“Gee, gee, gee. No! Pompey, Frank, GEE!” Yelling didn’t help. It seemed like neither of my two lead dogs had heard such a thing as a command before.Here we were, in the middle of a delta crossing in 8″ deep overflow and my leaders had decided enough of this we are heading left to shore. The ice was smooth like a skating rink, no hook would hold and in the distance I saw another team taking off in the wrong direction. It was the beginning of a long distance race and we had to navigate through very nasty conditions. How could I turn my leaders without risking to loose my team? I saw a team coming closer and closer. “Gee, gee, haw. Good dogs. On by. Gee, gee. That’s it!” And that was it! Within seconds the team had passed me, splashing through the water without hesitation. My dogs all of a sudden remembered the command ‘gee’ again or so I would like to say. What saved me was that they went chasing after the team and after a few more miles we were on snow again. The first question I asked Burton Penner, the musher with those extraordinary lead dogs after the race was ‘how did you train your leaders?’ “Years ago when I started out I had this book by Lee Fishback”, he told me “and I pretty much followed his directions. My first lead dogs I trained like that and after that the younger leaders learned from the experienced ones.” At that time I had never heard of Lee Fishback, but one thing was for sure: His book was right on top of my ‘most wanted’ list. “Training Lead Dogs My Way” was originally published 1974 by Lee and his wife Mel. Later versions of the book were published throughout the 70’s and 80’s by TUN-DRA with the title “Training Lead Dogs or How to turn ordinary dogs into Lead Dogs thru positive training”. Fishback enjoyed the challenge of training dogs that others thought would be unlikely. He could be found on the trail running a German Shepherd cross and one of his last successful leaders was a purebred Samoyed. But how did he actually train? Flipping through the pages, I realized that the foundation of his training methods were not unlike my own: • Be consistent in your training, which means be firm. It does not mean hurt.• Never forget to praise your dog when he follows a command perfectly well.• Don’t ask too much of your lead dog or it could ruin a good progress.You don’t need to start with a $2000 dollar leader that decides he is not going to work for you anyway. With Fishback’s method you can train your own and he will respond to you just like you trained him to. I tried it myself. The training was intense, but time well invested. The best way to work with Fishback’s method would be to find a copy of his unfortunately out of print book. Fishback lets you see through the dogs eyes and if you read carefully you might even learn how to talk “dog”. Here is shortened version of Fishback’s training stages. Stage 1 (1 to 3 weeks daily)In this stage your dog will learn to stand while you hook him up, run straight in front of you until you tell him to stop (or you are getting out of breath) and stay on the spot during rests. All you need is a harness, a 15′ long guide rope, a waist belt or skijoring belt, running shoes for you and lots of patience. And of course – a dog. For the first stages your dog should have a trail or road to follow. Harness your chosen dog and tie a light bungee cord under his belly to prevent him from pulling out of his harness. Lead your dog by his collar to your hook-up area. Place him where you want him, giving him the command ‘stay’. If he turns around or tries to dash of, set him back in place and repeat the command. Do it again and again. Here comes the first test – not for the dog, but for you. Fishback advises in big letters “Don’t give in to the temptation to get the ‘hookup’ over with”. How could he know? The first few days of training were a nightmare. My dog Cedric didn’t understand ‘stay’, came crawling back to me and rolling over. How hard it can be to be firm without being frustrated, angry or giving in to hugging the young dog that obviously wants to please you, but has given up, because he doesn’t understand you. After being placed back on his spot over and over again, he finally stayed and I hooked my guideline (shortened to two feet for the first trips) to his harness. “Let’s go.” Cedric sat and looked at me. I walked a step, Cedric sat. Fishback recommends to pull the guiding rope forward and upward, which will bring the belly-band against the dogs rib cage and providing him with a signal to start. Poor Cedric – so proud of himself finally having understood to stay in one spot – didn’t move an inch. I pushed him from behind and Cedric took off. We were over our starting difficulties. The first few days were tough, but when Cedric finally understood, I could see his self-confidence growing and he eagerly pulled to the hook-up area. Your dog might lead right out, but he may go almost any direction except forward, whirl around in circles or jump at you. Fishback recommends in a case like this stop again, stand the dog, repeat the forward command and start again. Never move ahead of your dog. If he gets in your way, knee him away or ‘accidentally’ collide with him. Praise him if he walks out in front with tension on the rope. If he suddenly drops behind you, get a grip on the rope and draw him forward in one firm motion and get back behind him immediately. If he pulls well, try not to stop too often on your first trips. When he catches on to the idea to always be in front, use the ‘whoa’ command, stop, let him stay for 30 seconds and give him the forward command again. When you realize your dog reacts immediately to your commands and he feels happy and confident it’s time to move to the next stage. Stage 2 (2nd to 4th week)During this stage your dog will learn that his tight-line duties