STUDYING THE HUMAN-SLED DOG RELATIONSHIP

“The relationship you have with the dogs, individually and as a team, is far away the most critical element to everything about the whole dog sledding experience.”

Statements like this one, along with a plethora of anecdotes and stories, were a common occurrence during the time that I spent interviewing mushers as part of my research project for a Masters’ in education. My thesis study was titled Human-sled dog relations:

What can we learn from the stories and experiences of mushers? The following article is my attempt to share with you both what my study involved, and what I discovered.Beginnings: My InspirationA few years back, I was a musher. I worked with sled dogs for five years (which is a blink of an eye compared to the mushers I interviewed), and yet my experiences mushing left their mark on me.

I worked for the Voyageur Outward Bound School in northern Minnesota, training the sled dogs each fall, and leading back-country wilderness trips with them each winter. I loved mushing so much that, along with three other women, I started raising dogs of my own for a major sub-arctic expedition. There were many things I loved about mushing. I loved fall dog training, figuring out the intricacies of how to best train the leaders, being out in the wilderness with dogs, teaching people how to run a team and seeing their excitement. And I loved the dogs, each personality.Unfortunately my career as a musher was cut short.

Prior to leaving on our three-month expedition I fell ill. I had to pull out of the expedition, leave my job at Outward Bound, and sadly, leave the dogs and mushing behind. I still miss the smells of early morning dog runs in the fall, the sound of the runners across fresh snow, the sight of a dog team in front of me, alert, rounding the next bend in the trail.Time passed. I moved back to Ontario (where I’d grown up), and two years later I started a part-time Masters program in Education.

I met a wonderful professor, Dr. Connie Russell, and one day found myself in her office with a list of possible research topics. When I came to the one about humans and sled dogs, she immediately latched onto it. Being an internationally renowned human-animal researcher, I shouldn’t have been surprised. And so my topic was born.Collecting StoriesBefore I could research human-sled dog relationships, I had to read loads of research papers, studies and books about human-animal relations.

I learned that it was a relatively new area of research, and that the bulk of research in this field has been done over the last 15 years. Part of the reason behind this is that it is only more recently that researchers have considered other animals to be capable of true social interaction. (In fact, some researchers still don’t) In delving into the research, I found quite a number of studies on humans and dogs, but very few on the relations between humans and working dogs (with the exception of service dogs).

When it came to humans and sled dogs, there was virtually no research at all. It seemed that my chosen topic was wide open.Having read and reviewed thousands of pages of research and writing, I had to choose a method for researching my topic. I came across one called narrative research.

Basically, the idea behind narrative research is that we can learn things through the stories people live and tell. This seemed to be a perfect technique as I knew many mushers who, when it came to sled dogs, could talk your ear off for hours.And so the fall of 2006 found me traveling around northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario interviewing eight mushers and collecting their stories and ideas about human-sled dog relationships. The mushers were all extremely hospitable and some traveled quite a distance so that I could talk with them, others gave me tours of their kennels and fed me meals, and one even took me along on a training run early one October morning.

So what did I discover? Well, after transcribing the interviews and searching for key ideas and common stories I concluded that each musher was unique in why they ran dogs (racing, recreational, tour companies, educational, expedition and trapping), their motivations, their ideas about training, and their relationship with the dogs in general. However, I did find that certain themes started to emerge. At one point I found myself in my kitchen with little piles of paper laid out all around me on every available surface.

Each piece of paper had an idea on it (e.g., dogs have personalities, dogs communicate using body language). I started making piles of ‘like’ ideas. Eventually, when enough mushers had mentioned similar ideas enough times, creating a large pile, I had a theme. In the end, there were six general themes that emerged about the musher-sled dog relationship.

The Themes

“You’ve got to get to know your dogs”Among the most common ideas was that mushers believed their dogs were individuals with personalities, and a big part of working well with them meant getting to know them. For example, one musher stated that: “Every dog has their own story. Even pups that haven’t been raced yet, they still have their story and uniqueness that make them special.” Similarly another musher stated: “And it’s also the individual.

You can generalize all you want but you’ve got to know each individual dog.”When the mushers talked about getting to know their dogs, they explained that this was done through bonding and spending time with them. Five of the mushers talked about the bond that forms when they raised their own pups from birth. For example, one musher said, “I think a lot of it is bonding with them at a young age.

I find that raising my own is more beneficial. I get to bond better with them and they just seem more willing to work for me.”The other idea relating to dog personalities and getting to know their dogs was that during the interviews, the mushers often spoke for their dogs – what they were thinking and feeling as well as their likes, dislikes and motivations. Sometimes they would even quote what the dog was thinking or feeling during stories.

