Lack of control is one of the most frustrating problems a beginning musher faces, so before and during your first sled runs, work on training your dogs individually and as a team.Pay close attention to each personality, because the most effective way to train a dog is to tailor the schooling to the individual. That means you have to know each of your dogs inside and out! Know why a dog does what he does. For example, when a dog balks at hook-up you can often motivate him to approach the sled with food. However, if he’s afraid of another dog, you can remove the other dog, or if he’s stiff, you can do gentle stretching and warm-up exercises before hooking him up. This kind of knowledge helps make you an effective trainer.Basic Work to Strengthen LeadershipTo improve your control, ideally your initial training will show each dog that you are the leader. Teach basic commands, especially “Down” (or “Off”) and “Sit.” (It’s easier for active dogs to start with active commands like “Come” and “Up.”) Once they sit nicely, teach them to sit and wait for them to make eye contact before you give them supper, turn them loose, or let them through a door. These tactics make the dogs more responsive to you. It also makes them more polite, which is really nice! If you’re in good physical condition, you can also go out on foot or with skis and run single dogs on a leash or in harness to teach them basic mushing commands. This helps you evaluate individual personalities as well as strengthening your rapport with each dog. Taking individual dogs to a dog park or another kennel and calmly showing them around will help them respond appropriately to other dogs on the trail and reinforce your leadership. If they over-react, expose them frequently to dogs at a distance and close the gap only as they seem comfortable.The First RunsChoose an easy trail of one to four miles for your first few runs. Ideally it will be a flat trail without forks and no ice, ruts or other difficult stretches and few distractions like loose dogs, other teams, vehicles or livestock. You should have enough snow pack for the snow hook to grab securely. Don’t go out in bad weather, including warm weather when the dogs might overheat. Check the equipment and know how to use it, especially the braking systems and snow hook. Have your gear laid out in advance and memorize what harness and what position you plan for each dog.If you have a choice, bring friendly, trained adult dogs, a good leader or two and no females in heat. Don’t go out alone on your first run. Bring a mentor, or at least a friend to help you keep the dogs in line. Anchor the sled well with a snub rope tied to a stout post or tree, not just with the snow hook, and have someone hold the team as you hook up. Right before you take off, the least experienced person can jump into the sled. He or she can add some weight to slow the dogs, and scramble out at stops to keep order while the musher holds or anchors the team. As the team settles into a more controllable pace, you can take turns driving. Having someone along is a huge help even later in your career; for instance, we usually travel together when puppy-training or running a big team. If you must go alone, take just two or three dogs and if they don’t stand quietly at hook-up, tie the front end of the gangline to keep them untangled until you leave. (Never snub the leaders by their collars because the dogs behind them might pull back hard enough to choke them.) During all stops before, during and after the run, the sled must be anchored or held by someone.You can offer encouragement occasionally while mushing, but the less you talk the more keenly your dogs will listen. If the leaders slow down, brake enough to keep the gangline from sagging onto the ground and tangling with the dogs. If a dog’s leg goes on the wrong side of the gangline it’s rarely a problem and most dogs can extricate themselves. However, a loop around the leg or body can injure the dog, so stop immediately to fix that. If the dogs make a wrong turn, have your handler hold the sled (or anchor it well) and show them the correct direction. Don’t make a big deal of small problems like this; the first few runs should be fun for everyone. If you do get frustrated, step back, breath deeply, and remind yourself that this is a learning process. Work out how to quietly correct the problem, or contact your mentor for suggestions. Don’t vent your frustration on the dogs. They’re just being dogs and doing what dogs do when they lack leadership. They’ll learn a lot faster if you calmly correct them than if you lose your temper.Stop once or twice to pet the dogs and make sure they look happy and well. Anchor the team securely by stamping the snow hook into hard-packed snow, or tying the snub rope to a tree that you can reach from the runners. After the run, tie off the gangline before unhooking. It’s nice to offer each dog a cup or so of water baited with meat broth, or a half-pound chunk of frozen meat. With the dogs a bit tired, this is a good time to check the feet for injuries, partly to teach the dogs to hold still for this. You can also practice harnessing the dogs now, while they are calmer, and teach pups to accept a harness when they’re not so wiggly! Team Training: Control is KeyWhen you first hook up your dogs, if you have made yourself the leader you’ll have much better control over their minds. Following a few rules will help you control their over-exuberant bodies: 1. Have a trained, obedient leader that obeys you.2. Run just three or four dogs, so you can stop them easily.3. Learn to ride the sled beforehand, so you can focus on your