We all have dogs that misbehave (some dogs more than other dogs). While punishing misbehavior often cures it, this should be your last resort. As your training ability improves, you’ll discover many other training methods. Following a simple formula will often satisfy both you and your dogs:1. Identify the root of the problem: why is the dog doing it?2. Consider your various options, such as:a) Avoid or remove the problemb) Make it easy for the dog to do the right thing, and uncomfortable or difficult to do the wrong thing. Reward good behavior. c) Your last option is punishment: starting with a sharp word and progressing to a sharp noise (smacking a dog house, clapping your hands). Many mushers accept limited physical punishment as legitimate and effective, while others do not.Examples• A dog begins looking back a lot. You identify the actual problem as painful snow balls in his feet. You remove the balls, and the problem disappears.• Another dog looks back. You understand he’s worried about the sled or dog behind him. You avoid the problem by moving him to a different position.• A normally-benign dog attacks his partner every time you turn the team around in a narrow trail. You realize that he is afraid of getting hurt, and avoid the problem by tying him off the trail whenever you perform this maneuver.• A young male attacks other males in your yard. You remove the aggression with neutering, or avoid fights by running the dog with females or neutered males. If that’s not possible, you make it easy for the dog to not fight by distracting him with treats like chunks of frozen liver before a situation gets intense. As a last resort you can try discipline, which may or may not work.• A dog attacks passing teams. You remember that he was bitten the first time he was passed, which has triggered these “pre-emptive strikes.” You make it easier for the dog to pass calmly by exposing him to non-threatening teams at a distance, using firm control and calm, cheerful encouragement. You gradually move closer to other teams, always staying within his comfort zone, until he behaves appropriately.• A dog stops to sniff a fresh track or lift his leg on every tree along the trail. You make it harder to be bad by moving him back in the team and tightening his traces so he can’t swing off to the side. Give a sharp vocal correction (“Up!” or “On by!” but not “No!” which can sound like “Whoa!”) if he makes a wrong move, and praise him if he glances at a tree and decides not to misbehave. (Dogs on faster teams rarely exhibit this problem.)Let’s look at some other common behavioral problems that can plague beginners. Most have more than one solution, and you may have to try several different strategies to find a tactic that works.Dog is hard to harness. Many dogs are simply too excited to cooperate with harnessing. Frequent, longer runs help tone them down. If it’s safe, let a problem dog blow off steam first by running loose, on a long line, or in a large pen. Bringing him indoors might subdue him, too. Or hook him onto a neckline and run him without a harness for half a mile—anything to help him calm down and cooperate. Alternatively, you can give him a chewy treat such as a hunk of frozen meat to distract him during harnessing. Dogs eventually develop muscle memory so they automatically move into the harness as you hold it for them. Make it easier for them to learn this by repeatedly harnessing them after the run when they’re calmer. This is also a good time to teach a dog to “Stand!” Don’t use this command when he’s too wired to respond; you’ll just be training him to not respond!Dog lunges and harness-bangs during stops. First decide if this is a problem; some mushers, especially racers, really like this enthusiasm. However if it makes life difficult for you, try this: never start until he is quiet even if you have to wait half an hour. (Some mushers hook up their dogs, leave them in line for some time, and then put them away without going on a run at all. The dogs do need supervision so they don’t start chewing.) Or, if the dog is safe loose, leave him loose until immediately before you depart.Once under way, stop frequently but only for a moment. Leave before he starts harness-banging, but gradually increase the duration of the stops as he becomes more patient. If he does throw a fit, you’ll have to be patient and wait until he’s quiet. Ideally you’ll hike the team as a reward the instant he pauses for a moment. Dogs can learn a command such as “Quiet.” Follow the same precaution as with “Stand!” Dog chews lines or harness. Dogs chew from frustration, or because it feels good, or because they’ve learned to escape this way. If you prevent a young dog from ever chewing, by age 3 or 4 he will probably never start. Once learned, dogs may never stop and must be supervised constantly. While discipline halts the immediate behavior, it rarely prevents a recurrence and only adds to the stress levels. Instead, hook chewers in last. Use professionally-made cable lines built with adequate shock absorption and breakaway loops between the necklines and the collars. Adding a section of mid-weight chain to vulnerable sections of line is another option; wrapping these sections with heavy-gauge wire may or may not work. Carry a picket and if you have to stop, remove the dog from anything he can destroy.An excitable dog that chews from frustration often barks a lot. If he stops barking, you must check him because if his mouth