Erin Lynes - "Dog Powered Sports with Erin Lynes"

Dog powered sports are growing in popularity — Erin and I hopped on a call to talk about what they are, what you need to do to train for them, and to give you a sneak peek at her upcoming course! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Erin Lynes here with me to talk about dog-powered sports — also known as pulling sports.

Hi Erin, welcome back to the podcast!

Erin Lynes: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for having me on to talk about one of my very favorite things.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I'm excited to learn a little bit about it. It's not a topic I have a lot of background on. Just to start us, out do you want to remind listeners a little bit about you, a little bit about your doggie crew?

Erin Lynes: Sure. Last time I was on the podcast, I gave you a detailed description of every dog and will not go into that much detail. But I do have Labs. I've got 14 dogs, and I breed Labs, I train them, and I train in a bunch of dog sports, both myself and as an instructor. I guess a good overview of my personal dogs – I have a quite a range. The newest youngest guy is Marlon, he's 5 months old, and it ranges all the way up to Ruger, who is 13-and-a-half. So I've got a pretty diverse crew right now.

Melissa Breau: All the different ages.

Erin Lynes: Yes.

Melissa Breau: To start us off, what are dog-powered sports? What fits into that category?

Erin Lynes: That's a great question. I consider dog-powered sports to be all of the light pulling sports where there's an option for speed. We don't include weight pulling, which is also powered by dogs. But we're looking more at the events and the sports where the dog and human work together to make forward motions. Things like dog sledding is one of the first ones that people think of, kick sledding, skijoring, bikejoring, dogs can pull you on a scooter. And also some of the more really popular ones are canicross and canihiking, where the dog is attached directly to you, the human, and pulls you that way.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. If we're thinking about the type of dog and handler who maybe would enjoy this kind of thing, how would you describe that team?

Erin Lynes: If your dog pulls on the leash when you walk, they are a good candidate. Any dog that likes motion. There are definitely some dogs who are more inclined to spend their afternoons on the couch, but any dog that likes to get out and do stuff, make motion, move around, they're a good candidate to try out one of these sports.

And same for people. There's varying levels of how much effort the human part of the team has to put in, depending on which specific sport you're looking at. But there's a little something for almost everybody, if you look at the whole wide range of what is an option.

Melissa Breau: Are there limitations on breed or size or type of dog? Anything that might make a dog not suitable for this kind of stuff?

Erin Lynes: You definitely need to have a sound, healthy dog. Of course, that's going to be the first thing. These aren't sports for dogs who have chronic or ongoing injuries or that sort of thing. But there are a lot of options for dogs of different breeds and sizes. There are some limitations as well with regards to size. You're not going to have a 15-pound Rat Terrier pulling you on a sled for 50 miles, but there's no reason that same dog can't enjoy something like canicross, where they're pulling their human and going for three- or five-mile type jaunts. So there's definitely some things to consider.

Another potential limitation is based on your region and your climate. Dogs like Malamutes or dogs with really thick coats that are bred and designed for cold weather aren't going to be as happy working in high humidity, high heat situations, but they would be a lot more happy with the snowy versions of the sports. So just depending on what your dog is comfortable with, with regards to weather and climate and that sort of thing, that's going to maybe help guide you into which of the dog-powered sports you'd be able to try.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Talk to me just a little bit about safety. When I think about all this stuff, I'll be honest, I get a little bit nervous. The idea of moving full-speed forward, regardless of whether we're talking about on a bike or on foot or whatever, and my dog moving full-speed forward ahead of me, I start to worry about, "What if we have to stop or change direction? How do I avoid breaking my ankle or falling off a bike?" What kind of precautions do you need to take to keep everybody safe?

Erin Lynes: That's a really good question and something that everybody should think about a little bit before they get started. I guess the first thing I would say is you don't necessarily have to go full speed. As you advance in the sport, if that's your thing, and your dog likes the full-speed part of it and you like it, you can definitely get there. But you don't have to do any warp speed type of stuff to really enjoy dog-powered sports. You can move at a moderate pace, and you should definitely do that when you're in the learning phases.

There's always ways to simplify the sport, like we do with other types of sports. We do a lot of our foundation training on foot. Having the dog directly attached to you versus attached to a bike or something, where they might be able to more easily get up momentum, is one way to help control things. Making sure they do have really good, solid foundation skills before you increase the difficulty too much or increase the challenge by adding speed and that sort of thing in there. And getting to them to the point where distractions aren't going to be deadly is always recommended.

Part of that is just basic distraction proofing, like you would do for other sports. Can your dog stay on task while there's squirrels or other people or other dogs and stuff around. But part of it is also gaining experience as the musher person part of the team. Can you predict what might be some of the challenges coming up? Are you able to tell by your dog's body language that they're … maybe their head comes up and you're like, "Usually that only happens if they can smell a deer on the trail." You can give yourself a little more time to prepare if you can start to see the potential risk factors happening before they're happening.

