In our last story, we described the attributes of a good wilderness trail dog. Now let’s look at how you can mold these rough gems into the best possible dog for your situation.Start with puppies.If you intimately involve yourself with a dog’s life from birth, you’re more likely to end up with one who can read your mind and who feels comfortable with anything you ask of him. You can affect the quality of the dog even before conception by selecting strong breeding stock – not just good dogs, but good bloodlines. Choose well-built, clean-gaited, calm, intelligent dogs who can think for themselves, but who bond well with humans. (Check the last article for a description of a good trail dog, and look for those attributes in your breeding stock and their relatives.)Like all puppies, your potential wilderness dogs need proper socializing and high quality care. While it seems that the wilderness dog might not need much socializing, since he will not see many other dogs, he actually needs more­. Because encounters are so unusual, he must be well socialized or he may over-react. When dogs like ours spend their whole lives in the Alaska bush, opportunities for socialization are rare so every visitor gets dragged out to play with the pups and young dogs.All puppies benefit from negotiating obstacles, but none more than wilderness dogs who must routinely handle brush and rough ground. As soon as your puppies can walk, take them to untracked fields, woods, muskeg, brush, and rocky ground. A dog raised on smooth ground never learns to watch his feet, therefore those appendages move automatically and uniformly instead of varying strides to dodge bad footing. A few good distance race dogs have failed to make our team due in part to their inability to watch their footing. Rough ground challenged them more than dogs raised running through brush and over boulders. They would stumble or hesitate (“You want me to run through that?”). Obstacle courses also teach a puppy to think and solve problems on his own. This is a great asset when a leader has to decide whether his crew and sled should go under, over, or around deadfall and other problem spots.Take each puppy on a daily walk. Focus on exposing him to as many different conditions as possible, rather than just chocking up miles. In addition to brush and rough ground, seek out water wherever you can. Water exposure comes easily on hot days when a youngster enjoys wading in to cool off. Again, look for a range of water – puddles, swamps, shallow streams, and ponds – anything that’s not actually dangerous (avoid cut banks, swift water, or dangerous ice). In colder conditions, exposure to ice helps the pup learn to handle it without sliding around. Lacking ice, you can at least expose the pup to slippery floors. There he will learn to walk on his pads instead of tensing up and walking on his nails, which skid easily on hard slick surfaces.Use these walks to teach communication as well. Being able to turn dogs loose when negotiating hazardous trails is very handy, so one of the most important commands is “Come!” Carry some great treats to reward the pups each time they respond appropriately. Other terms especially useful to a wilderness dog include “Careful!” “Go Back!” and for water crossings, overflow, or bridges, “Go Across!”When teaching commands and confidence in a difficult environment, take advantage of your best older adults to make the process easier. We choose a quiet, responsive adult who enjoys puppies and will not lead them astray. It’s bad enough when youngsters run off, but when an adult takes them away, he might forget to bring them back! Teaching pups to stay close includes bringing a clingy adult, carrying delightful treats, and calling back ranging pups. Avoid taking any siblings that tend to wander off together.Bringing a single puppy on solitary walks not only encourages him to stay close, but tightens his bond with you because he has no other companions to distract him. While time consuming, if you occasionally add these one-on-one treks to your daily group walks, you’ll develop a more devoted and responsive dog. One who can almost read your mind, plus you’ll know him more intimately too.AdolescenceWhile most mushers know that puppies require a huge investment of time, it’s easy to neglect young adults once they are on the chain – an unfortunate mistake. These dogs are still developing mentally and physically, therefore need more stimulation than older dogs. They are highly receptive to learning once you focus their energy. Learning and obeying commands reminds them that you are the Boss at a time when they want to test boundaries. In addition to harness training, a youngster still needs socializing with humans and also with other dogs. As he begins to mature, he starts pushing relationships and boundaries more. To help prevent aggressiveness, he needs to socialize freely with other young dogs and adults to learn good behavior. This is especially true of wilderness dogs who may need to be turned loose together when negotiating steep hills or other difficult situations.Some wilderness trails are too rough for an inexperienced dog to work safely in harness. We often let one or two youngsters follow the team loose on longer treks. This helps them develop confidence and learn to deal with problems without the stress of getting dragged by a strong team. Sometimes we have to help a youngster across a stream or up a steep bank, but this only increases his faith in us.Exposure to camping helps a young dog realize that he doesn’t need the security of his house and home. A youngster might cry incessantly