isn’t busy barking, it’s probably busy chewing! Dogs that eat harnesses can develop gut blockages; consult your veterinarian on that.Dog swings off the trail or looks back a lot. The root of this problem requires some analysis. He may want to dip snow (meaning he’s thirsty or hot), or express anxiety or discomfort (from speed, pain, fear, etc.) A dog that looks back may be trying to communicate his problem to you, or be worried about the sled or dogs behind him. One of our dogs looked back because a hormone condition, hypothyroidism, gave him anxiety. Others did so when they got too hot or tired. Young dogs often look back when they see an older dog do it, so address the older dog’s problems first. Eliminate the root of the problem before the behavior becomes a habit. Sometimes you can simply clean snowballs from his feet, or let him cool off. If a male is interested in a female, put the female in front if possible. Other times the solution might be more subtle: maybe he gets tired easily and a small hunk of frozen liver or frequent rests will restore his energy. A week off might cure a vague soreness. If you can’t determine the cause but the dog is not unhappy, place him farther back in the team. Run short distances, on new trails, or behind another team to spur his drive. Many of the causes and solutions to this problem apply to the next problem, too:Dog doesn’t pull. To determine why he’s not pulling, consider whether he’s never worked, or just recently stopped working, or if he stopped mid-run. If he never worked, he might not be sled-dog material, or maybe he was traumatized on his first run. If you think he might be too slow for your team, see if he’ll work when you slow your dogs or climb a steep hill. Causes for a developing problem include overwork, medical conditions, sore feet, being too slow, or being increasingly scared or intimidated. A male might stop working when distracted by a female in heat; a young dog might stop working when he’s concerned about noises or jerking behind him, or a distraction like passing a nearby dog yard.A dog that quits pulling during a run might have developed an injury, overheating, fatigue, a mental distraction, or snow balls or other foot problems. Some dogs simply lack drive and might quit pulling when bored, tired or hot. A trip to the vet might reveal injuries or even painful teeth or a kidney infection that can make working unpleasant. Other dogs are helped if you retrain them as you would pups. Ask your mentor to help you with difficult cases. I think a beginning musher is better off getting a more suitable dog instead rehabilitating a chronic freeloader.Dog snaps or interferes with his partner. Dogs, especially males, might snap to express dominance or to play, but it’s also a sign of stress such as anxiety, frustration, or pain that must be addressed. Otherwise, we solve this problem by shortening the aggressor’s tug, placing him in a submissive position where he can’t reach his partner’s face. Often pairing him with a calm, quiet partner or a dominant dog helps. If nothing else works and you can’t eliminate the root cause, you can just run the dog without a partner. Dog turns around in team. This dog may be over-excited or under-trained. Put him toward the back and make sure his neckline will keep him in position during stops. Often he will outgrow this problem. You can stand beside him during stops to keep him in line, but you must do this consistently to be effective. If all your dogs have this problem, your best solution is to find a really good, strong leader who will keep them lined out.Leader drops back in team, or used to be good and now won’t work. Over-use commonly causes these problems, or the dog isn’t a true leader, or your team is going too fast. Older dogs may not have the speed and drive to stay ahead anymore. A leader that is over-used when young often loses his drive later in life, or he may simply burn out. Sometimes a break from this demanding position helps a lot. After eliminating possible medical conditions, pair him with a faster dog (even an untrained leader). Again, work him in a smaller team or try new trails, easier runs, or running with another musher. If a leader doesn’t respond to his gees and haws, make it difficult to do the wrong thing by running him with a strong, responsive leader, and drill him until he responds automatically. Use lots of praise and if he seems stressed or unhappy, you may opt to endure his limitations until you find a better leader.Leaders must stand up to a lot of pressure, especially in larger teams or difficult trails. Many dogs simply aren’t cut out for this demanding job. Often the best solution is to find a more solid leader!We have only touched on the multitude of behavioral problems a musher might encounter. Don’t forget you’re not the only one with a problem. If you haven’t trained each dog what to do, he’s going to be confused and stressed, and worried about why you’re so frustrated. If you train inconsistently, a dog will respond inconsistently and constantly test you in an attempt to learn his boundaries. Hopefully this story will give you some ideas and guidelines for general problem-solving. It’s important to keep your patience and sense of humor. Also, if you’re so frustrated that you actually don’t like a problem dog anymore, the final solution is to find him a more suitable home and look for a more compatible dog, one who can remind you how fun mushing is!


More Posts