Unconventional secrets of an Alaskan Iditarod ChampionMushing Magazine is happy to be the first to give readers an inside glance at Mitch Seavey’s new book: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way! The book covers everything from dog training to nutrition to mental toughness – all relayed in Mitch’s excellent “say it like it is” style, and dryly stated humor. Over the next couple of issues, we will be featuring short excerpts from the book which is due out soon. See www.ididaride.com for information on purchasing.Chapter Four: Early Education(Harness Breaking)I hook up two good leaders who will hold the line out straight, and up to six pups behind them, to the sled, four-wheeler or snow machine. If you don’t have those leaders, well, you’re going to need them, but for now you can tie them off to something so the pups don’t pull them around backwards and implode your team. Hook the pups up as fast as you can, with as much help as you’ve got. Have the neighbor or somebody keep them from strangling themselves or eating each other while you and your handler, your spouse, girlfriend, kid, and whomever else you can recruit get them on the towline. I prefer to hook pups next to pups for the first run. Some drivers like to put a pup next to an older dog, and there’s a time for that, but not right at first because they may be intimidated by an older dog and you could ruin the pup right there. Don’t worry if they jump the line or get tangled up and leave yourself a few extra spots in the towline so you can run at least a couple of them single-file if the puppy fights get out of hand. You can teach them to behave later. The whole idea here is to get them hooked up and let them do what they were born to do. Run. Nobody has to show them that. Well, that’s about it. Oh yeah, go ahead and take off, take a handler with you, and don’t forget to untie the leaders.I did say take off. What I mean is creep forward. Top speed, three miles per hour. After going 100 feet, stop. Yes, 100 feet. Encouragement and pets all around, pull their legs out of each other’s harness and go again. This time go 200 feet. Stop, give pets, untangle as best you can. Next go 400 feet, a little faster, and stop again. Now they are getting the hang of it. Give profuse pets and encouragement all around. If they are all going forward, you are ready for a quarter-mile, a little faster. Then a half-mile. For us that will be about the turn-around loop for the first run and we can nearly always run back home without much stopping, at say, six miles an hour.(Forward Orientation)I have heard many mushers discuss a variety of problems with their dogs, which all, in my opinion relate to forward orientation. How do I stop my dog from looking back? Eating too much snow? Peeing on bushes? Playing around with his partner? Slacking off in the pulling department? Their fellow mushers will chime in with manure trucks full of anecdotal advice, which they are sure is quite clever, if not helpful, but rarely will you hear someone discuss forward orientation. If the dog was as forward oriented as he should be, most of these problems would be minimized. The real problem isn’t that he eats too much snow, looks back, pees on the bushes, etc., the real problem is that he isn’t forward oriented enough.Forward oriented dogs don’t get derailed by obstacles such as snowdrifts, open water, or other dog teams. Forward oriented dogs don’t hesitate to charge into checkpoints in races and they don’t hesitate to charge out again. Forward oriented dogs pass and meet teams on the trail without fuss. They know that the goal is always ahead of them, so they keep charging forward. Forward orientation becomes a mindset and a state of being, and with that force in the blood stream of your team, many hurdles that send other mushers home with tail tucked won’t even arise as an issue for you and your hearty trail mates.Chapter Seven: Voice Commands“On-By” (Or Not)Another time this mistake is made is when meeting a team head-on. Upon spotting an oncoming team some drivers will start yelling “on-by,” as loudly as they can.So, I have a question for you. What else are the dogs going to do? Stop and roll a smoke? Maybe pick up chicks?“Hey-ya Doll, great booty, uh booties. Say, I seem to have a little spare time on my hands see, on account a’ da boss, he ain’t said I gotta “on-by” just now, so how’s about you and me, we head down to dis little joint I used ta know down by da waterfront? Say, got a light, sh-weethaat?”So what action are you asking the dogs to do when you give your “on-by” command? Just keep running, right? So why not just keep your mouth shut? If a dog in your team needs a “just keep running” command, how about saying “Hernia, hike-up” or “hup-hup” like you would any other time you want ol’ Hernia to “just keep running?”So let us now interpret the much used and rarely contemplated “on-by” command. What it really means is: “Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up. Please, don’t screw up. Oh, pretty please, don’t screw up!”Chapter Eight: Leader Training(Consistency)Okay, here’s the thing that makes training long distance sled dogs different from almost any other dog training, in my opinion. Much of the time, giving you the desired response has an immediate negative outcome for the dog, such as leaving his straw bed at a checkpoint, going in a direction he doesn’t want to go, pulling harder which will make him tired, or going in deep snow or freezing cold open water, which is more difficult than staying on the nice trail. These are all likely to happen to a long distance lead dog. To make him actually want to do these things on your command is a bit more involved than getting a pet to roll over for a drumstick. That’s why I talk about the dog’s life stream and instincts, the musher’s place in the pack structure, and the comfort and security derived from the musher’s confident and consistent relationship with his dogs.Chapter Nine: Good DogBy the way, I just told you the most important quality of a distance dog and what really separates the greats from the rest of the breed. Did you catch it? It is a strong instinct for loyalty to the pack and following a pack leader (meaning, once again, the musher.)If Dolphin had been a human she probably would have resented my “making” her go through all of that, right? She would have rebelled, called for my ouster, or gone on strike. Well, obviously she wasn’t a human, and rather than being eaten up with anger or resentment as a human might, she reacted like thousands of generations of canines have done before. It never occurred to her that I was “making” her do anything. Running great distances for food is what her ancestors have done for centuries before I ever came along. She saw that at the end of every long run I indeed provided food like a worthy pack leader. She deeply respected that, and our relationship and routines became her belief system. Besides, she really loved red salmon steaks.Chapter Twelve: What’s Between Your Ears?(“Entitlement-itis”)“One has to learn how to run before walking ‘round breathing that millionaire.” – Jimmy BuffettWell, this next bit isn’t really written for you. Nope, it’s written for some other less noble person who may have slipped through our extensive screening process and got hold of this book somehow. You probably want to just skip the next three or four paragraphs because surely they don’t apply to you anyway.You (actually the “other guy”) have put a whole year or two into this dog team (whoopty-doo) and spent two whole summers wages from working at Subway or Home Depot (wow) and you have trained and trained (at least half as much as Seavey recommends). So you think “They” owe you the chance to run the Iditarod, the Last Great Race on Earth. “They” include potential sponsors, Iditarod champions, the board of directors, race staff, race sponsors, volunteers, village elders, feed stores, credit card companies, institutions of higher learning, your parents, girlfriend, children, dogs, moose and anyone else with a pulse and an I.Q. higher than yours!Not only do you think “They” owe it to you, you think “They” ought to thank you for the opportunity to provide you with the opportunity to race, including a free ride home when you fail miserably and quit half way through! After all, with the current champions getting older, you are the future of the race, right? Well, I’ve got news for you Princess, I for one am not certifying anyone as the future of the race until they have a little past to go with it. And with that kind of attitude you aren’t likely to be the future of anything as difficult as running the Iditarod or other long distance sled dog race.Conduct yourself in a mature, professional, humble and dignified manner at all times if you get involved in our sport and expect to overcome staggering odds to more than earn anything you may ever get out of this crazy-person’s game.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,