A year ago, we were provided with three Spartan harnesses to review by the kind folks over at https://sportypaws.co.uk/. Unfortunately, the test, didn’t go too well. Musher (the company that manufactures these harnesses) had created something with a fantastic design, but a critical flaw – the adjustable buckles came undone incredibly easily.
A month ago, Sporty Paws were brilliant enough to send us the new and improved Spartan harness for further testing. Whilst it is still early days, we can say, that the previous flaw is gone, and what remains is a truly fantastic product.
Below we have provided a rough summary of our thoughts on the new and improved harnesses, along with our video review with some additional content.
The Musher Spartan harness is a fully adjustable multi-sport style harness geared towards canicross, bikejoring and dogtrekking with an extra emphasis on helping tackle challenging obstacles with your dog (hence the large handle on the dogs back).
As with everything we’ve seen from Musher so far, the quality of these harnesses was excellent on both tests, albeit a problem with the adjusting buckles themselves stopped us from reviewing these properly first time round.
With the buckle issue now completely resolved, these are a really high quality product, especially considering their price-point.
This is review is going to be broken down in to a few key sections to help you understand more what these are about, and where they sit amongst other competitors. Without doing head-to-head tests, suggesting that these are either better or worse than a specific other harness would be drastically unfair, so everything here will be to give you an indicator of their performance within the general harness market.
And the first item to discuss, is market position. This fits thoroughly in the short / multi-sport harness category, and marks highly in all key areas (price, quality and fit). I won’t say that this harness is as good as a custom made-to-measure, because in reality is almost never possible of an adjustable harness – but this one is really close to that high fit level.
Suitability – as a trekking harness, I am really very impressed, the weight, adjustment and the control handle are all exactly what I look for in a trekking harness. Something that gives the dogs more comfort over performance.
For canicross and bikejor – if you wanted one harness to do everything, then this absolutely fits the bill. But as a dedicated canicross or bikejor harness, I think their Seppala harness wins out, at least for northern breeds. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Spartan in this regard, but I don’t believe it optimised to get the most out of running at great speed, and the additional material – handle, adjustment clips etc, are just something to get snapped when weaving technical trails at speed. But on the switch side to that, if I were considering bikejoring somewhere busier, where I may want to be able to dismount and keep the dog next to be and more controlled while negotiating other trail users…I absolutely would use the Spartan in that scenario. Perfectly suited to a more casual bikejor or canicross user perhaps.
This review was made possible by the brilliant people at Sporty Paws Ltd. This is not a paid review, but without their help and support, such an involved and long-term test would not have been possible.
Musher is not a brand I’d heard of until recently, but one I expect to remain on the scene for years to come. There’s not a huge amount of information about the Musher brand available online, but what we do know; is that they are a European sleddog sport equipment manufacturer based out of Transylvania, Romania. [Insert Dracula-esque joke at your own discretion.]
We’ve been temporarily gifted two of their signature style harness to test; the Amundsen and the Seppala.
The Test Parameters
The test parameters were pretty simple, these two harnesses replaced my normal go-to Non Stop Freemotion harnesses for my two most competent running dogs.
The test ran from February to May, covering the end of the 2017-18 mushing season, and a lot of pretty vile weather. Mud as far as the eye can see for much of the time, so we’ve properly tested; not only performance, but durability and in general what they are like to live with.
Having had to put them through washing cycles and regular maintenance, we’ve drummed up a real near to worse-cast-scenario test for these harnesses.
The Amundsen Harness
As evident from the image above, the Amundsen harness is striking in design. At first it’s a little difficult to determine what exactly it’s intended for. It is a full-bore sled dog harness. Not a weight-pull or Pulka-style kit as some of it’s design cues suggest.
The Amundsen is a what I’d call a seriously open-back harness. It’s quite hard to explain in a few words, but it is a power-hungry harness, benefiting sprinting over endurance for sure.
