Wherever we are in our lives and no matter what our age, we all have beginnings. From the day we were born, walking, talking, or riding a bike for the first time. But can you still remember your first dog sledding experience? Most mushers I’ve met over the years can usually remember their first experience in the sled dog sport and the majority of the stories continue to reflect the thrill and excitement of this first experience, no matter how far they’ve gone in their career or what they have achieved. After all, it was that one experience that hooked you into this sport.Fortunately, what makes a good teacher in the sport are these men and women who still remember their beginnings. One never forgets the feeling of excitement when first hitching up the husky of their dreams. Imagining your sled, or whatever contraption you had put together, sailing down snow covered, possibly moonlit trails, your dog obeying your every command with all the joy and commitment that loyal associates would give, responding to your every whim. As we know now that was just a dream. Things don’t usually go to plan; in fact the scenarios are endless. All you have to do is give a little more thought to your delicious dream, preferably before you pull that snub line free.So, you really want to be one with the culture of dog sledding? Do you have a positive attitude and sense of humor? Let’s hope so as we begin with the following scenario: Imagine for a moment, a team of only three, very stunning and possibly inexperienced, large, young, male, Alaskan Malamutes, in front of an inexperienced person weighing around 100 pounds. Each one of these gorgeous dogs can pull at the very least 300 pounds. Now do the math! We must consider the fact that even when traveling at 5 to 10 miles per hour, it may not be possible for this person to stop their team, who by now are frolicking around the back of the sled anyway, wanting to find what kind of treats have been packed for their journey. Now think about your adventure. How many dogs are going to pull you? How old are your dogs and what breed are they? Are they fast or slow, young or old, trained or un-trained? And what about you, are you young or old, physically fit, what’s your grip like? How about your sense of adventure; do you even have one? Is your voice demanding or timid? Have you checked the trail conditions? Is it flat, or hilly? Is the trail shared with vehicles, snowmobiles or skiers? What about wildlife? One must understand that big, small, young or old dogs still love furry animals that run, especially away. For example squirrels, these are simply irresistible and are considered in a dog’s world to be the equivalent of the best chocolate in the world relating to humans. What canine wouldn’t run after one of these? You should probably know the whole team will chase given the chance and it will probably be at your expense. To begin you must start at the beginning by matching your own ability to that of your team. There is one exception with this, however, in the area of leadership. In the beginning, it can be a better experience if you happen to come across a dog that can lead with respect to your novice ability. The characteristics which will be attained together will include: speed, endurance, unconditional love, respect, commitment, common sense, wilderness survival, and ultimately a deep spiritual connection to the dogs. The dogs in turn help us re-connect with the land each time we travel with them. This interdependent relationship of respect is without doubt awe inspiring and highly addictive to many. If you allow this lifestyle to really open your mind, you can actually practice the use of these same goals and characteristics in every part of your life. But for now we will focus on getting to know each dog with respect and teach the dog to understand what we need it to accomplish. It becomes apparent that if you want a lead dog, you first must become one. Lead dogs are teachers and have a great deal of learning ability, as do you. If your desire and fantasy is to go fast and have everything go perfectly from your beginning, then you will be taught the lessons you need as a result, which may reward you with medallions of all colors. You must also learn humility. Those accepting their inexperience will gain a lot more from these early days. There are no short cuts in the process of gaining experience. “wannabees” are everywhere, in every sport. You will see them coming down the trail a mile away or hear them as it was in my case. Thankfully a wise mentor, in his blunt but honest character, pointed out that the dogs could hear very well and I should make the necessary adjustments within myself. You can remain a “wannabee” forever if you allow your ego to prevent you from learning. Make sure you understand the rules of your trail system, mind your manners and respect the other mushers using your trails.So, if you are just planning the beginning your new lifestyle in the sled dog sport, I encourage you to first find at least one good, knowledgeable dog. A dog that is positive and enthusiastic about setting out on this journey and with the commitment that no matter what comes your way on this trail, together you will both give it your all. You may not realize this when you begin, but this type of dog gives back four fold. This sport will teach you a lot about life. When finding that first dog, (which you will never forget by the way), remember that looks have nothing to do with the relationship which is about to become a part of your destiny. Make sure you have all provisions ready for this dog before hand in terms of health and safety including proper housing, control, food and veterinary care. It is important that this dog is healthy and young enough to actually pull you or you may need two or three. As a recommendation, this dog should be leaning into the harness when you put it on him or her if you are purchasing an experienced dog. If your beginnings are with an untrained dog, watch closely if they lean into the harness, it’s always good but depending on the age, the dog could just be jumping all over and wanting to play. Make sure the dog is at least able to respect your need to be able to ask it to be calm for harnessing. Getting clobbered in the face by a dog’s head or feet can cause serious injury to you. Dogs are usually much stronger than they look. If purchasing a trained dog, ask about its habits in harness and in general. No dog or person is perfect and you will need to know as much about the dog as possible. A good person will be honest with you and tell you the good and the bad about this dog. Ask who is a reputable seller in your area and check the dog sledding web sites available. Always have an agreement (written if possible), that if the relationship doesn’t work out with this dog over a specified period of time, that there are respectful alternatives for the dog, yourself and the seller. Retired leaders, (both mushers and dogs) can help you get started. Words of caution in this area however, make sure you understand the mileage and days per week this dog is capable of so as to provide utmost respect only to their physical ability. Their mental ability, knowledge and patience are sometimes and in fact most times, unparalleled. They know the drill and are able to help others learn it, sometimes without much of your physical intervention. Remember this in life, we’ve all heard it many times before, respect the old lead dogs and your elders who have earned it and you will also be respected. Once this is established you are ready to move forward on any trail or journey. Next issue we will move into breeds of potential sled dogs where you may meet your match!


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