don’t always involve your presence at the other end of the guide rope. He will also learn to tighten up slack in the rope.Before you harness your dog, tie the guide rope (about 6′ long to start with) to a snubbing post. Lay the rope out in your usual starting direction, lead the dog to the rope, hook him up and tell him to stay. Turn your back and walk away. Most likely you will find him right with you. Give your dog a ‘tighten-up’ command, rush him back into position, repeat ‘stay’ and walk away again. Do the same thing over and over until the dog will hold the rope tight, then give him the forward command and let him run for a while. Tell him ‘whoa’ and ‘stay’ let him settle, then walk up the rope for about 3 feet, without giving him a command. If you see him move say ‘tighten-up’ quickly and brace yourself. He might start out not thinking he will be stopped again and jerk you. Repeat to go forward while he is stopped, tell him to tighten-up and let him pick-up the slack.If you didn’t move to the second stage too soon, you will be surprised how quick your dog will learn new commands once he has learned he will make you extremely happy if he follows your directions. If you are consistent in praising the wanted behavior, the chances are good that your dog is ready to take on new challenges in order to please you and be praised.Stage 3 (until your dog is ready for team work)There is nothing worse for a dog than confusing commands. At this stage he will learn gee and haw, so better make sure you know which one is which. In my first season I wrote gee and haw on my boots, which earned me lots of teasing in races, but surely stopped some major confusions. Take your dog to a new training area, since you spent enough time teaching your dog not to take turnoffs in your old area. You might have to haul him from the rear around the first turns, when you give him the new, unknown command. And you might have to do it for several days. Alternate gee and haw turns. Most likely your dog will understand first that gee/haw means ‘turn’. It will take more time to teach him to differentiate between left and right and training can become frustrating. Your dog might show his frustration by refusing any turns or lay down. You on the other hand should never show the dog your frustration. Go back to commands he knows well, let him prove he is a ‘good dog’ and try to end a training session by a turn he has done well. When the dog is taking turns in both directions without hesitating, you may find that he starts having fun again. Practice ‘on-by’ crossings in both your training areas and then give him an ‘on-by’ command straight out in the open. Be close to him so that you can catch him as he tries to take the familiar turn on the trail. Place him quickly in the direction you want to go and give the forward command. Insist that he moves straight ahead, but don’t overdo it. Give him a turn command on a new obvious path as soon as possible. You can practice this for many days, making the open stretches longer, using turn commands in the middle of the open area, alternating on-trail and off-trail. The more time you spend with him practicing, the better he will be. Stage 4You passed the tough stages of training—the ones where you were running yourself. Now it’s time to get the cart, sled or – if you feel you are 100% in control- the bicycle. This is the time where you repeat the previous stages, covering more ground and being on longer training sessions. You can teach him any new commands you want him to know.I used to teach reverse commands when running smaller teams, but with bigger teams I prefer to turn around on a open spot with a gee-haw command running a full circle. If you desire the reverse trick, Fishback starts with a simple gee or haw on a perfectly straight trail when the dog is standing. As soon as he glances the direction you want him call ‘come’. He might start timidly, nervously dragging the line. Praise him and when he is on his way around, turn your sled, tell him to tighten up and then stop. To teach the dog to increase speed, peddle on your sled or speed up on your bicycle, while you speak the command, i.e. “pick it up” or clap your hands and praise when he changes gait to a faster speed. To teach him to unload on the fly, Fishback advises to collide ‘accidentally’ with your dog when he stops to squat. Stage 5Finally, the time to add other dogs to your team has arrived. Repeat holding the line out while you are out of sight momentarily. He should stay in line long enough to get the second dog. If the lead dog moves out of position to check out the new dog, he is corrected immediately until he decides this is just more of the same old thing Run with the second dog behind the leader and go through your training routine as if nothing is different. Expose your leader to as many situations as possible while you still have total control. Add dogs only gradually, driving each new combination for a few days before hooking up a new combination. If any kind of trouble occurs, cut back on the number of dogs. You should not hook untrained dogs behind a new leader. Teach your team dogs some manners, get them used to pulling weight in harness (even if you have to run ahead of your novice team dogs to get them moving) and assure they stand reasonably still when you stop. Sounds like lots of work? Fishback says “That’s all there is to it. If you have the stamina to complete the course, you will end up with a worthwhile lead dog […]” Good luck!Miriam Körner is a freelance writer and photographer. She lives with her sled dogs at Potato Lake, Saskatchewan and guides dog sledding and canoeing adventures for “Paws’n’Paddles Wilderness Tours.” She enjoys winter camping by dog team and wilderness racing.
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