My review of the Amundsen will have to be a little skewed. The harness did not fit my dogs especially well. By all measurement accounts, we had the right size – any smaller would’ve restricted airways, and well…they don’t go any larger.
The Amundsen appears to be designed around a dog that has a larger body or a smaller neck, comparatively. Every element of it’s design suggests this is intended for a purpose-bred hound.
This is a harness for your Eurohounds and Greysters (or whatever fandangled crossbreed you’re claiming today), there’s no doubt about it. For those with more traditionally shaped sleddy breeds, I’d advise to steer clear. Whilst it is a brilliant harness, it has a clear use-case in mind, and is not an all-rounder.
How’s it feel in use?
The Amundsen provides a power transfer from dog-to-bike like I’ve never experienced. I still can’t quite believe how much difference a harness can allow a dog to put down so much more power.
For what a guestimate is worth, it’s feels like an increase in torque, in the realm of 15-20%. Which I appreciate, is huge. Note; I said feels like. I doubt it is. And that type of power increase isn’t sustainable, but it is there as an initial shock to the senses.
This all sounds very promising, but for dogs who aren’t always going hell-for-leather, the design causes a practical issue. It just doesn’t sit well under an enduring trot or gallop.
The squiffy nature of the harness when not under load, can appear to cause minor discomfort for the dog during recoup portions of a run. I don’t suspect that there’s any actual pain, but rather than manor in which the harness can move around the body causes an unnecessary distraction.
I think it’s fairly evident by this point whether this harness is a good choice for your dog; if they’re an unadulterated puller for the whole hog, then great, go for it, and reap those rewards. But if they aren’t, it’s likely not to be of any benefit, and potentially a hindrance.
The open-back nature also leads to another potential problem, this is by far one of the easiest harnesses to back-out of I’ve ever used. This isn’t a fault as such, it’s by the very nature that makes it brilliant for some dogs, also makes it less ideal for others. And it’s just something I feel uncertain purchases should be very aware of.
The Seppala Harness
In the sled-dog harness world, there’s hundreds of x-backs, hundreds of multi-sport harnesses, and what feels like another several hundred of things in between. So, we probably didn’t need another, right? Wrong.
The Seppala is more x-back than anything, but it’s an x-back with the design and material tech from more modern multi-sport style offerings.
The front-end of this, and the end many would consider the most important, is very much multi-sport style in it’s approach. From a design perspective, I believe this superior to any other I’ve seen. There’s something about the angles of the shoulder and neck straps, along with the luscious padding running down the chest plate that really make this a stand-out piece.
Unlike the Amundsen, the Seppala is absolutely in tune with traditional sleddy breed body shapes. The sizing is also quite interesting, easily fitting two of my dogs well, that in their Non Stops are definitely different sizes.
How’s it feel in use?
The Seppala provides a super familiar feel, to both x-back and multisport harness users – yet simultaneously injecting a degree of quality rarely found in this sport.
There’s a lot less to say about this harness, and that’s not a bad thing. There are much fewer nuances and caveats, it is an out-and-out top of the category contender.
I’m not saying that my Non-Stop Freemotion harness are going up for sale on Mushers Exchange tomorrow, far from it. But this test model isn’t going back either, it is now a solid and now my go-to harness for my girly.
Will I transition all dogs to this new wonderharness? That is a decision I will make after another season; if the impressive lack of wear and tear continues, there’s a good chance it’ll be a yes. I have undoubtedly damaged my Non-Stop harnesses in some way within a few months, but those parts are simple and cheap to replace, not having to shell out another £50+ each time something goes wrong.
The Seppala harnes does not have any replaceable portions, but in all honesty, I don’t think it needs to. I anticipate this lasting exceptionally well.
Every aspect of these spanking new harnesses have already been laid out bare for all to see, and I am genuinely very impressed. Other manufacturers take note; the benchmark has changed.
