BEGINNER BASICS: POSITIONING DOGS

You can avoid many problems by placing dogs in their optimal positions within the team.

Each dog has something to offer, and your job is to figure out where he does the most good (or the least harm).

Figuring this out can really make things easier for both you and your dogs. Even if you’re only running three dogs, positioning can improve their performance.When you acquire each dog, ask what position he runs best in, because many dogs simply won’t lead; some are afraid of the sled, or have other limitations.

As you begin to feel confident managing your team, try running the dogs in different positions to see how each one does best in your group. Do a lot of experimenting on training runs to see if each dog’s performance changes under different conditions, and put this knowledge to use.

LEADERS

Nothing affects the performance of a dog team more than the ability and responsiveness of the leaders. You will quickly find out which dog will take (or learn) commands, and whether he will keep the team lined out and moving.

One dog might do great on an uncomplicated trail, but be unable handle commands, distractions, or disruptions among his team-mates. Another might show incredible drive, but won’t listen to your commands. A third might excel at following orders, but lack the speed to stay ahead of your team dogs, or he may be smart as a whip but balk at challenging obstacles.

Some leaders pass other teams readily and some do anything but. Pair these dogs up so their skills complement each other and you’ll have an easier run. Various leaders might work better alone, or partnered with an older wiser dog or with a younger faster one. Pairing a slow leader with a faster dog, even if an untrained leader, often helps that dog pick up the speed and enjoy himself more. A leader who doesn’t respond to your commands should be paired with one who will, or run in a small team that you can easily control as you teach him commands. A leader who won’t hold the line tight during stops can be paired with one who will, or you can hold or tie him until he learns.

Many experienced team dogs, especially those run in the front half of the team, also have drive and know verbal commands if your “leader” fails. We recently got a middle-aged race dog named Coco who had never run lead. He doesn’t know commands or stand firmly during stops, but he sure picks up the pace when he’s up front.

In a pinch even a confirmed old wheel dog might have the get-up-and-go required of a leader. You won’t know until you try.Remember abilities will change over time, so be prepared to switch dogs to new positions where they might do better. As they age, fast dogs may slow down. Rambunctious young dogs calm down and gain confidence and knowledge. A four-year-old may be ready to lead your team anywhere when two years ago he freaked out under pressure.

A seven-year-old leader may no longer have the physical speed or mental ambition to stay in front, while a seven-year-old team dog might suddenly show leader potential. Keep an open and optimistic mind. Don’t depend too much on one leader; train up others even if they don’t perform as well because sooner or later you may need them.

However, if a rookie leader doesn’t even try or seems overwhelmed, switch him out of lead, especially if he’s young or inexperienced. Watch for a change in character, like a lack of enthusiasm or irritability. It’s easy to burn out leaders, especially when you’re pressuring them to do too much. That’s why it’s so nice to have back-up leaders.

SWING

Swing dogs (called point in some areas) can be any dog that will perform in this important position behind the leaders. The good ones really pay off in their ability to back up leaders and maintain strong impulsion without messing up. They should not fall back into the team, get seriously tangled, try to turn around, or drag the team the wrong way.

Look for mature, responsive dogs with lots of drive to fill this slot. Ideally you can choose dogs that are focused, fast, nimble and experienced.It’s easy for dogs in swing to get tangled and often harder for them to free themselves of the lines, especially if the leader falls back. A good swing dog will run wide to avoid a slack line, and set a good example for the team by driving ahead through overflow or past other teams. When breaking trail through deep snow, pick tall, leggy dogs that just won’t quit.

Also use this position for potential leaders learning the ropes. When they make the move to the front, your older leaders can be positioned here to help guide the trainees.

WHEEL

At the other end of the team, wheel dogs must be laid-back enough so they aren’t bothered by noise, jerks or a banging sled right behind them. If they spook or look back repeatedly, especially in response to noise or movement from behind, this position might not suit them. Soundness, good conditioning and strong backs help prevent the injuries that can occur in these dogs.

If you’re running a small team, you may need to put dogs here that ordinarily would be better positioned as team dogs ahead of wheel (see below.) If you have dogs that can’t be trusted around unfamiliar dogs, run them in wheel until you’ve retrained them.

Big hard-working wheelers add power to small teams, but in a bigger faster team lighter, more nimble dogs perform better, especially when the gangline whips back and forth during sharp turns. Because their tuglines angle sharply downward toward the sled, taller wheel dogs may experience sore hips and back strain.

A freight harness with a singletree (spreader bar) usually solves that problem.Wheel is not a good position for dogs that overwork, overheat, or have had back or hip injuries, but even these dogs can often handle easy runs in wheel, especially if you watch them for problems and stop often to let them rest or grab snow.

On really rough trails, we put slackers in wheel because they won’t hurt themselves the way a hard-working character will. (They also won’t provide the power and steering a good wheeler does.)

TEAM DOGS

The dogs behind swing and ahead of wheel need less specialization because these positions don’t have the physical and mental pressure of the wheel and lead. Youngsters, new additions, or other questionable dogs might do best just ahead of wheel where it’s easy to work nicely and you can keep a close eye on them.