dogs instead of your sled.Dogs, especially young ones, watch and imitate their leaders and their elders. A well-trained leader will stand firmly at hook-up, drive past distractions, ignore other team members trying to play or fight, and hold the lines tight whether traveling or stopped. Your young or untrained dogs will pick up that behavior, especially if you reinforce it by appearing calm and confident yourself (whether you are or not). Conversely, if young or inexperienced dogs see the leaders barking and flailing about at hook-up, they all get hysterical; if the “grown-ups” fight, look back anxiously, or balk at water, youngsters think that’s the thing to do. This is why we keep stressing the importance of starting with a seasoned, obedient leader.Of course, if you can start with a whole team of well-trained dogs, the only one needing training is yourself, making your job a whole lot easier! By running a very small team, you’ll have much better control over any untrained dogs. With a small team you can enforce your commands by physically stopping or turning the dogs, which is necessary for good training. If your command is not respected and you can’t or don’t correct the dogs, you are training them to not respond to you. You can anchor a small team more safely so you can walk up to guide them down a fork in the trail, fix a tangle, pet the dogs or just take a rest. Fewer sections of gangline mean fewer tangles. If the team takes off suddenly, you’re less likely to hurt yourself grabbing the speeding sled, and the dogs are less likely to get hurt if they run away from you. If you’re unsure of managing your sled, ask someone to tow you behind a snow machine or behind another musher’s sled and team, and remember to anticipate the powerful jerk as you start. You could ride in the sled of another musher and practice driving the team on easy stretches. You can even haul your sled up a hill and slide to the bottom, practicing turns and braking. Learn to lean into corners, relax and move with the bumps, and maintain your balance. You’ll find it easier to control your dogs once you can control yourself!Teaching Dogs to StopYou probably won’t have to teach sled dogs “Hike!” but “Whoa!” is another matter. You must be able to physically stop the dogs in order to teach the command. If they don’t learn to respond, use the brake to stop with a jerk, or give the dogs several jerks before forcing them to stop. This will make them more aware that YOU are making them stop. Work on the stop while hill-climbing or toward the end of a run when they’re tired and more receptive to the command. (Don’t work them so hard that they lose enthusiasm.) Passing out treats a couple of time during stops rewards the behavior, but if you overdo this the dogs will anticipate the treat and might stop inappropriately.Make the dogs stop repeatedly until they stop automatically on command. Eventually, you should need the brake as much to control the sled and the lines as to stop the team. When we were young, we used to mush with just two powerful dogs on a very twisty trail, crashing into one tree after another. Those dogs sure learned to stop fast!Teaching dogs to stop whether they want to or not makes the sport much safer. It also puts you in control so the dogs respect you more. It’s the first step in teaching the dogs to rate their speed (to go faster or slower) on command.PassingIf possible, frequently practice passing a friend with a small team of dogs that your dogs already know. With a small team it’s usually easy to anchor your team and allow other traffic to pass your team. If you have experienced dogs that don’t over-react to other dog teams, skiers, loose dogs, snow machiners and other trail users, you can urge them to pass with the command “On by!” Be ready to stop quickly if things don’t go smoothly; you control your dogs and let others handle theirs. If your dogs are aggressive, you need to deal with that before passing other dogs. Valuable dogs could get hurt, and also the behavior is contagious. Get help from a mentor to determine what is triggering the aggression and how to defuse it. Neutering young males makes a huge difference in their aggression.Putting it All TogetherAfter mushing enough to feel comfortable with the sled and a few dogs, you can safely increase the team size. If you’re just out to have a good time, you may never need more than three or four dogs. I often bounce around with this number, traveling 10 miles with 100 pounds in the sled if the trail is good. Every time you add dogs, you’ll get a rush from the size and power of your team, but you do need to be more careful with managing the gangline so it doesn’t sag and cause tangles. You’ll be juggling that many more characters, so pay close attention to where each dog performs best. One might play or fight with his partner; another might be afraid of the wheel position or reluctant to run in lead. Continue to work on commands, especially “Gee,” “Haw,” and “Whoa.” Try running longer distances or on more difficult trails. If your dogs work well together and are polite around other teams, you can think about entering some small races or group events. Even if you don’t intend to be competitive, you and your dogs will learn a lot.If you use good control techniques and a calm, consistent approach right from the start, you’ll be well on your way to developing a happy, well-trained dog team that you can really get out and have fun with!Miki and Julie Collins run an 80-mile trapline by dog team in Bush Alaska, and are authors of Dog and Driver: A Guide For The Serious Musher.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,