Strolling along the local bike path with your pooch, another dog – nearly just a blur – shoots past you. His tongue is lolling, he’s stretched into a gallop. He looks thrilled. Should you call out to his owner? Is he an escapee?
Then you realize there’s a long bungee attached to the dog’s weird-looking harness, and his owner is rocketing along behind him. It looks crazy and fun!
You immediately know that have to try it.
Urban mushing is an umbrella term for summer sports where your dog helps pull you forward. Generally, this is done with just one dog. Urban mushing might be done on foot, on a bike, on a scooter, or in a cart.
How on earth can you get involved in urban mushing? This looks like an incredible way to exercise your dog (and yourself) while expanding your training skills.
Let’s take a deep dive into urban mushing.
Urban mushing encompasses several different sports in one name. It’s also known as dryland mushing to differentiate it from traditional mushing that takes place on snow.
Essentially, urban mushing includes any sport where your dog helps pull you forward without snow.
This group of sports was invented to keep racing sled dogs in top shape over the summer. Outside of sled dog sports, urban mushing has quickly gained popularity as a way to exercise high-energy dogs (especially those that love to pull) all year.
Most mushers agree that urban mushing includes canicross, bikejoring, scootering, carting, sulky and skatejoring. Some argue that skijoring (where your dog pulls you on cross-country skis) is neither urban nor dryland, so it’s not generally in this list.
Let’s take a minute to look at each subcategory of urban mushing:
Canicross: Canicross is the least equipment-intensive version of dryland mushing, but it also requires the most legwork on the human end. In this sport, your dog gives you a boost by running ahead of you on a bungee hip leash while you run cross-country behind him. This sport is probably the least expensive way to test the waters with dryland mushing, and is probably the safest option for new human handlers.
Bikejoring: For those who don’t want to purchase a bunch of extra equipment but prefer cycling to running, bikejoring is a good option. Using a special setup, one or two dogs help pull you on your bike. This does require some modification to your bike so that your dog’s gangline (a fancy word for a bungee leash) doesn’t get tangled in your bike spokes. Of the wheeled urban mushing options, bikejoring is lightest on the specialized equipment.
Scootering: Kick scooters offer a bit more stability (and ability to easily jump off without tumbling) than a bike. They’re more popular with dryland mushers that go out a lot because they feel more stable and controllable.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have kick scooters lying around our garages. To try scootering, you’re probably going to need to purchase a special setup.
Carting: Especially popular with large dogs such as Swiss Mountain Dogs or Newfoundlands, carting involves hooking your dog up with a wheeled cart and having him pull a load a specific distance. This is also a great option for smaller dogs that aren’t strong enough to pull their people, but still enjoy the pulling challenge — or training-savvy parents who would like the dog to pull their stroller!
Sulky: A bit like a chariot or a dog-drawn carriage, a sulky allows you to sit in a two-wheeled cart while your dog pulls ahead. Unlike carting, sulky is not a good option for small dogs that can’t pull much weight. However, it’s a relatively stable option for humans that would rather not bike, run, or scooter.
Tell me this doesn’t look like a blast!
Skatejoring: For the true adrenaline-junkie, skatejoring allows your dog to pull you on your skateboard or rollerblades. This sport is a bit less well-known and looks pretty scary to those of us who aren’t comfortable on a skateboard.
Skatejoring has a bad rap in some communities because of the tendency of inexperienced dabblers to head out without the proper pulling equipment for the dog and safety equipment for the owner. If you get the right gear, skatejoring is an exhilarating way to exercise your dog!
Now that you’re familiar with the subgroups within urban mushing, you might be wondering why you should try this instead of just taking your dog for a longer walk. If urban mushing requires so much equipment and exercise, shouldn’t you just stay home?
Not in my opinion!
When I first brought my border collie Barley home, I thought I knew what it meant to have an energetic dog. I was ready. I’d walk him three times a day, we’d play fetch, and maybe we’d hike on the weekends. It’d be fine, right?
Well… kind of. For these super high energy dogs (I’m looking at you — Pointers, Huskies, and Herding dogs), a few walks and a bit of fetch isn’t really enough most days. They generally need a bit more of a sustained workout and some mental exercise as well.
That’s where I discovered urban mushing. Together, Barley and I have dabbled in scootering, bikejoring, canicross, and skijoring. He and I can certainly attest to the benefits of these sports!
Urban mushing can really help you and your dog in a variety of ways — it’s not just about the calories burned.
While most people start investigating urban mushing because they’d like to tire out a hyperactive dog, this sport isn’t limited to just the energizer bunnies of the canine world.
Many dogs relish almost any opportunity to get outside and stretch their legs (especially with their beloved owner), so don’t hesitate to try urban mushing just because your dog isn’t scary-energetic.
Are there any dogs who should NOT go urban mushing?
Unfortunately, not all dogs are cut out for this sport.
Even relatively small dogs can partake in urban mushing, as long as you’re ok with giving them assistance up hills, keeping the load light, and keeping your sessions short.
However, some dogs probably should steer clear of urban mushing altogether. Dogs with orthopedic issues or hip dysplasia might find this sport really uncomfortable.