For example, when referring to one of his sled dogs and her experience during a cold night on the Yukon river, one musher stated; “[She] lost her spunk. Got cold. Got really cold and that’s when she was like, ‘It’s too cold, I’m too small!’” voicing what the dog might have been feeling and thinking.

Respect for Sled Dogs’ Abilities

When I asked one musher why he liked working with dogs he replied: “Because they’re awesome, they don’t give a shit. Muddy, wet, cold, hot, whatever, you know?” This was by far one of the most common ideas shared by the mushers, that is, their respect for sled dogs’ abilities. Throughout the interviews, the abilities most often mentioned included athleticism, toughness, work-ethic, eagerness, enthusiasm, navigational abilities and particular dogs’ resumes (e.g. the races/expeditions they’d completed).

Two-way Communication

There were many ideas held amongst the mushers about communication. Overall, the mushers believed there was two-way communication taking place between mushers and sled dogs. Many participants stated that the responsibility to understand and communicate effectively is, for the most part, the human’s. In large part, according to the mushers in my study group, communicating with sled dogs involves understanding and giving cues and reading body language.

For example, when asked how dogs communicate, one musher said: “They can read your mind, and it’s not that they can read your mind. But, we’re very guarded as humans – talking – you know we think of things to say before we say [them]. However, you personify what you’re thinking and feeling through your body language. And that’s their life, and they read you and they watch you every second of their life, all the time.”

A Relationship Built on Trust

From seven of the eight mushers I heard about the importance of trust. One musher stated: “If you’re going to perform at a high level you have to have a margin of trust with your dogs and your dog team. So having that trust, is everything.” Mushers talked about how they tried to build a trust bond between them and their dogs, and I heard a lot of stories that involved the idea of trust. There were stories about what happened when the mushers trusted their dogs (or didn’t), as well as stories about what happened when the dogs trusted the musher (or didn’t).

For example, one woman told me a story of being out in a wilderness area with her dogs. It was late in the evening and the trail was covered by 6 inches of fresh snow. There was a snow squall, and she was contemplating camping rather than traveling when she noticed her lead dog attempting to find the trail. In white-out conditions the lead dog managed to navigate back to the truck and the musher shared: “Wow, that just totally taught me that you need to really trust them. They trust you. But in situations like that, they definitely will do it.”

Partnership

During the interviews the mushers described a kind of partnership with their dogs. The partnership described was one between two thinking, feeling beings, both with their own roles in the partnership. One musher described it like this: “You realize you aren’t doing it alone, and that you’re tied to this animal that pulls your stuff along, pulls you along, provides great joy. And in exchange you are feeding them, you are taking care of them, you’re cleaning up their poop.” As to the musher’s role in the partnership, I heard about what a huge responsibility and commitment having sled dogs is.

For instance, one musher stated: “The commitment you have, it’s not about the one walk a week or throwing them some kibble every day, it’s not that. You need to be there for them, you need to pay attention to them, love them, care for them, work them when it’s time. It takes hours every day. Every day of the week. All year long, 24-7.”

Other elements of the musher’s role in the partnership (besides the daily care) discussed included a wealth of diverse ideas regarding training the dogs as well as ideas about responsible breeding. While not always stated explicitly in the interviews, it was clear that the dog’s role in the partnership was to work/pull. This idea came through when I heard things like, “sled dogs are instinctually driven to run” and that they are “naturals at pulling from birth.” The implicit expectation that the dogs’ role was to pull also emerged when mushers told stories about dogs who weren’t working/pulling.

While this expectation was often implicit, a few mushers stated it outright. For example, one participant said in regards to his dogs: “If you don’t work hard, you make me mad. And I tend to not like you as much if you don’t work hard, you know? Because I’m counting on you. That’s our relationship.” A final element of partnership described to me by the mushers is what I chose to call companionship.

Five of the eight mushers talked about their enjoyment being out on the land with a team of dogs, in remote and/or wilderness areas. For example, one musher shared, “I guess my thing has just been traveling the land with my dog team and enjoying having the dogs” and another musher who said his motivation for mushing was, in part, being out on the land, “out in the middle of nowhere, just you and the dogs.”

Learning

Since my study had an educational focus, I asked all of the mushers whether they had learned things through working with dogs. One musher replied, “It’s just phenomenal what I’ve learned. I mean I’m a completely different person because of training sled dogs my whole life.” As in the case of this musher, sometimes the answers were vague, and overall the answers were diverse, with the exception of two common learnings that I will outline below.First, four of the mushers felt that because they work with dogs, they appreciate the amazing capabilities of dogs.

