BEGINNER BASICS: LESSONS LEARNED: THE REVISION OF DOG DRIVER: A GUIDE FOR THE SERIOUS MUSHER

The monumental changes in mushing since the 1991 edition of our book ‘Dog Driver’ appeared made the job of revising it both exciting and challenging. Countless additional miles on the runners and our ongoing research had increased our knowledge, but to ensure depth and accuracy we spent hours interviewing top racers, veterinarians and other experts, constantly marveling at their knowledge and generosity. Scouring the Internet and reviewing back issues of Mushing and years of symposia notes also helped blance our 30-plus years of experience. Yet one constant remains: the tight bond between dogs and musher, the joy of this communion and the thrill of the sport.Egil Ellis and other racers told us about the pointers and pointer-crosses that now dominate sprint racing. Compared to huskies, these dogs handle working in warm temperatures superbly, but require extra care in cold weather. They tend to be sensitive and need gentler handling than the average solid (dare I say knot-headed) husky who might bounce up after a reprimand to shout, “Whatever, let’s get on with it!” Some of today’s distance huskies have been bred to never quit working, leaving it up to the musher to watch that they don’t work when hurt or exhausted, just as a Labrador must be guarded against retrieving in cold water until he becomes hypothermic.Innovations in sleds include cable steering, super-light materials and an intimidating array of runner plastics. Jeff King’s tail-dragger, or split sled, offers a stable seat for many a weary distance racer, and his side-pull harness has also gained popularity among distance racers and skijorers. New gadgets include GPS, video cameras, rescue beacons and types of monitors.Trail veterinarians have a better idea of the physical characteristics of working sled dogs, which includes a heart rate that might hit 300 beats per minute. Long-time Iditarod veterinarian Dr. Stuart Nelson told us that he now recommends Pepcid during a distance race to prevent potentially deadly ulcers that can lead to bleeding or aspiration pneumonia. The risk of rhabdomyolysis may be reduced by adequate exercise in the last days prior to a long-distance race, and by reducing dietary fat just before and during the first couple days of the race. Many of these conditions remained poorly understood or below the radar when we wrote the first edition. Popular medications such as Rimadyl and Algyval had yet to make an appearance, and we now worry about the northward spread of heartworms and other diseases.Huge advance have been made in diet, with research confirming that while a sedentary dog might need 800 calories a day, a sprint dog consumes up to 3,000 calories while a distance race dog might require up to 11,000 a day. Iron supplements such as Red Cell lost popularity, while psyllium and joint supplements have gained favor. Researcher and competitive musher Dr. Arleigh Reynolds has done much to advance our understanding of the canine diet. Sprint racers especially benefited from his research showing that a glycogen (starch) supplement such as Glycocharge speeds recovery when offered to dogs after intense runs.Swimming, exercise wheels, free running and other methods of conditioning during the off season have all gained popularity. The long time top racers we interviewed agreed that two mistakes novices make include pushing young dogs too hard, and disrupting other teams by running poorly trained dogs.A better understanding of the canine mind and body helped us greatly expand the training and psychology sections to make them more helpful. (We avoided words like “allelomemetic”!) We learned some tricks over the years —shorten the tugline of a dog who snaps at his partner; some dogs, especially aging or tall wheel dogs, work better in a freight harness. We learned much from other mushers: to prevent tired dogs from quitting at your dog truck, run past the parked truck during training runs and to tone down a hyperactive dog by harnessing and hooking him to a stationary cable line until he relaxes. From other experts: for physical conditioning, train every other day and as the dogs improve increase either the load or the distance or the speed and that independent breeds like huskies think for themselves but are harder to train. We gleaned other information from popular dog training literature—control aggression less with discipline and more with treats and positive experiences. With more experience and research our training methods have softened, and hopefully the new edition reflects this philosophy. Instead of eliminating bad behavior with harsh methods, we try to avoid the behavior instead. Hook up a harness chewer last, or have a handler stand by with treats to distract him. Desensitize an “alligator” by running him past other dogs at a distance, coming closer only as he grows comfortable with the situation. Strong, experienced leaders and teammates can help an inexperienced or frightened dog overcome his fear (of overflow, crowds, other dog teams, etc.) more effectively than the guy on the runners.The trekking chapter contains and expanded list of Things to Bring, including advanced medical equipment for extended expeditions such as a stomach tube, urinary catheter, prescription injectable sedative, and I.V. set-up. My favorite quote from this chapter: “Your brain is your most valuable tool: keep it warm, watered, well fed, and use it!”We now have a better understanding of the many subtle traits puppies can inherit: not just build and speed, but tendencies toward overheating, stress diarrhea and recovery times. Today we teach pups obedience after they’ve been run so they are less excitable and can focus on their lessons, and we start with action commands (such as “Up!”) that energetic youngsters learn more easily than commands that required restraint (like “Down!” or “Sit!”).Working sled dogs tend to be underrepresented in the media, so it was a great pleasure to include a new chapter focusing on the original and ongoing purpose of mushing for serious transportation. From patrolling parks, hauling tourists and moving freight to running traplines and other traditional bush chores, our research found numerous examples of dogs that still pull for a living instead of to win a race.Hundreds of pages of notes had to be condensed into a book only somewhat longer than the original. As we wrote in the preface of the new edition, “The sheer volume of information has exploded so much that we could have easily expanded each chapter to book length.” When deciding what to include, our main criteria was for useable information. Perhaps the most important lesson is that no matter how long you’ve been mushing, there’s always more to learn.As with any project, regrets loomed as soon as we finished. Lance Mackey’s stunning accomplishments deserved more attention, but with the book already at the publisher we could only add a few words during the editing process. While we greatly expanded the glossary, we overlooked the term “alligator.” I would have loved to add more stories and sidebars highlighting great dogs and respected mushers.We wrote the first edition of Dog Driver with two fingers on a manual typewriter, and created the new edition by applying the same two fingers to a PC laptop with Microsoft Word. The world of mushing reflects a parallel evolution: dramatic changes in many aspects, but the dogs are still dogs, and mushers still love them. •

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