And for dogs with short noses (like Pugs, Bulldogs, Boxers, Shih Tzus, and some Mastiffs), aerobic sports like pulling can be flat-out dangerous.
No matter what your dog’s face looks like, you’ll want to speak to your vet to make sure your canine is physically fit enough to start a pulling sport. Urban mushing should be a fun challenge, not a painful slog!
The equipment that you need to start urban mushing will vary dramatically based on what variety of urban mushing you choose to try. Let’s cover the basics for all urban mushing, then explore more specific equipment options.
All Urban Mushers Should Get:
Harness Made for Pulling. Unfortunately, your dog’s day-to-day harness (even my beloved Ruffwear Front Range Harness) is not made for pulling. Especially avoid any no-pull harnesses or neck collars. This is just plain dangerous for your dog. A harness designed for pulling helps your dog lean comfortably into it while also distributing the weight load back onto your dog’s hips.
A good pulling harness will look a bit different for carting, sulky, or a side-by-side setup. Otherwise, for all other mushing efforts, the Ruffwear Omnijore (which includes a gangline and a human harness with a quick-release) the Neewa Harness are both good bets.
Gangline. You’ll need a way to connect your dog to whatever it is that he’s pulling. A good gangline (like the Non-Stop Dogwear Bungee Line) is at least seven feet (two meters) long. If you’re considering using your setup in the snow or cold, be sure that you can handle the clip with gloves on.
Safety Equipment. If you plan on trying bikejoring, skatejoring, or scootering, get yourself a helmet. A bike helmet will probably do the trick. You might also want to consider gloves (to save your palms), knee pads, or booties for your dog.
In the past when I’ve gone bikejoring, I wore gloves along with a helmet, and Barley usually went “barefoot.”
Driving Collar. Most of the time, you’ll want a “driving collar,” which is a fancy name for a comfortable flat-buckle collar. This is important for keeping your dog in place while you’re getting the harness on (most of these harnesses take a bit of work) and a driving collar can also work as a back-up with a safety line attached. If you’re mushing with two dogs, some setups connect the dogs using the collar so they can’t cross lines. Most setups allow you to connect an extra safety line to this collar, and some competitions even require it. You can probably just use your dog’s current flat buckle collar.
You’ll also want to bring along some water for you and your dog. Aside from these basics, the rest of the urban mushing equipment is specific to each sport.
You will need a hip belt for yourself that allows your dog to comfortably help pull you in canicross. A normal waist leash isn’t made to sit comfortably on your hips while your dog pulls, so be sure to get a specialized setup. I personally use the Ruffwear Omnijore system for canicross and skijoring. You generally won’t need a helmet for canicross, unless you’re especially clumsy!
Once you’ve got a bike, you’ll still need a system to keep your dog’s gangline from getting tangled in your front wheel. One of the best products around for this is the Scooter Noodle, which holds your gangline away from your wheel even if your dog slows down.
A dog scooter or a canine-friendly kickbike is a hefty investment, but worth it for dedicated urban mushers. These nifty setups allow you to more easily leap away in the event of a crash. As someone who’s taken a tumble on both a bikejoring and scootering trip, I can say that the urban mushing scooter fall was less painful!
Again, you’ll also want to get a Scooter Noodle or similar setup to keep your gangline out of your wheel.
The dog-powered scooter is another option that’s a bit different than the traditional scooter setup, with you scootering right alongside your dog.
Aside from a specialized siwash harness, your carting setup will need a pair of shafts and tracers to help connect your dog to the cart. The shafts are the metal or wooden protrusions from the cart that connect to the siwash. Tracers drape across your dog’s back near his waist and connect to the front of the cart.
Most carts are handmade and should be customized to fit the dog, so it’s best to get connected with a club for recommendations. Carting is relatively equipment-heavy and much of the equipment is hard to find, so it’s nice to have a mentor in this sport!
Like with dog carting, sulky requires a bit of specialized equipment that you’re not likely to find on Amazon (let alone at a local store). A sulky harness actually has a harness that helps protect your dog’s back from the tip of the sulky shaft. The harness is relatively complicated, so I’ll leave those explanations to the pros. Most sulky carts are also custom-made, and this shop, Chalo Sulky, is a great place to start.
Most people choose to hold their leash rather than having it attached to their hips while skatejoring. You’ll still want a leash or gangline with a bit of give, rather than a plain nylon leash. Aside from that, skatejoring requires safety equipment and a skateboard or roller blades. It’s a relatively equipment-light option. Like with all pulling sports, ensure that you’ve got a harness that evenly distributes weight for your dog.
Now that you’ve got your equipment in in order, you’re probably excited to hit the trails. Before you pack out for the local bike path, let’s make sure you and your dog have the skills necessary.
Teaching most urban mushing commands is relatively easy to do during your daily walks. Let’s go through the most common mushing commands and how to teach them.
It’s often easiest to teach these cues with an experienced dog, but that’s not always possible. Most of these cues are not difficult to teach if you’re diligent about practice on your daily walks.
