Meredith Michener noticed that her boxer hound, Leo, was the fastest dog at the dog park. Leo needed an outlet to burn energy. She never imagined that seven years later she would be one of the top-ranked dryland dog mushers in the world and planning a trip to Latvia — if she qualifies, of course — for the 2019 International Federation of Sleddog Sports Dryland World Championship.
"I don't know how I'm going to fly my dogs there yet," Michener said as she poured water into bowls for her pointer greyhounds, Fergus and Kona, after a recent Saturday practice. "But they've been on planes before and didn't show too much anxiety, so I'm hoping they'll be OK."
Dryland mushing is a catch-all phrase for any dog-powered activities that do not involve snow. Michener prefers a dog scooter — think a bike without gears on which the rider stands as though on traditional scooter. It also includes sports like bikejoring, in which dogs pull their owners along on a bike, and canicrossing, jogging with your dog hooked up to a harness that attaches to a belt around your waist. This is not for lapdogs. Think working dogs and sporting breeds.
Michener fell into dog scootering after noticing Leo's speed at the park. When she took him there, he ran circles around other dogs and zipped between benches, panting with excitement the whole time.
"He was a ball of energy," Michener, who lives in Collegeville, said. "He just loved being active and he was such a good dog that I wanted to do more things with him."
Michener stumbled across a website on dryland mushing while searching the internet for things to do with her dog. The website was owned by Dave Ryan, a nuclear chemist from Willow Grove who also sells dog scooters.
"I reached out to Dave, and he gave Leo and me a lesson on a bike," said Michener, vice president of the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club. "My dog loved it, so we kept doing it. Eventually, I turned pro, got more dogs, and started competing in races."
The Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club was founded in 1971 to conduct sled dog races in a humane and safe way. Members meet in hotels and at various parks in the area for practices. Though most people probably think of the annual Iditarod race in Alaska when they think of dog races, the Pennsylvania club dabbles in lots of dryland mushing.
Today, the club has more than 150 members, both recreational and professional, from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Delaware, Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Jersey, and Alaska. During the year, the members gather for races when the weather permits.
Ryan also fell into dog-powered sports by accident with his dog, Chester, in 2003 after his first wife died in 2002.
"Neither of us were handling this very well," he said. "I took him to a behaviorist and she said, 'He needs a job.' I eventually figured out skijoring, which is when a dog pulls someone along on skis, was a sport and said to myself, 'That looks like it'll work for us.' "
Ryan signed up for skijoring lessons in Vermont. Afterward, he bought a scooter off the internet so he could exercise with Chester even when it wasn't snowing. Eventually, Scott became such a scooter enthusiast he began fixing up a few of his own on the side and selling them to other interested dog owners.
On a recent Saturday, Ryan and Michener met with other mushers in the area to practice at the Cromby Trailhead in Phoenixville. Despite the damp weather, the dogs barked excitedly as their owners hooked them up to their harnesses.
"It's always a noisy affair," Insa Robinson, who has been mushing for 10 years, said as she clipped her Eurohounds — a cross of Alaskan husky and pointing breeds — to her scooter. "They love being outside, they know that being at the park means they get to run. And, of course, they love seeing their friends."
Robinson, who tries to hit 18 miles per hour during practices, is currently ranked fourth by the International Sled Dog Racing Association in adult bikejoring with one dog. Her 13-year-old daughter, Lea, does canicrossing.
While the more experienced mushers took off with their teams, Ryan hung back to show a newcomer the ropes. His strategy was to ride a bike in front of the border collie, which had been harnessed to its owner's bike, and dangle its favorite Frisbee in front. The dog, excited by its toy, began to pull the bike without even realizing it.
"The first lesson is really just an aptitude test for the dog, because some dogs pick it up instantly," Ryan said. "Some dogs have to be taught, and some want no part of it. We keep it short, I give them a few safety rules and teach them some commands, and then we see where it goes from there."
Although most dogs were thrilled to be at practice, Kodiak, an Alaskan malamute, much preferred soliciting affection from bystanders over pulling his owner, Dawna Eddinger, on her scooter.
Ryan also said that when training dogs, it's important to make sure the temperature outside isn't too warm. Dogs overheat a lot more easily than people do, because they don't sweat. And, no, you shouldn't hook your dog up to a Razor scooter.
"I gave Meredith and Insa their first lessons way back in the day," Ryan said. "And now they're kicking my butt at all the races. If you love dogs and don't mind getting dirty, this is a ton of fun."