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Most of us tend to think of the term "mush" as a command used by sled team drivers way up north where sled dogs are often the only form of transportation. There are two myths in this sentence, first sled dogs are no longer the main form of transportation in many such places, "mushing" is more of a sport than a necessary form of transportation. Second, perhaps the only person to ever actually use this term to urge his team on was Yukon Cornelius in the movie, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'.
If you have a dog that is bred to pull such as a Siberian husky, Alaskan Malamute, Canadian Eskimo dog, Samoyed, or Chinook, you already have a head start. But, many other breeds can be taught to mush, it's a great way for your pup to burn off all that extra energy. You can teach your pup to mush, all it takes is hard work and time. One quick word, your pup should weigh at least 30 pounds and a medium-sized breed or larger.
Recreational mushing or dog sledding is just as safe any virtually any other dog sport. This is providing you take your time to train your pup properly. It is the perfect time to let your pup take the lead while you get to celebrate his athletic ability and be encouraging in a very positive way. You start out by teaching your pup to wear his harness and to pull alone. You can always work on putting a pulling team together at a later date.
You should be aware before you start, that buying a complete pulling harness and sled rig can be quite expensive to buy new. If you have one, check with your local dog sled pulling club and you may find that someone has some used gear you can buy or borrow. You will also find the members are full of sage advice to help you get started.
Before you can start training your pup to mush, he needs to get used to wearing his new harness. Be sure to adjust it to fit him properly from day one. Let him wear it around the house and yard, starting with short time periods and moving up to where he is comfortable in it for long periods of time. Your pup needs to have mastered the four basic commands of 'come', 'sit', 'stay', and 'down'. You will also be teaching him a number of new commands including;
- Hike: Start moving forward (you can use 'mush', though, if you feel so inclined).
- Line out: signals your pup to take up the slack in the tow line standing at the end of the line.
- Gee: Turn to the right.
- Haw: Turn to the left.
- On by: Go past an object without slowing down.
- Easy: Slow down, often used just before stopping.
- Whoa: Simply put, this means 'stop'.
There are also a few things you will need to complete the training:
- Treats: For rewards.
- Pulling harness: Go for fit and quality, then worry about price . Go for used if you can.
- Tow rope: To connect to the sled.
- Waist belt: For training purposes.
- A sled or cart: For training purposes.
- Time and patience: You can never have enough of these.
The most important thing to remember is that even with pulling breeds, training your pup to successfully pull a sled is going to take time and patience. But, imagine the fun the two of you can have as your pup pulls you, the groceries, or the kids around with a big happy smile on his face.
The Start Small Method
Hitch him up
Once your dog is used to his harness, hook him up to something small like a length of board or a small car tire. Give him time to get used to the idea of being hitched up and then put him on his leash.
Lead your pup off on a walk using the command 'line out' as you encourage your pup to stand up and get ready to go. Use a treat to lure him into this position and when he assumes it, let him have the treat and plenty of praise.
Using the command 'hike', or if you must 'mush',. Start walking beside your pup, encourage your pup to start walking and pulling on the "sled". It might be slow at first, but you can use your words and a few treats to get him started.
Switch to the sled
Once he seems comfortable pulling the small object, switch over to a small sled or cart that you can slowly add a load to and work your way up in a straight line. Be sure to use 'easy' to slow your pup down (you can pull back on his leash) to emphasize what you expect him to. Call out "whoa" and bring him to a stop. Repeat this for several days until he takes off and stops on command.
Add turns to the mix
Now, leading your pup on his leash, call out the commands, 'line out' and 'hike' to get him moving. This time, instead of going in a straight line, you are going to call out "Gee" and pull your dog into a right turn. Practice this until he will turn right on command. Use lots of treats as rewards. Follow this with training him that "Haw" means he needs to turn to the left.
Work up to a sled
By now your pup should be thoroughly excited about pulling and ready to move up to pulling a sled or cart that is suitable to his size and ability. The rest is repetition, in the summer you can still train using a cart instead of a sled.
The You First Method
Your training comes first
Expert dog sledders recommend you spend time working with someone who already knows how to run a sled dog team. This will give you time to gain a better understanding of how to train and control your dog. It will also give you time to master the various commands. Consider it time well spent.
Create that bond
Take the time to form a strong bond with your pup. Let him go everywhere with you, be the one that feeds him, and make sure your pup has mastered the basic commands before you start working on sled training.
Start letting your pup run around in his pulling harness, this will give him time to get used to it. Do this for several weeks. You want to get to the point at which he is comfortable in it and wonders what it's for rather than worrying about the fact he is wearing it.
Low weights first
Starting out with a lightweight sled or cart, hitch your pup to the tow rope and let him get used to being connected to it.
Now your pup has had some time to get used to being hitched to the weight. Use a treat to get your pup on his feet and gently applying pressure to the tow rope without moving the sled or cart. Use the command 'line out' while working with him. Each time he does exactly what is expected of him, give him the treat and praise him.
Using the 'hike' or 'mush' command, have your dog start pulling on the sled. Start out slow with a light load to get him used to pulling. Use the 'easy' and 'whoa' commands to bring the combination to a halt. After every successful training run, be sure to treat and praise. The rest is all about practice and introducing the rest of the commands, including 'gee', 'haw', and 'on by' until your pup is happily pulling his heart out with a look of sheer joy on his face. Be patient, it can take months to fully train your dog.
The Over Time Method
Fit the harness
Put your dog in his harness and attach him to the cart or sled. Give him time to get used to the idea of being hooked to the sled via a tow rope. Some breeds are natural born "pullers" and may instinctively start to pull. While this is great, you still need to work with your dog to teach him how to pull correctly.
Go for a walk
With nothing but the empty cart or sled, give your dog the 'hike' command and, using his leash, take off for a walk at a slow pace. Continue doing this for several weeks, walking in a straight line over a short run at first, slowly increasing the distance. When the time comes to stop, use the 'easy' command to start slowing down. Then use the 'whoa' command and bring him to a halt. Use treats as rewards and take your time, this is the most important part of the entire training as he must master these basic commands.
Longer and heavier
Start adding more weight to the sled and stretching out the walks. Spread this out over several weeks until your pup can pull the sled with you or the right amount of weight in it.
Time to teach cornering. Use 'gee' for right turns and 'haw' for left turns. Use the leash as you are walking along to pull your pup's head to the right giving him the 'gee' command while doing so. Practice this until he will start going to the right using a verbal command only. Repeat this using 'haw' for left-hand turns.
Practice and reward
The rest is all about spending months regularly working with your pup while he masters these skills. Be free with praise and treats and never punish your pup for getting things wrong. He will figure it all out soon enough.
By PB Getz
Published: 11/24/2017, edited: 01/08/2021