At the weekend I was asked about a revolutionary new material being used to make bicycle frames – and if it was of any use for dog sports frames; bikes, scooters and rigs alike. That material, is graphene.
It’s something still largely unheard of outside of the bike tech geek circles, and is actually something I’ve been using on all my bikes in some form for the last 3 years. I’d believed it so specialised, if I’m honest, that it was unlikely to ever be of interest to most bikejorers and dog runners alike.
It seems however, I’ve been proven wrong. People are interested in what’s the next big thing. Alloy is still heavy as ever, steel more so, and carbon fibre leaves many, including myself, still feeling like a bit of an overpriced-high-risk option.
So, what is Graphene?
Despite what I just said about carbon fibre, in the concept of bike frame design, it is actually just carbon fibre. Carbon fibre crated and bonded with a graphene solution.
This is going to be one of those awkward terminology issues where someone turns around and says “my bike is made completely out of graphene”. And the truth is, it’s not. Not even nearly. And if it was, it’d be useless (as the video below explains). But what you may have, is a carbon fibre frame, made lighter, stronger, and really in every way better than the ‘traditional’ carbon composites – all thanks to this new wonder material.
The below video from Global Cycling Network really helps you to understand what is being talked about here, so you can make your own decisions about what’s what. But if you want the really short version; graphene is atom-thin molecules extracted from charcoal…so, it’s bits of old rock.
Can I buy a graphene bikejor bike now?
Err, nope. This isn’t a ‘no, not really’. As best as I can find, there is nothing remotely close to suitable out there at the moment.
Although the above video was released over a year ago, at the time of writing this piece, their comment regarding there only being a single producer of graphene tech’d frames available, still seems to ring true.
And such a small boutique company producing only road-specific frame-sets, it’s a solid bet that’s going to be far too expensive to even consider trying to adapt one for light off-road use with a hound.
So how have I been using it already?
Graphene, when it comes to bike tech, isn’t limited to frame technology. It’s also really helpful when it comes to tyres. And graphene infused tyres are something I’ve been a big fan of for the last few years.
The biggest player in the graphene tyre game is Vittoria. Most people won’t have heard of them, Maxxis, Schwalbe, Continental and a couple others rule the ‘big player’ tyre market. But they aren’t the only option.
It’s sometimes tricky with any new technology to see your way through the marketing hype, and find the actual benefits being offered. In the case of Vittoria’s off-road tyres (and I’ve used a fair few, including non-Graphene models to compare) the most notable elements are;
This one is a little abstract, but from experience I believe it to be (at least partially) true. Generally speaking, if you require a large amount of grip in the corners or in loose/muddy terrain, you’d opt for a very soft and sticky tyre. Something that obviously has a lot more mechanical grip. The downside to that, however, is that a tacky tyre also slows you down when you want to go fast. These graphene infused tyres appear to be able to change their behaviour, depending on the requirements at hand. Remaining hard during those long slog climbs, and softening up during faster descents. Assuming speed and heat here to be the catalyst, the effects are probably a small percentage of difference, but all those little gains do add up. The blurb from the Vittoria website reads:
Vittoria tires are now intelligent. IT’S compounds become harder and softer, depending on the needs of the rider. If the tire is rolling straight, the rubber is at its hardest and offers low rolling resistance. If the rider breaks, accelerates or corners, the compounds soften and offer significantly more grip. Prior to the advanced development of Graphene, there was always the requirement of choosing between optimizing, or aiming at, speed, grip, durability and puncture protection. Effectively, the introduction of Graphene allows for natural material barriers of rubber to be removed, which means that there is no longer the need for such compromises between speed, grip, durability and puncture resistance. All these features are now reaching their maximum possibilities.
Toughness v Lightness
As with graphene frame design, tyres can become tougher and lighter at the same time. It really is a win-win. MTB tyres are rarely light to start with, so don’t expect huge gains, but they are tough as hell, so there’s little to lose.
