How to Start Dog Mushing

Looking for a cool sport for cooler weather? Give some form of mushing a try. I’ve been mushing with my own dogs for a couple of decades, and it’s our favorite thing to do together. They look forward to this so much, which is apparent by the excitement they display at home getting ready and when we get to the trailhead. The bond we share that has been created by doing this as teammates is unparalleled.


Dog trainer Paul J. Kearney enjoys bikejoring with his dogs Summer (aka Cake) and Tucker (aka Tuckerpalooza).

What exactly is mushing?

Mushing as a sport originated in 1908 in Alaska. Driving dogs from a sled is recorded going back to 2000 BC by Siberian and North American native tribes. There are people who race professionally with dog teams of four to 12-plus dogs and people who run professional mushing tour groups. However, the majority of people engaged in mushing sports are people like you and me, who want to enjoy this amazing sport together with our furry teammates.

The International Federation of Sled Dog Sports (IFSS) holds a world championship series of multiple disciplines of mushing sports annually. Events are either dryland mushing or, weather-permitting, the events are held on snow. Local clubs have get-together meetups, and some have sponsored local races where and when conditions allow them to be held.


Mushing with dog sleds is fun for all ages. Photo: Zuberka | Getty Images

The right conditions and conditioning for mushing

As to outside conditions for forms of mushing, most people follow the 120 guideline for temperature and humidity concerns: 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 60% humidity is the normal cut off point for engaging in extended periods of cardiovascular exercise when driving dogs/mushing. When temperatures and humidity are higher, we have to make sure that dogs do not overheat, taxing their thermoregulation ability of evaporative cooling/panting.

Conditioning and building up endurance are key to successful mushing. These are done within the first total of 100 miles. These first hundred miles are kept to shorter runs for the overall health benefits to each individual dog. By regulating the distance and speed dogs run, we can regulate how much heat they are creating versus how much they are getting rid of by panting.

Dog carts/rigs are great for dryland mushing. Photo: Peter Devlin | Alamy Stock Photo

Before you start mushing

A whole bunch of learning needs to happen for both humans and dogs before a dog pulls a sled, a cart, a scooter or a bike. The dog needs to be old enough, physically ready, comfortable in a harness, plus all the groundwork needs to be done, like learning to turn, go and stop.

These last few things can be done at earlier ages before the dog physically matures at roughly 11/2 years old. Adolescents and puppies can learn how to be comfortable in harness, how to make turns, how to “line out” and how to stop. Most breeds and sizes can enjoy recreational mushing — exceptions would be brachycephalic breeds — as long as they are physically fit and healthy enough to do so safely. (Have your veterinarian give your dog the go-ahead for this sport first to be on the safe side.)

To start, get the dogs used to the gear and then understanding the signals. You’ll need a sled-dog harness made for pulling. Classically the X-back harness is the most common across-the-board in all variations of mushing, but there are also others, like shortie style, H-back, pen-back and wheel-dog harnesses. Depending on the type of mushing you’ll be doing, the dogs may need belts, lines and antennas.

Let’s look at the different types of mushing sports, so you’ll have an idea of what gear you’ll need and the cues you’ll need to teach.

Photo: Design Pics | Alamy Stock Photo

Mushing on snow

Dog sleds: Sleds have two runners on the bottom, a drag mat/pressure brake and a basket in which gear can be stowed. There are also toboggan-style sleds you can use. Each type of sled works with different types of snow and different conditions. While there are smaller, sprint-type sleds that can be used with two to three dogs, most sledding is done with larger teams of four to 10-plus dogs. As a sled driver, you’ll assist your dogs, especially when starting to move, pushing the sled with one foot while the other remains on the runner.

Kick-sleds: Kick-sleds are small sleds with a form of chair mounted to two flexible runners. They also incorporate a drag mat/pressure brake. Kick-sleds can be adapted to mushing. Places that sell them have them set up to do mushing with one to two dogs. You’ll be kick pushing the scooter with one foot while the other remains on the deck.

Skijoring: This is done with the human on cross-country skis and the dogs in harness attached to a gangline going to a hip belt the human is wearing. In skijoring the person needs to first be able to cross-country ski, as they will be assisting the dogs pulling. Skijoring takes a lot of stamina and skill, as braking requires snow plowing while being pulled by a dog or two.

Snowskates: Snowskates are like skateboards or snowboards without bindings. They are popular with adventurous people who have the ability to skate or snowboard that use a hip belt, a line and a harness to their dogs. You basically push the snowskate with one foot while the other remains on the deck.

Trail race with your dog in Canicross.