Right, Left, and Go Straight: Gee, Haw, and Straight Ahead. Teach these on your daily walks by saying “gee” for right and “haw” for left before turning in the given direction, then guide him with your leash and body. Likewise, simply say “straight ahead” when you reach a junction that you’ll travel straight through.
Praise your dog or toss a treat in the correct direction to really send a good message. After about 30 repetitions of this, start giving the cue without turning and then reward your dog if he gets it right. Try not to turn or give any other body language hints.
Solidify this by practicing while going faster or working in distracting environments. Bike paths and heavily forked biking trails are an excellent place to practice as well. For dogs that really struggle, T-shaped hallways make a slightly easier practice area.
Run Past: On By. This is similar to a “leave it” command, but tells your dog to ignore something as he runs past it. Again, you can practice this on walks by giving the cue and then running past something. It’s often easier to teach this if you make going “on by” really fun.
Make a fuss with lots of squealing, running, praise, and training at first. Your dog will learn that “on by” means to accelerate and ignore something.
Stop Moving: Woah. Teach this by saying “woah” and then stopping on walks. Don’t pull on your dog’s collar, but he’ll notice that “woah” is followed by a bit of pressure on the leash. Most dogs will learn to stop when they hear “woah” pretty quickly if you are consistent.
This might be less successful for dogs that are used to you giving corrections with the collar. In that case, attach the leash to your waist so that you don’t accidentally jerk on his neck (old habits die hard). Then say “woah” and simply stop moving. As soon as your dog slackens the leash by shifting back or looking at you, toss him a treat.
Go Faster: Hike Hike! This one is generally fun for dogs, and relatively easy to teach. It’s often easiest to teach when paired with “wait,” but don’t be afraid to do some accelerations along your walks or runs where you say “hike hike,” then break into a trot, jog, or sprint to teach your dog that “hike hike” really means to go faster!
Stay Where You Are: Wait. Many people teach this one at doorways and crosswalks. Simply say wait while you prevent the dog from going forward. You can pair this with “hike hike” by releasing the dog from his wait with a “hike hike” cue! Most dogs quickly learn to wait on cue, then surge forward when told to.
Easy: Slow Down. This one is tricky! Once dogs get going, it’s often easier to stop them completely than to slow them down. Again, I teach this by simply giving the cue and then performing the action. After some time, most dogs will respond to the cue without the guidance from the leash.
Tighten Up the Leash: Line Out. Some dogs love running but aren’t great at pulling. For these dogs, a cue like “line out” reminds them to tighten up the leash and put their backs into it.
Generally, people teach this by putting the dog in his harness, attaching his gangline to a tree or a fence, and walking out of reach. As soon as your dog tightens the line, reward. Repeat, then start adding the cue. Only then can you start to move behind the dog while giving the cue.
If you’re really struggling to teach your dog these cues, one of the best ways to get a leg up is by using an experienced dog to teach yours. Find a local mushing club and hook the dogs up together — it will really kickstart your dog’s skills!
Daphne Lewis also has a handy video on YouTube (although it is a bit old and the quality could be better), showing how to start teaching your dog to pull a cart.
Like any sport that involves wheels and dirt, urban mushing can be a bit painful at times. Throw a high-energy Husky into the mix, and it’s only fair to expect a few bumps and bruises.
If you wear your safety gear, you should be able to avoid serious injury while urban mushing. Nevertheless, it’s important to ensure that the trail you’re on is wide enough and mellow enough for your skill level and chosen sport. Don’t head out down the local ski hill on your first trip with your kickbike!
Properly training your dog to slow down and wait is also incredibly important for safety. The worst injury I’ve gotten from urban mushing (a twisted finger on a kickbike ride) was thanks to one of the dogs I was running not stopping when I cued a stop.
Another reason why I got a bit bruised on my kickbike ride was that I had already fallen off the bike, but I wasn’t letting go! I didn’t trust Barley’s running partner to stop at all, and I really didn’t want to lose the dogs. This is why it’s so important to focus on good training! If I trusted the dogs to stop, I could have saved myself a fair bit of pain.
When I didn’t to let go, I was dragged behind the dogs for several feet until she finally stopped because Barley nipped her in the butt!
Finally, it’s important to ensure that you’re complying with local trail laws and norms. For example, the Platte River Trail is full of runners with headphones in. We were always extra-careful not to startle runners when we passed them. Another local Denver trail, the Apex-Enchanted Forest Loop, mandates that all bikes go a given direction on certain days of the week. Breaking the rules makes urban mushers look bad and can result in a fine for you!
Teaching your dogs to politely pass others and always cleaning up after your dogs will help keep the rest of the community welcoming of urban mushers on their trails.
When you’re involved in urban mushing, you’re essentially turning your best friend into a canine athlete. Just like a human athlete, canine athletes need a bit of extra care to stay in top shape. Neglecting your dog’s health can cut a career short, or worse, cause injury that will leave her in pain for years.
Have you tried urban mushing yet? What do you find most exciting about the sport? We’d love to hear your stories!
Last update on 2018-10-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.