line can be a few feet shorter than a ten foot skijor line.

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This photo shows my wife in the year 2000 with her Rott/Lab mix on a canicross run on the Tahoe Rim Trail near Brockway Summit.

Puppies can learn to pull at an early age by harnessing them to an old tire or a chunk of cordwood with an eyebolt. Walk the puppy to get it used to pulling a little weight. Make the lessons short. Do not leave your pup unattended with a weight. It may spook the little guy. Always keep an upbeat attitude and have lots of patience.

To train a leader you must encourage your dog to get in front of you and pull. If your dog is trained to heel then you may have to overcome the inhibitions that you have trained into your dog. Most dogs when dressed in a harness will differentiate the objective after a while. When your dog gets out in front of you then praise her. Praise her when she begins to pull. Reward good behavior with lots of praise. I prefer the positive reinforcement method of training. Dogs respond well to a happy driver.

Don't mind when your dog does not pull very hard at first. Pulling is work and a dog has to build up strength. If your dog is already athletic then the extra work of pulling will still take time because there are different muscle groups involved. Endurance does not come with a breed. Endurance comes from miles on the trail. Start out with low mileage and work slowly up from there. Be careful that you don't run your dogs too far. You must know their limits and stay within them. Your dogs must trust you to always take care. A group of humans may be able to go much further on bikes on any day so you must always remember to put the dog's welfare first. Always bring extra water for your dogs or follow a trail along a creek or river that the dogs can use to cool off.

Always insist on tight lines. If the line is not taut then stop the lesson for a few moments or the day.

A dog does not know your language so somehow you have to convey the idea in a language your dog can understand. This may take months of kind patience. With your canicross outfit you can easily reel in the line and correct a dog by gently nudging her in the right direction. Younger dogs need a little gentle scolding when they goof off and mark or chase varmints. Be consistent and insist that the dog stay on the trail and keep the line out. When your dog is finally trained to lead then you will go quietly down the trail with very few corrections and commands. Young dogs take a little bit of nagging to help them get with the program.

Always be gentle and try to make every outing fun for you and the dog. Dogs pick up on your mood quickly. Never train in a bad mood and never get angry with your dog except when aggression towards other dogs is detected.


Before you start, your dog should already know the basic obedience commands, sit, stay, no and come. Beyond that, a leader should also know a few basic commands so that you can all go safely down the trail.

A small team should learn the command "Line out". "Line out" is taught using repetition.

This photo show my 1999 team lined out and ready to go after a water break. Notice the tight line while they wait for me to get on the bike.

When the dog naturally lines out then say the words. Try to always set up your dog for success. Use the command "Gee" for right hand turns and "Haw" for left turns. A leader should also know "On By" for moving past varmints, loose dogs or to discourage marking .

One of the hardest commands for a dog to get is "Whoa". I usually say "Easy" before I use Whoa and Whoa is reinforced with a hard tug on your brakes or a stiff snowplow on skis.

Another handy command is "Come around" when you want to make a U-turn. Use the command "Straight" when you come to a fork in the trail and you want your dog to go straight. If you are on a road and you want your dog to stay to the right or left then use "Gee over" or "Haw over" Push the line in the direction that you want the dog to go when you say the command. All these commands are learned with repetitive use. It may take a while before you can really rely on a dog to know what to do depending on how often you work with your dog. Mix up the trails you use so the dog can learn to listen to you when you come to a fork in the trail. When approaching a fork in the trail, you may notice the lead dog's ears perk as a signal for you to give a cue. I will often warn the leader before a turn by saying something like, "We're gonna go gee, We're gonna go gee" and then I say "gee" right before the turn.

Often you might have a tangle where the line is wrapped around a dogs leg or body out on the trail and you want your team to stop so you can untangle one of your dogs. In that case I will say "whoa" and "Mojo's tangled". The dogs will learn to wait until you untangle the dog before you can proceed.

Before you hook up a team to a bike or any wheeled rig you must have dependable leader. Train your leader on foot over the summer and then when it is cooler you can pick up the pace with your wheeled rig. If your dog is undisciplined then you greatly increase your chance of an accident.

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This is my all husky team with Streak in lead with Flash in wheel and Tempo the puppy running loose on the Tahoe Rim Trail near Tahoe Meadows in 1999.

The next post I will talk about equipment for running your dogs.

Go With Dog

Mike Callahan

Training a Lead Dog, Part 1

Dogs love to run and a dog driver only enables his dogs to do what they love to do. Dogs need guidance to know what is expected of them. Not all dogs easily get the idea of mushing. Some people like to say that this dog or that dog is a born leader. Born leaders are a rare trait as some like to think. There is a lot of myth and hooey about what makes a good leader. Some great leaders are very shy dogs and some are very gregarious. There is no specific personality trait that would help someone sort a lead dog from the rest of the pack. The leader is not always the alpha dog. One thing a good leader does is listen to the driver.

A dog out in front of you on a line needs to be a sociable dog. Dogs that have a tendency for aggression do not make good leaders or team dogs. You want a dog that will run by loose dogs and not want to stop and pick a fight. Aggressive dogs tend to stay that way. Some dogs can learn to be more disciplined but aggression is often an incorrigible trait and difficult to vanquish. For dogs that can be bullies, a muzzle designed to allow the dog to breath while it runs can be used.