And I guess in addition to those sorts of things, you can really put in a little bit of time before you get your dog out in a pulling situation by checking out the trails, where you might be training, doing all of that kind of thing, so that you know where you're going to be working, if there's going to be any hazards on the trail itself, if there's maybe busier times of the day when you want to avoid meeting people and other dogs on the trail, so that you have a little bit less of that to worry about. Those are some parts of how you can take precautions.

And then of course you can do like wearing a helmet, wearing elbow pads and knee pads, especially if you're on a bike, where a fall might be really uncontrolled or likely to be injurious to you. So there's those sorts of things that you can look out for, too. But a lot of it really is just getting the basic training down and not over-dogging yourself and putting yourself and your dog in a position where you're likely to be out of control.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there this idea that you need to train some foundation skills, so let's talk about that a little more. What foundation skills do you train for these kinds of sports?

Erin Lynes: It's a lot simpler than you might think. The really basic one is the dog needs to stay on the trail. If they understand and know that whatever the trail is, whether it's a little dirt path in the bushes or a wider trail out in a more open area, if they know that their job is to stay on the trail – and it doesn't matter what happens around them; they're to stay on the trail – you're going to be a lot safer than a dog who thinks they can possibly dart into the bushes to chase a bunny or what other distraction comes along. So staying on the trail is a big one.

Keeping forward focused, so we want to see the dogs aiming the right direction down the trail. That way they're not getting tangled in their lines, they're not turning around and running around behind you and getting you all tangled up and that sort of thing. So those are some of the very basic minimum foundations.

Now obviously we want the dogs pulling. That helps with dog-powered sports, so we teach that as a foundation exercise as well. And then you can get into some foundation skills that are a little bit more exciting – teaching them to take turns on commands, getting them to speed up or slow down a little bit with your verbal commands, that sort of thing. So there's those cues that you can teach that will help your dog be even more reliable in different settings as well.

Melissa Breau: I was looking over your syllabus and I think I saw something in there about actually competing in these sports, so I wanted to ask about that. Are there ways to actually compete in the different pulling sports, and what do those competitions look like?

Erin Lynes: There's all kinds of different ways to get started in competing. For every different type of event that we discussed earlier – so canicross or bikejoring or kick-biking, dogsledding – generally you compete only against the teams that are pulling in the same manner as you.

There's different organizations that host events or that sanction events. There's quite a range now, from events that are world-level-type competitions, where people travel to other countries to compete at the highest level, all the way down to local events, where maybe it's just a group of you that train in canicross together and get out to see who's going to be the fastest team on that night.

There's also virtual competition. One of the favorite ways that we found to encourage people to get started in competing in dog-powered sports is looking at these virtual competitions. One that comes to mind is called the Iron Paws Stage Race. It was started by a group of friends who were interested in dog-powered sports in the northwest of the U.S. They decided while they couldn't all get together one year, "What if you run a trail and I run a trail, and we'll compare notes later?" They made it into something that's really caught fire all across the world and starts in January every year.

No matter how your dog pulls, they can be involved. That particular race isn't actually even about speed at all. Your dog logs miles on different trails, there's different social challenges, maybe you have to mail a picture of your dog to somebody in another team. And it helps you network that way with other people with similar interests. So even if you're in a location where there's no other teams, or there's no sanctioned races, there's ways to get involved in competition that way, which are exciting, and different circuits of actual sanctioned competition in in different areas as well.

The competitions, when you're getting together at a sanctioned event, they vary a little bit too. Sometimes all the teams start at once, so if there's eleven teams entered in the canicross race, for example, everybody starts at once, and whoever crosses the finish line first is the winner. In other areas and different venues, the teams start at different times and are just timed. So there's a little bit less chaos, depending on which style you're looking at.

And it can be helpful to research ahead of time before you get there, so you know what you might have to practice for. If you're in one of the mass-start races, that's definitely a skill you want to add your dog's toolbox before you get there. But it's really fun. There's so many different variations now that almost anybody who's interested in training in it can find a way to compete and have fun that way too, if they're interested.

Melissa Breau: In there you said no matter which way your dog is pulling. You just mean whether you're doing canicross or bikejoring or what they're pulling.

Erin Lynes: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: If people have multiple dogs – obviously you're in this bucket yourself – and they want to involve more than just one dog in whatever, joring or whichever dog-powered sport they want to do, how do you approach that?

