Meet Rodney. Rodney lives in Woodland, California, with his wife, Sharon, their cat, Molly, and their dog, Sky. Sky is a chocolate Labrador retriever. Rodney has been mushing with Sky since April 2011 when he first started to train her to pull him in his wheelchair.
What dog powered sports have you been involved with?
Wheelchair mushing is the only dog powered sport I’ve done.
How did you first get started in the sport?
My wife and I, and our family dog, Sky, were visiting a park, and had gone down a gravel path to check out a lake at the bottom. It was easy getting down the path but it was difficult getting back up. My wife was pushing me in my wheelchair up the gravel path and I was holding the leash attached to our dog. Our dog was anxious to get up the path and was pulling on the leash (as a dog shouldn’t do). I could see it was very helpful to have her pulling.
So, I bought a cheap harness to have for those rare situations where I thought it might be helpful to have Sky’s help. One evening, I had my wife walk Sky while Sky pulled me in my wheelchair. It went so well that, the next day, I took Sky to an unused road that ran behind our local college. I attached the tug line and said “COME ON”, the same thing I would say to her when I walked her with my electric scooter. She immediately took off and we were soon going about 5 mph. She went about a block before slowing down and then stopping. She had absolutely no trouble pulling me. It was difficult getting her to begin pulling again, at that point, but I knew she could do it. It was just a matter of training her.
When did you know you were hooked on the sport?
When I knew Sky liked it. After nine straight days of her initial training, I felt sorry for Sky. When pulling me, I wasn't letting her do some of the "dog" things she likes to do. No smelling the weeds, no meet and greet with the other dogs. So, I thought I would give her a break from pulling and take her on a walk with the electric scooter. With the scooter, we always left from the garage; if pulling the wheelchair, we left from the front door. Sky was all excited as she saw me preparing for us to go. Then I opened the door to the garage for us to go out to the scooter. Sky immediately held her head down and looked all mopey. She didn't want to go out into the garage. Then, I went over to where I had her harness sitting. She got real excited again. Sky liked pulling me more than going on a walk!!! We haven't been on a walk, with the scooter, since.
At this point, you were hooked up to your wheelchair? Tell me how the Freewheel changed things.
I must also say that discovering the Freewheel made “being hooked” practical and safe and I could do the sport independently. The Freewheel makes the wheelchair a three-wheel vehicle with a longer footprint. With the Freewheel attached to my wheelchair, I could let Sky run as fast as she wanted to. Feeling the air hit me in the face, as we sped along, that’s what hooked me.
Describe your rig.
My rig, Emotion-N-Motion, is a Tilite ZRc titanium wheelchair with a Freewheel attached. The Freewheel, which attaches in two seconds, raises the front casters off the ground, turning the wheelchair into a three-wheel vehicle with a longer footprint, making fast runs on irregular surfaces safe. For braking, the rig has “hand brakes”. That is, my hands are the brakes. Gloved hands. You “steer” the rig like you would any wheelchair by feathering a wheel to slow it down or propel a wheel to speed it up. The wheelchair is quite narrow, compared to a sulky, for example, and, to avoid tipping over sideways, you have to take care to lean into, and slow down, for tight turns. Anyone interested in the rig and particular tips regarding wheelchair mushing can check out my Facebook page Wheelchair Mushing.
Tell us about your dog, Sky.
Sky is a 4.5 year old Labrador retriever which my wife and I have raised since she was a puppy. Sky is extremely intelligent and very much wants to please. She has a very good sense of “what’s ours” and “what’s hers” and doesn’t bother our stuff. She is able to easily remember the names of her various toys and I think that helped her more easily learn mushing commands. Sky has a very high-energy level and needs regular exercise. She is a very friendly, non-aggressive dog. She’s somewhat spoiled and expects attention a lot; and we give her attention a lot.
What is your favorite activity with your dog?
My favorite activity is wheelchair mushing. I think mushing is Sky’s second favorite activity. Her favorite activity is retrieving in water. We don’t have any wheelchair accessible water in my area so my wife takes Sky for a swim. My wife and family took Sky to a creek about 40 miles from where we live. The creek ended up being frozen over but Sky loved retrieving in the ice-filled water.
What would be a perfect run with your dog?
A perfect run is where we are discovering a new place we haven’t been before and, Sky’s interest and enthusiasm, in exploring the new place, is obvious. A perfect run includes a dog park, near the midpoint, where Sky can be off leash and play “retrieve” for awhile and simply lay around in the cool shaded grass to rest up and get ready for the second half of our run. A really ideal run would also include a creek or pond where Sky could take a swim. On the perfect run, Sky doesn’t do any “meet-and-greets” and doesn’t do any “weed smelling”. She is focused and there is a determined step in her forward motion. She occasionally looks back at me to make sure I’m still there, smiles, and continues on our way
Why do you run your dog?
Sky and I both love the runs. Sky needs the exercise and I need the fresh air. She needs me to take her out, and I need her to take me around. We both win. Our typical outings are three to four miles. That would be impossible for me to do without her.
My dog and I also go on runs in order to be seen and, perhaps, help promote wheelchair mushing as a sport or activity for people in wheelchairs. People in wheelchairs often don’t get out because getting out is so difficult. A dog, trained to pull, makes it easier and fun.
The first race you entered was So Mush Fun, tell us about your experience there!
This is a picture my daughter took, as Sky and I were crossing the finish line at the So Mush Fun event in Vacaville California. Sky and I finished 20th out of a field of 27. I thought that was pretty good for our first race ever, and only the second time we ran with other dogs, most of which were trained huskies in multi-dog teams. We beat the untrained huskies.
What is mushing like in your neck of the woods?
I live in the California valley, one of the flattest places on earth, perfect for mushing. Summers are hot and you must run your dog early while it’s still cool. Unfortunately, the California valley, in general, is not blessed with many nice, wheelchair-accessible, multipurpose paths. That could change. The State of California has some dedicated revenues which can only be invested in projects which reduce greenhouse gasses. Some of those revenues are planned to be spent on “active transportation” and “urban forestry”. I am anticipating this means more multipurpose paths for biking, walking, jogging, skating, skate boarding and ….mushing. The California valley has lots of potential.
In my particular area, the cities of Sacramento and Davis are nearby, and both have many beautiful off-street, wheelchair-accessible, bike paths, especially Davis (locally known as the bicycle capital of the world). My own city of Woodland is currently going through the process to update the City’s General Plan. I am active in campaigning for the city to include, in its plan, a greenbelt which would surround the city and include a multipurpose path. Right now, the greenbelt is in the draft plan. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
What resources have you used to further your training?
When I first started training Sky, I used a training guide that I got from Daphne Lewis, the owner of Chalo Sulky. At first, I was emailing Daphne every day telling her what went right and what went wrong and she would tell me something new to try.
What is the best advice that you have ever been given regarding mushing?
DaphneLewis (Author of Dog Scooter), told me to “keep on trying”.