The easiest way to train a dog to pull is to use another dog that is already trained. Dogs learn very quickly from each other. Many mushers who have lots of dogs never actually trained their first leader. They often buy an already trained leader and use that dog to train the rest of the team.

This Photo shows my dog Otto training another dog "Copper" at the SNDD fall training clinic. I am behind on a bike with Seamus pulling me. Notice the single file line that I use to train other dogs. Single file formation allows the dogs more room and does not allow petty bickering that a side by side lead might allow.

The urban musher who is limited by the number of dogs they can have does not have the luxury of buying a trained leader. If you have only one dog then you still can train your dog to lead. It will take a lot of patience and a lot of time. The time that it takes in the long run will be only a small part of your dog's life compared to all the years that you will be rewarded from having a trained lead dog. To accelerate your dog's training it might be helpful to seek out someone with a working team and arrange for your dog to run with a team. One such opportunity is the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers Fall Training Clinic held every October near Truckee. There you and your dog can gain a lot of knowledge in a short time.

Once you have trained your leader, you can hook up your next dog with the first dog and the new dog will learn profoundly faster.

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This dog in the photo is "Flash" in his younger days.

Flash was a cull from an elite competitive mushing kennel. He was the result of an accidental breeding between an old retired leader and a very young untested female. His looks are typical of the Alaskan Husky breed. Flash was my first dog that I trained to be a leader. Although he is from a top kennel he was acquired as a puppy and never had the opportunity to run with a team before I acquired him. In spite of his pedigree, it took a long time for me to train him without the help of other dogs. He went on to lead me to two ISDRA gold medals and a silver medal at the BC championships in skijoring.

In my following posts I will detail methods that you can use to train your dog to get out in front and pull.

Go with dog.

Mike Callahan

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Introduction to Micro Kennels

This is my first post to this blog.

I am Mike Callahan. I have been a competitive dog driver since 1995. I have five international medals in skijoring as sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association. (ISDRA) I am the past president of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers. I have competed in skijoring and dryland races in Alaska, Canada and several states in the good ol' USA. I hope to convey the methods needed and to discuss the equipment to help you and your dog to become a working team.
I have a small kennel of five dogs. Three are German Shorthaired Pointers,( Otto, Mojo, Seamus) and two are retired Alaskan Huskies. (Flash and Tempo). These dogs are the stars of this blog.

Flash is an Alaskan Husky and is fifteen years old now. He weighs 60 pounds and was my first lead dog

Tempo is ten. Tempo was a cull from another musher. She is an Alaskan Husky. She weighs 60 pounds. Tempo is also retired from racing.

Otto is five. Otto was a cull from a hunting kennel. He is 58 pounds. Otto is my main leader now.

This is Seamus. (Pronounced shaymus) Seamus was adopted from a shelter. He is about three years old and weighs about 50 pounds. Seamus is also a lead dog

This is Mojo. We adopted Mojo the same day we adopted Seamus. Mojo weighs 45 pounds. Mojo has huge attitude for his light weight. He is also a good lead dog. He pulls like a banshee.

Why this Blog?

I want to introduce the public to the sport of dog mushing on a micro level. You do not need a large number of dogs to enjoy mushing. Most people who live in the city or suburbs can not have a large team of dogs. Only one dog is needed to enjoy dog power while skijoring, (Mushing on XC skis), bikejoring, (Dogs pulling a mountain bike), scootering, (Dogs pulling a dog scooter), and canicrossing (Dogs pulling a runner). Your dog will love the opportunity to get out and run. The sport of mushing allows your dog to run under your control. You can go where leash laws are in effect because your dogs are connected to you with a line.

Walking a dog is too slow for most dogs. The speed of the walk is dictated by the human. If it was up to the dog then the dog would most like to run. The use of a wheeled rig will enable you to run your dog and really fulfill your dogs life. The most common wheeled rig for running dogs is a mountain bike.
This photo was taken at the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers fall training clinic in 2007. I should have been wearing a helmet in this photo. Mountain bikes offer good control and stability. Until your dogs are well trained then you should only use two dogs at the most while bikejoring.
The other popular rig for running a small team is a dog scooter.

This is my team at a race in Chico CA in 2006. This scooter is made by Diggler and is very popular with the urban mushers. Your rig must have good brakes. V-brakes or disc brakes are the best. When your dogs pull hard then your brakes will allow control. When you have substandard brakes then mayhem could be your next moment. Another method to run dogs is skijoring.
This photo of me, Seamus and Mojo was taken by Mark Guillory at the Chester Sled Dog Races in 2008. Skijoring requires you to be a good XC skier before you hook up to your dogs. That narrows down the demographic profoundly. If you can not ski well then you might spook your dogs from too much falling. If you are not able to stop effectively then you could run over your dog and cause an injury.

Canicross is running with a dog pulling you. With a good dog you can profoundly improve your mile times. The dog is connected to you with a skijor belt so you can run hands free. Canicross is the dog sport that is most likely to grow because people love to run with their dogs.

This photo is of Robert Stradley at the "Not So Great Serum Run" in Fairview Park this past December in Costa Mesa CA. The event was put on by the Southern California Urban Mushers.

Training a lead dog

The most intimidating obstacle for all beginning mushers is how to get your dog out in front and pulling. Every musher needs a "Lead Dog". In the future posts I hope I can convey the methods to you all for training your dog to be a leader.

Go With Dog

Mike Callahan