A tougher material also equates to bother fewer punctures and to decreased wear. As of yet, I have had no punctures on a Vittoria G+ (that’s their graphene brand name) compound tyre, and I’m struggling to wear through them as well. They really are of exceptionally quality.
I do hope, that one day, a bikejor-suitable frame is produced with graphene. I have been a long term-sceptic of carbon fibre, but the graphene application appears to resolve many of the issues I generally associate with it.
It’s not to say I don’t or won’t use carbon fibre on my bikes, I think carbon bars are exceptionally good when it comes to reducing vibration on bumpy terrain and reducing arm fatigue. For cranks they can also be incredible light and stiff. For less impactful riding, carbon wheels offer huge advantages. But always remember than almost all of World Cup Downhill field still use alloy wheels, and it’s not because they can’t afford carbon.
My biggest gripe with carbon has always been in frame design. While it’s totally possible to achieve brilliance with it, when frames need to change yearly to keep up with technology demands, the quality control suffers, and it is a material that needs more QC than old school metal options. When it fails, it often fails catastrophically. When there’s a dog involved in that equation, I don’t feel it worth the minor gains.
Graphene, however, promises to remedy a lot of these issues and may finally provide us with the carbon we’ve always wanted. Carbon fibre is often reffered to by sceptics as plastic. Plastic may indeed be the future, plastic infused with old rocks.
“Clicker training” is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it.
Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.
Why aren’t you using clicker training?
I’ve been asked a few times before, just why aren’t you doing it, and my answer was somewhat stuck on repeat; huskies just don’t respond well to traditional training methods.
That was a phrase I learnt in my formative dog ownership years; primarily from very knowledgeable and experienced breed owners and trainers. So, obviously, it was gospel.
But last month, I was asked again. Have you never tried it?
A more opened mindset and a brief discussion later, it turns out there’s a book specifically to help you understand the Clicker Training method for “stubborn” dogs.
‘When Pigs Fly!’ is a brilliantly written piece by Jane Killion. Through the book she discusses everything from why some dogs are considered ignorant or stubborn (hint: they aren’t actually), to how different types of difficult dog can be taught to love training, and even doing the behaviour you ultimately want of them.
Trying to purvey her expertise in a few words here would be a serious injustice to her research, knowledge and brilliance as a writer; so, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy (the eBook/Kindle version is really cheap!)
Let’s not take anything for granted here, it’s really early days (talking a couple weeks), and Sibe’s are anything but consistent when it comes to attention span (unless there’s a squirrel involved). But, I have to say, I have much more attentive dogs.
During their attentive and working mindset (when out on walks and during dedicated training time) I can have all of them turning on a penny to give me attention, around 80% of the time. That though, is probably 70% more than before. So that last 20% is hopefully something we can work towards.
I know somewhere out there right now, someone will be pointing a finger at this page saying; “LOOK, HE SAYS HE’S TRAINED HIS HUSKIES BUT THEY’VE GOT HEADCOLLARS ON.” – Yeah, you’d be right, and I’d agree. But this training system isn’t a quick fix over a few days. Behaviours previously unattainable now appear to be within sight, but only with a lot more work and dedication. I’m certainly not letting my guard down yet.
What have they learnt?
Well, nothing, yet. Not really. A whole lot of this training system is about teaching your dog how to be taught. It’s quite an abstract concept at first glance. But sit back and think about it, and preferably read the book. It really makes a whole lot of sense.
So they’ve learnt nothing; but they now understand how to learn everything.
Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve had a few comments; “How long until you can let them off-lead then?” is certainly the favourite.
You would think, with such a positive reaction from my dogs in such a short period of time, that ultimately, off-lead success would be totally possible…right? Wrong.
One thing I have learnt so far from this process is just how some of their typical quirks manifest themselves under new situations.
They are now way more attentive, for sure. But that determination and drive that has brandished them as inattentive and stubborn for so long now is very much still a factor in their learning.
