Ask a Champion: Rich Kisseloff on how to teach your dog to pull

Here is a training tip from Rich Kisseloff, a competitive bikejorer and skijorer and a member of Team Howling Dog. Those of you who are just getting into the sport, will find this helpful.

Question from Abigail:

“Hi, I have been trying to train my dog to pull for the purpose of skijoring. She is just under a year old and up to this point I have been able to get her to wear a harness I bought from Howling Dog Alaska, and pull along a rope behind her without much trouble. Anything heavier and she won’t move. She has been trained to heel so maybe that has something to do with it? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”

Abigail, that’s a great question and one that I went through with my very first dogs.  The fact that they have been trained to heel probably does play into their not wanting to pull.  Now you have to counter that with conditioning the dog to now pull when they have a harness on.

When I first started out, I found the best way to train the dogs was to hook up a tire or something heavy to pull.  I’m assuming your dog is about a year old now or close to it, so short training sessions should be ok.  I started out with a small car tire, that was too heavy, then I moved down to a motorcycle tire which worked out great.  I started out by hooking my dog(s) up and running out in front and calling him/them to me.  Once he/they graduated to that I then walked/ran out in front while they tried to keep up with me.  Once I felt confident they could do it I slowly weaned myself off the front and slowly drifted back to where I could give them commands from behind.  Sometimes I had my then girlfriend run out in front or ride a bike slowly ahead of us.  Mind you I did most of this in apartment complex parking lot that I was living at.  I eventually went out to jogging trails and eventually took it off road.  It’s very important if you can have someone being a “rabbit” out in front.  With luck and proper training, hopefully, they will soon “get it” and eventually pull without needing the “rabbit”.

In one and two dog sports as with sled and other disciplines, the idea is not for them to totally always be pulling dead weight.  There is a fine line between helping them to the point that they don’t get lazy and not want to pull.  You can help them too much that all they are doing is running.  You always want them to have some sort of tension or friction when in training so that in a race, should you decide to ever race, that way they will always pull when it gets hard.  Many big sled teams use ATVs in early season training to build muscle by actually having the dogs pull and they run a lower gear so it’s a little harder on them.  This is getting a little more advanced, so I’ll keep it at that for now.

Training in different types of terrain and distances always helps so they don’t get bored.  Keep the training changing.  The biggest thing with people just starting out is to also remember that you don’t have to go out for miles and miles.  Most house dogs and pets just do this recreationally so just doing a couple hundred yards to a couple miles once they are doing it on their own is all they need to do.  When not training or walking on a leash you could also be teaching them commands like gee and haw.  Parking lots full of cars and sidewalks work great for that.  Remember to always think of the dog’s safety first, so remember to train only during cool temperatures and keep them hydrated and always have water and a bowl handy.  Lastly, keep it fun.  Don’t run or train a dog into the ground, or to exhaustion every training session.  You need to leave a little bit in the tank.  You want to make it fun for them.  You want them to look forward to their next training session.  Don’t forget this is like any other training too, so if they are food motivated then use treats.

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