The front end can provide momentum to carry inexperienced dogs past problem spots, or set good examples during that first head-on pass. Taut lines also prevent these dogs from turning around or tangling. The front end can also pull inexperienced dogs forward by the necklines if they don’t understand your “Hike” command (they will quickly learn it!). In a small team, these dogs might have to go in wheel if you don’t have enough power in front.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Keep in mind each dog’s strengths and personality when deciding where in the team to run him, and don’t be afraid to change dogs around mid-run as long as you can safely secure the sled as you do so. Often a simple switch, or running a dog without a partner, or leaving a problem dog at home, can miraculously solve serious problems.

Think about which dogs are best suited for each position in every condition, whether you’re considering personality, trail conditions, weather or the goals you wish to accomplish on any given day.Personality plays a big role. Some dogs just do better in one position than another. Some might have a talent for leading but may not enjoy the job. A dog might dislike or fear a certain teammate and snap, fight, balk or act stressed when placed next to the offender. A dog might try to play too much with his best buddy, or harass particular partners.

This is especially true of sibling pups and yearlings, so when necessary, separate these guys. Our dog Spoí will often razz his partner for the first quarter mile, and starting his run without a partner eliminates this behavior.Aggressive dogs usually cause fewer problems when paired with a dog of the opposite sex or a neutered male.

You can also run the aggressive dog singly to avoid conflict. A female in heat should be separated from intact males, or preferably not run with males at all. (Kría, the only breeding female we keep right now, usually runs in a team of neutered males when she’s in heat.) Older dogs and dogs with chronic pain may have little tolerance of a rambunctious partner and appreciate being run singly if you don’t have a quiet dog to pair them with.

Extremely hyper dogs, over-playful ones, and those who just don’t like anybody are all good candidates for any single spot you may have; or you can place them beside a quiet, non-reactive dog. A few dogs have a strong preference for the right or left side of the towline and lean hard in that direction. Some mushers try hard to retrain these dogs, but as a beginner you’ll find it easiest to simply accommodate them. (Sometimes a different style of harness, such a freight harness, cures the problem.)

A dog that tries to stop, swings off to one side, pulls away from his partner, or looks back repeatedly may be trying to tell you he’s in the wrong place. If moving him to another position doesn’t help, look for other problems causing him to protest.

We might run a dog with leader potential in swing for several runs, then move him up beside a trained leader for the last familiar mile home. Fast dogs toward the front of the team keep speed up; placed toward the back of the team, they may overrun the dogs ahead, causing tangles. On difficult runs, you may wish to move the dogs into different positions so they can rest from the pressures of their usual place, whether it’s mentally or physically stressful.

Leaders can tire of mental challenges and also physical ones (it takes more drive to lead, and trail-breaking in deep snow is hard on leaders). Wheel dogs appreciate being switched out on a long, rough run which reduces the likelihood of injury. Many team dogs simply enjoy having new partners to socialize with.

Tall dogs can go through deep snow and over rough ground more easily, so if they have the drive, use them toward the front under these circumstances. Conversely, when breaking trail, shorter dogs benefit from being farther back in the team where the snow is better packed. In a brutal wind, put smaller or thin-coated dogs on the downwind side of the team to give them a bit of shelter.

Dogs that overheat may do fine in swing but suffer when in wheel; they would enjoy the windy side of the team. If you need more power, put those hard-working dogs in the back part of the team. I’ve had some powerful over-sized leaders who weighed 20 pounds more than their teammates. If I need more power I move them closer to the sled, and it’s like adding an extra dog! (Do watch these workhorses for overheating and soreness. You can’t count on them to pace themselves.)

Dogs that don’t pull often do better when moved closer to the sled, but some do better when moved forward. Our yearling Fiji works perfectly in wheel, but looks back a lot when farther forward. By next year he will have outgrown this, but for now we giving him easier runs to balance his relatively tough position.

PUT IT ALL TOGETHER

Think about each one of your dogs. Has he been doing a super job, or causing you problems? If he’s tangling in swing, move him back so the dogs ahead can keep him in line. If he’s tangling in the back, he may be too fast: try him farther forward. Try that two-year-old up front for awhile; just because he couldn’t cut it last year doesn’t mean he’s hopeless. Keep an open mind, and when fixing a problem or polishing a team, remember that often one way to do it is not by dropping a dog, but by changing that dog’s position in the team.

•Photo captions for Beginning Basics: Positioning Dogs submitted 12.01.091.

Change dogs around during a run to see what position they do best in. Make sure your sled is securely anchored, and use the stop to pet and watch all of your dogs.

Here Ruth Iten works with her leader on Hotham Inlet.

2. Some leaders won’t obey commands or hold the lines tight at hook-up, but they excel at meeting challenges such as crossing bad ice like these dogs here.

3. Swing dogs need almost as much drive as the leaders. Swing is a good position for potential leaders, or for reliable leaders who can correct a young leader from behind.

4. Often a dog works best run by himself, especially if he’s aggressive, hyper, or excessively playful. Once in awhile, toward the end of a run when he’s more relaxed, you can try adding a partner to see if he’s outgrown the problem.