The list of bad behaviors in sled dogs is nearly endless. Some dogs growl, grab, bite and fight. Others bolt the wrong direction; they won’t slow down or stop; they dash to or flee from strangers; they bark, shy, squirrel away, can’t be caught, or crowd people. Some destroy everything from harnesses to mitts. Poorly-trained dogs don’t just reflect badly on you as a musher; they put the whole sport in a bad light. We all are responsible for the behavior of our own dogs, and when they misbehave it usually means they weren’t fully trained. But the good news is that we can do something about it. And we need to keep in mind: It’s never the dog’s fault. It’s up to us to train our dog team, reenforce wanted behavior and nip bad behavior in the bud.
Many general training principles apply to specific problems, including consistency and leadership on your part, and especially if you can determine why a dog is misbehaving.
Why Dogs Are Rude
A poorly-trained dog simply may not understand what is required or respect his handler enough to feel compelled to obey. Older dogs that never received training cannot be expected to perform well. While time and training can help, they may never reach their full potential.
On the other hand, we expect young dogs to misbehave. Their inexperience and energy require guidance and direction. Also, genetics, natural variability, and improper early handling can create fearful, aggressive, hyper, independent-minded or otherwise difficult dogs. Others develop phobias due to bad experiences. For example, a dog that lashes out at passing teams after being bitten himself. A few cases of bad behavior might be medical in origin, such as irritability from pain or fatigue, or anxiety triggered by an underlying disease. If in doubt, see your veterinarian.
Luckily, good training solves most behavioral problems, and tailoring the training to specific dispositions and underlying causes increases its effectiveness.
Gain the respect of each dog, motivate him appropriately and drill commands regularly but not excessively. Obedience to one command reinforces obedience to other commands, carrying over to situations where you may not have physical control. Set boundaries and be firm and consistent while you encourage good behavior and distract, discourage or discipline bad behavior. Keep the dog motivated by rewarding desired behavior with real treasures: frozen liver chips, for example, or giving him freedom.
Except when running in the team, when you call a dog by name, he should look at you, even if distracted. If he doesn’t, he needs more obedience work. After he responds reliably, add distractions (loose dog, strange person, a horse). Drill while gradually increasing the intensity of the distraction (dog barking, horse moving closer) but if he over-reacts, ease back. Plenty of exercise helps him focus better on lessons and also reduces aggravating behaviors like barking and chewing.
Breed puppies only if you have time to educate them. They need frequent non-stressful socializing and regular handling of the whole body. At a minimum they should learn “Down” and “Come.” On puppy walks, establish leadership and trust by changing direction often and offering encouragement with numerous obstacles like puddles, ramps and logs. Be firm but understanding as you break up squabbles and correct naughty stunts. Teach youngsters to respect personal space no matter how darling they are — don’t allow puppies to engage in behaviors that are adorable in a little one but horrible in an adult.
A rude dog often combines enthusiasm, ignorance and lack of respect. Retraining need not consist of the “I’ll show you who’s boss!” variety. Subtler ways may take longer but are considerably more fun. To teach patience and self-restraint as well as reinforce your status, train “Sit” during a quiet time. Gradually increase the duration before offering a reward and then add the command at feeding time and expect him to wait quietly for his dinner. Finally, try it when the dog is jumping, chewing, barking or otherwise being obnoxious.
Jumping and mobbing behavior indicates a lack of respect for your personal space. Instead of letting him charge through doors, insist he wait for permission whether you’re releasing him from your house, a crate or a dog box. Don’t let him bodily knock you aside, for instance to pounce on his food or blast out a door. Occasionally demand a disrespectful dog yield by walking confidently into his personal space, bumping into him if necessary, until he moves back.
I like to deflect crowding or jumping with a bucket, dog pan, stick or other object to encourage some separation. (When 110-pound Comet was an adolescent, we left a stick near his picket to deflect his rambunctious lunging.) If a dog gets pushy, such as demanding attention or food, use a cue like “Off!” or “Quit that!” As you give the command, deflect the dog with a tool or your knee, or by turning your back. Refuse to interact until the dog pauses, and instantly turn away again if he gets too energetic.
Once you use that cue, don’t relent regardless of how adorably he nuzzles and grovels and bats his cute eyes. If you yield, he’s just learned who’s boss – and it’s not you! Teaching self-restraint (sit, stay) and providing more exercise helps calm these wiggly dogs.
Don’t tolerate aggressive behavior toward other dogs. Reducing aggression requires a time-consuming and rigorous desensitization program. Teach a solid “Sit” before introducing new dogs on neutral ground, at a distance or behind a fence. Treats usually help defuse anxiety and hostility. Use distracting techniques and decrease the distance only as your dog remains calm.
If a dog becomes huffy when running loose, I’ll call him sharply to me, tell him to sit, and then give him a treat. This distracts him from the other dog and reminds him that I’m in charge, while the chewing physiologically calms the dog. A professional trainer who specializes in aggression can help with these problems.
