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Northern Life: Pooch-powered inline skating good exercise for dogs, owners, trainer says

Sunday, July 07, 2002

By Judy Salisbury Cline

Hey, Big Dog, are you fed up just lying around all summer? Why not beg your owner to ditch the once-a-week obedience classes and head to North Park for the newest thing in doggy fun -- dog sledding on skates?

Rollerbladers exercise their dogs on a loop along Ridge Drive in North Park on Monday. From left are: Jeff Woods, being pulled by Bourbon and Singles; Evan Lavsa with Charlee; Kevin Simpson and Killian; and Kelli Druschel and Nikita. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Big dogs and little dogs alike are doing what comes naturally -- pulling their owners around -- and getting praised for it, said trainer Jeff Woods, 48, who owns Misty Pines Dog Park in Franklin Park.

The difference is that instead of panting at the ends of their leashes, pulling against owners who are trying to hold them back, these dogs are in harnesses and pulling their owners on inline skates.

"Wild, green dogs need a workout," said Woods. "You can't hold 'em back. The dogs love it, and it produces a lot of smiles on people too."

Woods has skated with his own dogs for a while at the county-run facility, and decided to offer a class for others. Three couples signed up. The class is meeting every Monday for six weeks, but owners are already also skating on their own.

Most of the owners don inline skates so their dogs can pull them on the mile-long asphalt trail around the North Park ballfields. Woods also harnesses more experienced dogs to a sled-cart on wheels or a mountain bike.

"The dogs love to pull." said Woods. "I've tracked some dogs at 25-30 mph. They're really flying. Some dogs, especially hunting dogs, are very competitive at running."

Wrela Johnston of Harmony said she had no idea her husky, Eros, could pull her so fast. An inexperienced skater, she said she was scared when she first started the class, especially on the hills. Once she and Eros learned the command "easy" to slow Eros down and "whoa" to stop him, Johnston said she really began to enjoy herself.

Woods teaches the dogs the commands -- "heel," "up front" and "pull" are other basics -- then gets the owners on skates behind them.

"You have to be somewhat brave and skillful on your skates," Woods said. "Once you get going, the dogs are very focused on the job."

Johnston's husband, Brendon, skates out in front of his wife to encourage Eros to pull faster. The couple is eager to see if their dog will pull a sled next winter.

Woods is not exactly bent on training dogs for the Iditarod, though. He said the main idea is for owners and dogs to have fun together.

That's no problem for Kelli Druschel -- or her 2-year-old husky, Nikita.

"Heel! Up front!" Druschel commanded, and Nikita trotted into position. "Pull, yeah, pull, pull," Druschel urged. "Go-go-go-go!" Nikita went, with Druschel flying behind her on her skates.

Druschel, who lives in Pittsburgh and works in Cranberry, said she looks forward to exercising Nikita at the class. She said she was surprised that Nikita naturally liked to pull.

Other dogs take more coaxing.

"Really, motivation is the key," said Kevin Simpson, 30, who helps Woods with the training. "Some dogs will pull for a treat or to chase someone who is out in front. Others just like the competition of running with other dogs."

"The dogs get exercise, mental stimulation. They love it," Woods said.

It's even good for their feet. "Some dogs have soft feet from being on rugs or grass too much," Woods said. "If they haven't been walked, they may cut their pads at first on the asphalt, but they toughen up pretty quick."

There's also interaction between dogs and owners. "This is really a lot about teamwork," said Simpson, "encouraging the dogs to work with you."

Woods said the trail is good for dog-skating: It's shady and paved, with water stops along the way. There's also little traffic, which is good because distractions can be dangerous. If a dog stops suddenly, Woods teaches the skater to drop the tension on the 10-foot line and circle back for the dog.

Then there are the times the dogs don't stop -- Druschel told of a bumpy ride she had when Nikita decided to chase a softball across a nearby field. "That's what makes the class fun," she said.

Beyond those challenges for owners, the skating is a workout.

"I knew huskies had a lot of energy, but I didn't know [exercising Eros] was going to be so much work," Wrela Johnston said. "It could be scary if you don't know how to skate. If your dog isn't pretty obedient to begin with, it could be a disaster."

That energy will be doubled soon. Woods and Simpson are setting up races for two-dog teams at the end of the class. The Johnstons and Druschel are planning to team up Nikita and Eros to race two Great Pyrenees, Humphry and Haley, owned by Lori Flower and Joe Fette of Shaler.

Simpson's two black Labradors, Killian and Charlie, and Woods' two pointers, Singles and Whillie G, also will race.

There won't be any golden trophies given out to the winners, Woods said. The pulling exercise is just for fun and to toughen up working dogs.

He said the class has been so popular that he plans to offer another in the fall.

"We can take any dog, but it has to be a social creature," said Woods. "A working dog or a hunting dog probably works best, but all dogs pull. Think about it. What's the biggest problem you have with your dog? He pulls on the leash."

For more information about the "Wheels" class, call Jeff Woods at (412) 364-4122.

Judy Salisbury Cline is a free-lance writer.

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