Dryland mushing

Carts/Rigs: Dry-land carts are three or four-wheel carts used to get teams in shape before a snow pack accumulates to where people can get their sleds out and get on their runners. Lots of people use carts all season long, depending on where they live. Most modern carts have hydraulic brake systems.

Scooters: One or two dogs are in harness out front pulling, with a tow line connected to the scooter the human is on. People who want to be closer to the ground, instead of on a seat, prefer scooters to bikes. Scootering is very popular in the sport of mushing.

The company KickBike has scooters for all levels, and they are widely available. Scooters typically have an antenna to prevent the tow line from getting tangled in the front wheel. The driver assists the dogs by kick pushing the scooter with one foot while the other remains on the deck. Some modern scooters have disc brakes.

Bikejoring: Your dogs are out pulling in front with their harness attached to a tow line attached to your bike. Mountain bikes are the most popular bikes used for bikejoring. Fat bikes are also used and can be used in the snow, which is a great benefit for smaller teams that live in areas where snow happens. Bikes typically have an antenna to prevent the tow line from getting tangled in the front wheel. The driver assists the dogs by peddling the bicycle. Best mountain bikes on the market today have disc brakes.

Canicross: For this sport, you are running with your dog in harness, and a line is attached to a canicross belt, which has leg straps to ensure that the belt does not rise up above the top of your hip bone.

Having this setup even for walking is a great way to introduce any dog to the sport of mushing and to teach the verbal cues needed to be able to start running, slow down, make turns, stop and more.

Cues for mushing

I do not use “commands” when training dogs. I teach verbal cues or signals related to the behavior I request, which creates teammates who become flexible-thinking, problem-solving dogs.

Nearly all mushing cues can be learned through shaping, pairing and capturing, which we’ve discussed in previous columns. Let’s quickly review:

  • Shaping is marking and reinforcing the baby steps of almost getting it right that lead to getting it right.
  • Pairing is associating actions with words issued at the moment the actions are occurring.
  • Capturing is being prepared to mark and reinforce naturally occurring or freely given behaviors.

Here are four cues to teach your dog before mushing.

Stopping — Stopping can be tricky, because you are asking the dog to do something he doesn’t understand, and it’s not really his predilection to do so when excited and having fun running. However, this can be taught if the focus is on when the dog stops on his own (capturing).

Stopping is taught when the dog stops, not when you asked the dog to stop. Therefore, when the dog stops on his own, mark that behavior with the word “stop“ (pairing). Reinforce the behavior by having a partner who can issue a reward out in front of you or, if the dog is standing next to you and stops on his own, say “stop” then issue them a food reward yourself. Make sure your dog understands what stop means before getting on any type of sled, ski, scooter, bike or cart.

Starting (to move) — “Let’s go“ is my accelerator, not only in mushing, but when walking and starting to move with my dog from a standstill. “Hike“ is also a popular way to start your team moving from a standstill. “Hike” is also used to pick up speed while moving. Because I use “Let’s go“ so often, I stick with that as my signal to my teammates to start moving.

Slowing down — People generally use the cues “whoa” or “easy” when asking the dogs to slow down. I like to use “whoa“ to signal that I am about to say “stop.” I use “easy” as a signal to slow down for a brief period of time, before picking speed back up again.

Slowing down is an aspect of shaping. We are eliciting the behavior of slowing down by decreasing our own rate of speed, which in turn slows down the dogs’ rate of speed. As we are doing this, we are saying the word “whoa“ or “easy.“ The reinforcement comes from picking speed back up again. The pairing is associating the action of slowing down with the word “whoa”.

Making turns — Classically, in mushing, the same verbal cues for making turns are the same ones that were used in horse carting: “Haw” equals left and “gee” equals right. Teach your dog this as he is walking with you. Go to the left and, when your dog follows with you, at that moment say the word “haw.” Take a few more steps and then go to the right and, as your dog comes with you going to the right, say the word “gee.” Keep repeating this zigzag-style motion with your dog in a safe space. After a dozen repetitions, your dog will begin to predict turning left or right with the words “haw” or “gee.”

People who engage in the sport of mushing are some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The care they give to their dogs is outstanding, as nutrition, conditioning and ensuring the health of their furry teammates is vital. Mushing teams rely on each other in so many different scenarios that they must be attuned to each other’s needs and signals, plus be relating all that information between teammates in any given moment, situation and environment. This sport is about teamwork and sharing the joy of being in nature and in motion with your dogs. Get outside, use good gear and have adventures. And always — dogs first.

Featured Image: ROMAOSLO | Getty Images

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