Trying to hypothesise this is tricky, so the real world example;
My youngest is probably my keenest learner. We are in a situation where he understands roughly what sort of activity gets him a reward (tasty treat). That activity, is interacting with a cardboard box (it sounds mad, seriously; read the book). We’ve been doing this training routine for a few days now, he absolutely and totally gets it. The sight of the box excites him as a result; he is 100% onboard with the system.
He also understands, the more lavishly he interacts with the box, the more treats he gets and the faster they come. Several times within this 10 minute session, he plays with the box in the same manor he has the entire session, but ignores the cue that he’s done right and a treat is coming. He has no interest in the box itself. He’s seen it for days. He’s just moving it around to see what I’ll give him, but even so, his focus blinkers the end goal. I won’t continue to use the trigger when he ignores it (as this is just teaching him to ignore it), and after 10 seconds or so of blind trying, he’s exhausted his options, and looks at me as if to say “was that not enough?”.
Nothing about his behaviour suggested he wanted to achieve anything other than being gifted the treat, yet he couldn’t recognise the cue over his own ambition.
Experts in the Clicker Training game would say that I didn’t load the clicker up properly. Trust me, that thing is properly loaded. His reaction to it 98% of the time is insane. I can’t believe how strong a reaction this thing evokes in him. He cries blue murder when he can hear the faint sound of another dog playing the game several rooms away. Yet, when it’s his turn, that husky focus can still play a hindrance.
This is by no means a full and extensive evaluation, just what we’ve experienced so far. I will save some quirks and stories about how my other dogs approach this training method for a later post.
Application for Bikejoring
Exploring Clicker Training was something intended to be a purely experimental and to see if the breed could become accustomed to it, and just another way to build those positive bonding moments with my dogs.
One of the core examples given by Jane Killion in her book however, is one of her own dogs who went from exceptionally lazy, to national-class agility competitor. That is a marked improvement.
It also rings very true to me – as anyone who knows me personally is aware; I have a really lazy husky. There’s no health issue or general causation. He’s big, strong, fit and confident. And an absolute coach potato. So knowing that clicker training could lead to a marked improvement in his physical activity, even without aspirations of national success, is a huge boost and motivator to continue.
What do you need to start Clicker Training?
Well, you need a clicker, and a bullet proof plan of how to use it. If I haven’t mentioned it enough times already, get a copy the book ‘When Pigs Fly!’ – if it’s a ‘stubborn’ dog you have, this resource is absolutely invaluable.
A couple of good clickers and general training kit we’d recommend are below;
We’re back from another corking round of the Checkendon Challenge. The event was run to perfection as always, and it is hands-down the best bikejor course we’ve ever done…I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet it’s also the best in the UK if you like more technical trails.
This trip was a little different for us, lead girly Saskia had a heat-spot break out a week before, and under the vets’ advice opted to leave her home to rest up. That meant it was just Nanuq and myself going, with the team #2 getting a chance to show what he can do.
He did not disappoint! The course changes a little sporadically between events, so I cannot say for certain that this was a net-fastest, but it was certainly close. Saturday felt fantastic, Sunday a little weaker…but low and below…we got identical times, for both days!? I don’t even know how that’s possible, but here’s the video to prove it:
The organisers very kindly allowed us to pop a camera down at the start line to grab footage of everyone on their way. Here are all the bikejor and scooter competitors from Saturday:
And most of the canicross class from Saturday (sorry, battery died before the end!)
That’s all for now, be sure to check out the Checkendon Challenge on Facebook, and a huge thanks and appreciation to the organisers as always.
This isn’t a full how-to or explanation, just to show a glimpse of our weekend and how that it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, some struggles as constant.
Keeping dogs used to overtaking happily is something that many dogs (and their humans) struggle to keep in check. A lot of bikejor riders do-so solo, so engineering positive passing techniques can be tricky.
No doubt I’ll write something more detailed about this in the future, but for now…keep on ‘joring!