Oftentimes, the working relationship would be compared to one with a pet and several mushers felt they appreciate dogs more than a pet owner might because they see all the amazing things dogs are capable of. For instance, one musher said, “We have the utmost respect for what these dogs are capable of, and their knowledge and, you know, we trust them. When you’re working with your animal you really treat them like that, with a lot of respect….And I think a lot of people lose that with their pets.

They don’t realize the talent and capabilities that the dogs have.” Along with this idea of appreciating dogs’ abilities and potential was the idea that dogs should be given more credit by people in general. One musher stated: “They’re amazing. And people don’t, they never give them enough credit. People will always look at dogs and think, Aw, it’s just a dog.”The other more common learning described by the mushers (at least five of them) was that having worked with sled dogs, they felt they were better able to work with people.

Examples included improved abilities to work with children as a parent, students as a teacher, co-workers and fellow humans in general.What I ConcludedSo what did I conclude about the musher-sled dog relationship and what might be the broader implications of this study? Well first of all, in regards to the field of human-animal research, my findings support other studies suggesting that dogs are sentient, social, interacting beings capable of having true interspecies relationships.

Based on my research, I also propose that working sled dogs share a unique relationship with mushers and this can be one with depth and quality.As far as my conclusions regarding education, I highlighted two main ideas. First is the influence and importance of humans having direct experience with other animals. I propose that children and youth should have direct experiences with other animals (either through formal or informal educational experiences) in order to form clear, realistic ideas and understanding about animal others.

Closely linked to the idea of direct experience, I also recommend that educators should teach about animals, not as merely objects to be understood, but rather as subjects. Humans have had different kinds of working relationships with dogs since ancient times, and my study demonstrates that working relationships with dogs are unique and potentially deep and of high quality. And while my thesis may not have changed the world, I believe it will contribute to human-animal relations research by adding a study on humans and sled dogs into the mix.

Sidebar

A story about human-sled dog communicationOne humorous story told to me during the interviews occurred when a musher was reminiscing about a retired, favourite lead dog. The musher tells about one particular dog run where an argument ensues between him and this lead dog that very clearly demonstrates interspecies communication. I had just finished asking him why this dog was so special, and he replied: “She just always did it. And she was really good, you know, no trail on the lake. Was always willing, the harder it got, the better she got. And you know, when she got older she started to become a curmudgeon about simple things.

She’d be like “You’ve got this young leader here, make them hold the line out. Oh here’s a “T” intersection in the trail, make them take the Gee.” And as soon as you’d get to something hard, she’d basically kick that dog out of the way and take over. You know, she didn’t want the easy stuff. Yah, and we were really in tune, too, you know? Like what was really fun, was we had this one trail we didn’t use very often. You came to a clearing and you had to go across the clearing and the trail picked up in the woods [on the other side] and you couldn’t see the trail very well.

So we get to the clearing, and off a little bit to the right there’s a flag on the tree. I thought, “that’s where the trail must be.” So she’s heading to the left and I’m telling her to go gee, she goes gee. We go a little further and she heads back left. And I tell her “gee.” So we fought like this for a while and finally she just went gee and for the woods…and of course there’s no trail there.And now I’ve got to extricate these dogs from all the brush, it’s a big pain.

Get back into the clearing and I let her go and she ran right to where she thought the trail was and down the trail we went. And the whole time I was extricating them from the bush she was like “Bark, bark, bark bark!” she was scolding me like you wouldn’t believe!” A story with regards to trust where one musher explains how he mistakenly did not trust his lead dog with potentially dire consequences: There was a time when I was in Alaska and I was putting a new trail around a lake and I forget the name of this lake, but no one had put a trail in that year.

So I was going to take a dog team around it. And I had a dog named [Marcus] in lead. And we went around about two thirds of this lake and we were going around into a little cove. And I was giving him a “gee” command. And I gave it to him time after time and he knows this command. And I couldn’t set a hook because we were in fresh powder. And it just seemed to get worse and worse and worse. Finally I got a hook to set. And I went up there and was going to pull him the direction I wanted to go.

And I got up there and I could see what he could see. And there was open water right in this cove. There’s an inlet. And I understood exactly where he was coming from. I could see by the look in his eyes that he knew he was doing something wrong. But yet he stood there and refused to take my command. And my feelings on that dog changed a lot that day. So there is certainly a trust that goes both ways.