Some barking is usually allowable (perhaps at hook-up, feeding, intruders) but to keep them quiet at other times, consistently discourage yammering. A sharp “quiet” or hand clap often does the trick, or I might crack a doghouse roof with a stick. Separate dogs that escalate each other and use exercise, big bones and durable toys to distract bored dogs.
To desensitize a dog that resists handling, work with him after a meal or a run when he’s more relaxed. Touch any body part he will tolerate, perhaps while distracting him with food. If he pulls away, start again at a less intrusive level. Practice harnessing him several times after each run. I harnessed squirrelly Agate for two years by holding a treat beyond the harness opening so he’d push his nose through, and now he practically harnesses himself.
Teaching commands and tricks makes a dog more responsive. Exposing a dog to new disciplines – obedience, agility or clicker training, for example — is a terrific way to improve obedience and self-control.
It can’t be said enough —which is why we keep repeating it: Experienced dogs are the best teachers. If your dogs are all over the place, buy or borrow a great leader or two. Run a small team that can be controlled between your leaders in front and yourself on the runners. A mentor or handler can help lead the dogs past distractions. Or run your dogs behind a disciplined team that demonstrates proper behavior.
Then go out and drill. Practice starting, stopping and turning. Don’t expect perfection at first, but when you give a command, enforce it even if you have to lead your dogs.
As the dogs improve, mush past new, strange, scary or fascinating things: animals and people, dog teams, livestock, vehicles. Remain some distance away and increase the challenge only after your dogs excel at ignoring the distractions. Again, run only a few dogs so you can quickly stop them before anything escalates. Use two snow hooks, if necessary, for absolute control. Work up to close passing and head-on passing only after your dogs and you have the confidence and self-discipline to do so.
Remain calm but firm. Avoid shouting. In addition to announcing “bad dog trainer here!” it increases stress, fear and aggression. If you still have trouble, you might try plugging each dog singly into another musher’s well-trained team for drills, or go out with individual dogs on a leash or ski-joring for one-on-one training.
Reduce the stress of passing by practicing to pass dogs from your own yard. As the dogs relax, recruit another musher’s team to practice with. Start with easy passes on wide trails. Keep a reliable dog hitched between any problem dog and the other team. Dogs typically find passing on the fly easier than having one team stopped. Drill, drill, drill until passing becomes routine.
Some mushers tolerate or enjoy exuberant lunging and barking at hook-up. If you don’t, you’ll have to invest the time to interrupt the behavior EVERY TIME it happens. This might take most of the season to accomplish, especially when several dogs are feeding off each other. If you don’t want crazy dogs at hook-up, don’t reward craziness by hiking the team, even if you have to wait half an hour for a moment of calm. You may need to repeatedly hook up and then unhook without going anywhere.
Don’t be in a rush! Birch is nearly four now, and will stop squalling at hook-up only when I mount the runners.
Dogs that might chew harnesses or booties need supervision. We don’t leave youngsters picketed in harness until about age three, and then only if they’ve never chewed. A cable towline discourages line-chewing.
Often team problems stem from a single dog who might be aggressive, hyper or over-sensitive. Removing that one dog either temporarily or permanently can change the dynamics of your whole team. You can try one-on-one training with this dog, perhaps with professional advice, or place it with an experienced, willing musher or as a pet. If you have an “alligator” that you can’t control, avoid mushing him around other teams and especially in races. He can do a lot of damage that you are liable for.
The legendary musher Susan Butcher said that often dogs with the biggest problems develop into the best performers due to the intensive one-on-one effort put into them. This statement reflects not just her wisdom, but her willingness to invest the time required to rehabilitate these miscreants. If you don’t have time, energy, experience and patience, re-homing a problem dog may be the best solution for everybody, including the dog.
When re-training a seemingly incorrigible dog, go back to basics: Simple commands, lots of bonding time and desensitizing to whatever triggers the unwanted behavior. Nip inappropriate responses in the bud. Options for de-escalating include distracting with a command or with food; moving away from the trigger; keeping an unflappable dog nearby; or simply a calm, steady voice and a quiet hand on the shoulder.
Individual dogs respond to techniques tailored to each personality. Try different rewards to see if he’s motivated by food, praise, a toy or something else special. You may have to tinker a bit with your methods, but ideally you will offer consistent, effective guidance that the dog can predict and respond to. A lot of exercise is often key to controlling a hyperactive dog.
Control devices include head collars and no-pull harnesses. Train the dog to accept any device before using one. A Kong or other slow-feed toy distracts from some inappropriate behaviors.
Even over-excited dogs can obey if they respect us enough to listen. If they get so crazy they literally don’t hear our orders, we’ve put them in a situation beyond their level of training. That’s our fault.
It’s no fun when your obnoxious team injures other dogs or your exuberant behemoth mows down a little child. We all love mushing, but teaching proper behavior is just as important as good husbandry. Well-trained dogs increase the pleasure we all get from our sport, gives us pride in our animals and favorably impresses observers.
Perhaps best of all, these are calm, confident and happy dogs with no confusion about their role or who is in charge.