Suggestions for Beginning Mushers
Pay attention to your dogs.
Even the most stoic dog will signal when she is too hot, dehydrated, or has an injury. Look for how far her tongue is out of her mouth, and how long it takes her to stop panting and pull her tongue in her mouth after you stop for a break. Look for poor performance, an odd gait, and/or limping. Check your dogs’ feet, and feel their paws and legs before and after runs so you know what ‘normal’ is and will be able to identify swelling if a dog begins running poorly.
While running, keep the tow line tight to prevent your dogs’ legs getting caught up and watch for a bunched collar or a tangled line that could impact their performance and/or health. Dogs are oppositional; keeping the tug tight will get them to pull harder. It also gives them something to lean into when running down hill.
Pulling is different than free running.
Pulling requires more exertion than regular running around for your dogs. It is more stressful on their paws and joints, and impacts their internal thermometer and organs differently.
Run your dogs…
…when it’s 45 degrees or below outside.
Consider 45 degrees a good starting point, although colder is better. Once a dog overheats, her internal thermometer is permanently broken and her pulling career is drastically limited or over. Learn your dogs’ signals. Even 45 degrees may be too warm for a long run, and you may be able to get in short runs when it’s a little above 45 degrees.
On warmer runs, slow down and give your dog plenty of breaks (about 30 seconds of rest each break) to recuperate during the run.
… on gravel or dirt.
Pavement and concrete are hard on your dogs’ joints because there is no give to the surface, and damages your dogs’ pads more easily when they are pulling. You may end up going short distances over pavement to get where you’re going, but the distance should be less than ¼ a mile.
… on an empty stomach.
If there is food in their stomachs, the organ can twist and cause severe problems and even death. Yikes! Feed your dog 12 hours (or before) prior to running.
…when they are well-hydrated.
Get your dogs to drink a lot the night before and some before the run. Try baiting your dogs’ water. There are products for this, but chicken stock or their regular kibble may work too. Be sure there is a lot of water available to them after their run, too - figure twice as much as you’d expect.
…in well-fitting gear.
Ill-fitting gear can hinder your dogs’ freedom of movement, which can cause injury and limits their pulling power and speed.
…short distances at first.
Just like people, your dogs won’t be able to go out and run a marathon their first day out. Again, watch your dogs for signs of fatigue and loss of interest. This should be fun for them. As soon as it’s ‘work’, they won’t run as well. Alternately, some dogs would run to the end of the earth if left to their own devices. Know when to say when and call it a day.
…at the proper age.
Young dogs (1.5 years and below) are still developing; their joints and bones are susceptible to damage. Start young dogs slowly. Practice going for daily walks in harness, practice teaching them commands. Start allowing them to pull for short (1/4 mile) distances at a time and never on pavement!
...in a pack when you can.
Your dogs learn will more quickly from running with other dogs. Take advantage of other club members training their teams and join in when you can.
When to use booties:
When gravel surfaces are mostly rock without much give or dirt beneath. When snow is icy and crusty. When you see your dog favoring its paw(s). If you know your dog to have tender paws, or if your dog has lots of fur between her toes that typically collects snowballs. A good rule of thumb is to try dragging your hand across the surface; if it’s uncomfortable, painful or doesn’t give, use booties!
Safety first – for you and your dog.
This is a fun sport, but don’t get carried away and risk your dogs’ health and well-being in your quest for speed or convenience. It will slow you down in the long run, not to mention what it could mean for your dogs. Take advantage of veteran club members’ wisdom and experience. Ask questions. Wear a helmet, eye protection (the dogs will kick up a lot of sand, gravel, or ice), and gloves. And always make sure your dog is wearing proper identification.
Respect your surroundings.
Pay attention to what’s around you- watch for hikers or other trail users. Not everyone is excited to be around dogs, that goes for both people and other dogs. When not running, keep your dog on leash to prevent any tension with the other teams or spectators.
And, always, always, clean up after your dog.