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Want to have a go at Mushing?

Qimmiq Tales - April 2004

Would you like to run your dog in harness??
Not quite sure how to go about it?

1. Get a harness & trace
Harnesses are fairly inexpensive, usually less than $50. They are usually measured and made to fit the dog individually, and can be purchased from Peter Stables (Nordkyn Sled Dog Equipment: 0800 459 366) or from Realdog Equipment (www.realdog.co.nz; 03 4651956; Fax 64 03 4651956). (If there are any other harness suppliers in NZ then make yourselves known to me).
Traces, or ganglines, consist of a length of rope with a snap on one end and a carabiner on the other, and incorporating a rubber shock absorber. They can be adapted/extended for anything from a single dog team to 10+ dogs. Traces are available from both of the above suppliers.

2. Get your dog fit
Work up to decent length walks, jog with your dog etc. See the article earlier on 'Fun Ways to Exercise your Mal'. Carry water where possible.

3. Sled dog training 101
Get your dog used to the feeling of wearing the harness, and of having things dragging behind. Tie a small branch, tin cans, a milk bottle with stones in etc to your dogs harness during walks, or just around the yard. The weight of the objects being dragged can be slowly built up. (Nothing too heavy, a specialised weightpull harness is necessary for heavy weights).

4. Get a bike (preferably a mountain bike)
It doesn't have to be flash, as long as it has good brakes and steering, and working pedals to help your dog when he's first learning.

5. The first run in harness
Find a quiet area with flat ground and no other dogs around. Examples: an empty car park, a public park, a forest logging trail etc. Attach the trace to bike and harness, and have a friend or family member hold the dog in a standing position in front of the bike with the trace at full-length (taut). Get on the bike, and have the friend run ahead and call the dog. Alternatively, have them riding a bike themselves and calling. The ideal is to have an experienced dog team go ahead. Get excited! This should be great fun for your dog, so make sure he knows it. Pedal the bike, preventing any jerks on the dogs harness, and keep the line slack, but not dragging on the ground.

6. Beginning to pull
Once she's fairly confident and running ahead of the bike happily, start to coast without pedaling on the flat ground and let the dog feel the weight of the bike behind them. If the bike's already moving and its on flat ground, there will actually be very little pulling being done. Just let the dog get used to the feeling. Whenever you apply the brakes to stop call out a "whoa"/"wait" command.

7. Distractions
If the dog stops to sniff or pee, give them a verbal growl, and then praise excitedly when they stop sniffing and start running again. If necessary, ride the bike up alongside them and physically remove them from the interesting spot.
Alternatively, riding on an angle away from where they are sniffing will cause them to be pulled off the distraction.

For many dogs, this is the first time they've been able to run with you, without you slowing them down. They enjoy the excitement of it and the feeling of being able to run as fast they want to with no restrictions. Your job is to keep it fun for them, by using lots of praise, excited voices and not pushing them too hard too fast.

9. Building enthusiasm
When you've both got the hang of it, visit a pine forest (for Aucklanders, Woodhill and Riverhead forests). Preferably go with somebody else (on a bike, or with a dog team), so that your dog can chase them. Don't allow your dog to become dependent on chasing however, alternate with runs by yourself. Running a dog for a very long distance when he's not physically or mentally conditioned will kill enthusiasm, so keep the runs short, fast and fun.

10. Building fitness
Build up gradually from short runs to 2 - 4 km distances (or further if you wish). HELP YOUR DOG UP THE HILLS!!

11. Building trail manners
When on the trail with a well-trained dog team and a willing musher, practice passing. Ask the other musher how they want to do it, and make sure their team is not going to give your learning dog a bad experience with passing. Many members of the club train regularly from about April/May through to September. Ask around at events as to who might be training when, so you can meet up with them.
"On by" is an important command in any sled dogs vocabulary. "On by" means "I know there's a dog/tree/dead possum over there but KEEP GOING REGARDLESS".
It is also helpful for your dog to know "left" and "right". Your dog will soon pick these words up if you use them regularly. Whenever you are going on walks, say "left" as you turn left and vice versa. (If you want to sound like a pro, use "gee" and "haw", but it doesn't really matter what the word is, and most people find 'left' and 'right' easier to remember).
When on walks and your dog looks like he's going to pull over to a tree/dog etc say "On By" firmly and move him away from it, walking briskly. Remember to praise/treat afterward.

12. Club Events
Come along to the Training Weekend in April/May at Taupo. Also attend any fun race days the Club might be having. These events are geared toward education and encouraging people and dogs new to mushing and other Mal sports.

13. Racing? Or just for fun and exercise?
To help you get an idea of what a race involves, take your dog along to watch a few. Don't enter any at first, just attend and help out (handlers are always needed on the start line). Leave your dog in the car when races are starting and finishing.

New Zealand Federation of Sleddog Sports
The Federation website has a race calendar, entry forms to download, rules, results and more.
Read More (another window will open)...

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