BEGINNING MUSHING

After about 3 months of slowly bringing my dog into condition with a bike (I call it bikework rather than roadwork, as I prefer not to let my dog run on pavement!), yesterday we had our first successful bout of pulling. Although I’ve attempted to begin having my dog contribute by pulling ever so gently at a slow trot before now, the pulling was incidental rather than intentional (and I built this up over short periods/distances at a SLOW pace in the middle of a workout over many sessions). And, I intend to build up her understanding of pulling on the ground, at a walk, and with weight for a different exercise focusing on strength and walking muscles.

Even though those in the mushing community seek to build and breed “forward focus” (aka the desire to pull and not look back), I still want a dog that, other than when mushing, doesn’t pull. I believe that unwanted pulling is not good for my dogs, me, or our relationship. So, I’m mindful about how I introduce mushing to my dogs in order to preserve our “courteous walking” training and not confuse them at any point. Confusion can insidiously harm even the most well-intentioned and poison your relationship. Plus, there are times when I want to bike with my dog on a leash when I don’t need her pulling. It’s a delicate matter because unwanted pulling on 2 wheels can be dangerous.

My plan is to use a different harness for pulling to help the dogs know when and when not to pull. However, I’m not yet certain what harness I’m going to buy and the harness that my dog walks in is the same design, for the most part, as a short pulling harnesses. So, while experimenting with how to teach a dog to pull using exclusively positive reinforcement training, we’ve been using our walking harness for now. But, we just had our most glorious breakthrough moment where we both got a feel for what mushing is like, so I’ve a renewed determination to figure out which harness to buy.

What happened that was so glorious? After about 3 mi in to our regular run (she’s regularly running 6mi/cardio day (usually off-leash)), I softly encouraged her to lean into the harness and pull. And, for the first time, she got the feel of it. She felt how she could move the bike and had the freedom to carry forward. I should mention that the previous times out doing bikework, she’s been showing me that she’s feeling strong and ready for more. For those that might run out and try to mush, I did assist with a pedal stroke here and there and it was level ground without much rolling resistance…a level of difficulty appropriate to our introductory stage.  

I’ve been studying different resistance training (from weight pull to carting to more typical mushing) and I do see a lot of dogs that are worked for too long, that aren’t in shape, that fall into bad form and improper gaiting. I think it’s really easy to overdo the intensity/distance/duration when working a dog because dogs are such natural athletes that are so keen to run and move. There’s such a difference in the quality of a dog’s movement when she is fit and ready. Did I mention that it was glorious?

It’s easy to go too long/far because it felt so good to her which was so much fun for me to watch. I probably went a bit long, but I think she was good for a small overload. We ran for 1mi at a light gallop. After which, we followed with a big recovery period before continuing with our regular bikework (the toddler in the trailer wanted to get out and interview the puddles;). Even with a dog in “good condition”,  she was really heated from the short, casual (not top speed) run. Being in shape is really relative to the goal exercise. So, one could argue that she isn’t in good condition for this sport. Anyway, recovery periods certainly factor into the amount of difficulty. And, during that recovery I was able to clearly determine how much she had expended herself. A dog’s temperature keeps rising even after stopping exercise, so beware, especially in hot weather (though heat stroke can happen even in cold weather).

If you were to talk to the mushers, they’d probably laugh at how careful I approach this. I’ve been interviewing mushers to find out more, including a couple of the top competitors in the U.S., to learn what the standard procedures are. It’s largely theory backed with anecdotal evidence as there’s not a lot of research about how to build training up for dogs. We have to extrapolate from human studies, and, of course, apply Wisdom. I think that it’s important to be present and aware and take your time building your dog up. As I learn more lessons (i.e. get older;), I can’t be lazy and just let my dog run without thought. I believe that the quality of her movement was so good because she had the proper level of fitness. Her desire to participate was rewarded by how good it felt to move out. These are probably details that nobody but a geek like me could identify and appreciate. But, let me tell you, I think it’s important. Maybe it’s just a Zen thing and the secret to keeping it in joy.

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