Erin Lynes: The best way for somebody, especially when the human is also new to the sport, is to train the dogs individually first, work on their individual foundation skills, and then merge them later, once they're solid. The bigger kennels and competitors have multiple dogs generally don't do all the same foundation work with each individual dog, because once you have a team trained, it's relatively easy to add in an extra dog. There's all sorts of social learning that happens in a team environment that facilitates a lot of things and takes away a lot of the risk that you might have if you were just randomly putting a bunch of new dogs together in a team.

But for most people, your best bet is to train your dogs individually, take them out one at a time, work on their skills, and then start to add them in one extra dog at a time, as they get better and more reliable. That way, you get a little bit more gradual feel for the sports yourself, as the human, and you build up into those levels of speed and power a little more gradually as well.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. That's the same recommendation if you're trying to teach loose-leash walking to multiple dogs. You're breaking it apart and doing one.

Erin Lynes: Exactly. If you take all your dogs out for a leash walk at the same time, there's a lot bigger risk than if you're breaking it down into individual pieces, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Think of it as momentum. If you have two dogs pulling ahead of you, you're much more likely to land on your butt.

We're chatting today because your new class on this stuff is running in October. Do you want to just share a little more about the class itself, what you'll cover, what students need to know if they're interested, so they can decide if this is for them?

Erin Lynes: This class is going to focus on foundation skills. Assuming that there's a fair number of people out there that are interested and just don't know how to get started, this class is definitely for you. But if there's people out there who have already started in the sport and are maybe struggling with certain aspects of it, or maybe they're starting to think about adding in a second dog or multiple dogs, it's going to help with that too.

We're going to be covering all the skills that you need to safely get started. Generally speaking, the easiest way to do that is on foot, so a lot of the demonstrations and the instruction are going to be based on a canicross model. If there's people that are already more advanced than that, that are already maybe taking their dogs out on a bike, we can work with that too. The foundation skills are all the same. But it definitely makes it easier for most people if they have a little bit more control. They don't have to worry about secondary skills, like riding a bike or driving a dogsled, that sort of thing. They can get out there and do their walking.

For people who are interested, what you will need is a properly fitting pulling harness for your dog. Looking around online at options where you can order that sort of stuff, you're not looking at a weight pull harness; those are entirely different than what we're talking about. If you were to Google dogsled harness, that's probably going to get you more options that are in the right vein. On the FDSA website, on the course page, I have posted some images so that you know how the harness should fit, because I think that's a pretty big starting point is getting the right gear to get started.

But that being said, you don't need a whole lot of gear. If you are intending to progress to something beyond canicross, a leash and a good-fitting harness is all you really need. If you want to do canicross more as an ongoing thing, you'll also want to get a canicross belt for yourself, as the human. We can work with everything based on that.

So find yourself some local trails, maybe start scoping those out and see where you might be able to take your dog for these sorts of training exercises. They don't need to be fancy. You just want to have somewhere where you can get out and move with your dog and not have too many distractions while you're getting started.

And then the rest of that we sort of train on the fly. Some of the exercises we'll start indoors or in your yard, so you can get a little bit of a base that way. But a lot of it we are going to be training as you're moving with your dog and just weaving them into a little bit different style of dog walk as you go.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there the canicross piece for the human. Is that different than wearing a waist leash?

Erin Lynes: Yes, it is. That's a great question. There are all kinds of hands-free belts that you can get nowadays, and that's not what you want for canicross. The canicross belt itself is designed to pull a little bit lower on your body. At first, when you put it on, it feels like your pants are falling down. It feels a little awkward. But when your dog starts pulling, the difference is very noticeable. It's a lot easier on your back, if the point that your dog pulls you from is right at your butt or lower hips, than if they're pulling from your waist. You're going to get a sore back super-fast if you're using one of those hands free belts. That was a really good question and definitely something you want to be aware of when you're shopping for gear.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, one last question for you. If we were to drill down all of this into a key piece of information, or a takeaway you want listeners to walk away with and understand, what would that be?

Erin Lynes: I would like people to know that dog-powered sports are good for a lot of things. Obviously people think about them as a way to exercise their dogs, maybe it's a way to channel pulling in a dog that is naturally pull-y, but it's also a confidence-building thing for your dog and a teamwork-building thing.

It's not just the dog out there doing all the work while you coast along. There's an exciting amount of communication that happens between you and your dog while they're pulling you. While they can't see you, and a lot of the time you're quiet, it's a lot about the feel between you and your dog in this teamwork atmosphere. So I guess what I would like people to know is that it's really fun and you won't really understand it until you get a chance to try it. So come on, try it.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Erin. This has been fun. I'm glad I got to learn a little bit about this stuff.

Erin Lynes: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa. It's great to talk to you about it too. Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We will be back next week with Ann Smorado and Shade Whitesel to talk about prepping for competition.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice, and you'll have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in – and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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