the first night or two until he figures that out. When safe we usually leave an inexperienced dog loose to settle in for an hour or so after making camp. This is not an option if your dog might cause trouble (i.e. steal from your sled, run away, or it’s against the local rules).Because we run a wilderness trapline, our loose dogs also get exposed to traps and fur animals so they must learn the commands “Careful!” (which can apply to any danger from snares to bad ice) and “Stay Away!”All these techniques can be used to train adults as well, but the results will be less consistent.Conditioning and Training the AdultOnce you have a well-rounded, confident, responsive individual, you must ensure he can handle the mileage and terrain without getting physically run down or mentally burned out. While you can condition in four to six weeks, bones and ligaments take several months to adapt to hard work. This strengthening can help prevent a misstep on rough ground from being injurious, and any injuries that do occur are less likely to be serious and tend to heal faster. If possible, build the dogs up slowly until they can easily endure conditions similar to that which you expect to encounter in the wilderness. These conditions include not just the time, distances, and sled weights, but rough terrain, deep snow, overflow, ice, and steep slopes as well, not to mention cold or windy weather. Good, consistent care, conditioning, and training can also correct or reduce a range of faults, from a lack of stamina to impatience in harness.Watch for signs of burnout or stress, including irritability, weight loss, frequent injuries, loss of appetite, depression, and reluctance to go. Those signs may indicate that your dogs are being trained up too fast. On the other hand, uncontrollable, overexcited dogs usually benefit from more frequent training and longer miles. Wait until they’ve blown off some steam before trying to teach them commands.The more work on training, the better your dog will obey. As the dog accumulates experience, he can react wisely to challenging conditions. He will also come to understand your intentions and cooperate as you struggle with gullies, boulders, or other difficulties.You must be able to verbally control the speed of your team on rough ground, steep descents, or game-filled areas. A dog that rates its speed on command will prove his worth in the wilderness. After several years of poor snow cover, our dogs respond promptly to such commands. They have learned that failure to do so can result in a spine-shocking crash. On rough trails we use terrain to reinforce commands. For example, saying “Easy” as the sled grinds over a tall, bumpy hummock or when the dogs are picking their way through a stretch of knee-deep tussocks, and “Whoa!” just before the sled jams in at the bottom of a narrow, vertical-banked creek. Eventually we can count on them to slack their lines even when the sled brake can’t be used.You can more easily communicate your wishes if your dogs obey a range of commands. Don’t underestimate how many words even a husky can learn! “Not for you!” can be taught in the house with exposure to food or interesting objects. Once this is drilled in it can also help the dogs understand they can’t steal food or poke around in your sled, chase wild animals or livestock, or even go after females in heat. Most of our dogs learn commands like “Easy,” “Go across,” “Let’s camp,” and “Go back.” They also understand that “Trail!” means we are approaching a track (anything from snow machine trail to an otter track) that they should watch for and follow instead of plowing out their own trail. (Mushers who use this term to communicate with other teams might wish to select another term for this command.)A lead dog might not need to be a sharp Gee-Haw dog if, like our leaders, he’s traveling primarily on straight-forward woodland trails. However, if you plan to travel across open ground, large lakes, or above treeline (whether on the arctic coast or in the mountains) a directional leader is a true asset if not a requirement, especially if you can also control the angle of the turn from a slight deviation to right angles. Just as important, when traveling with no trails to follow, you need a leader with the drive to make his own trail across deep or crusty, wind-blown snow. A dog with the physical and mental stamina to break trail all day, whether following an old snowed-in trail or making his own line across the tundra, is a rare treasure to be conserved and respected.A trained loose leader can also be an invaluable asset, especially when locating obscured trails. This is something they learn best by experience, verbal guidance, and following the example of other skilled leaders. (An untrained loose leader may make matters worse, but often it’s worth a try when your leaders can’t get the job done while leading the team.)Learning to following behind a snowshoer without a sled driver is another challenging job that dogs may not do naturally. Bunching and tangles may be maddeningly frequent, so take off the necklines and put the fastest, hard-driving dogs in the front, and the slower dogs in the back. Tie a leash or rope to your leader if he doesn’t follow you properly. Start with just a few mellow dogs and work up to a full team as they get the hang of it. A good tracking sled is a necessity as well. Waiting to teach this out on your big expedition is asking for trouble!Having a sled driver solves a lot of problems as it is much safer going down steep hills. Stop the dogs as the snowshoer gets ahead, and then let them catch up instead of trying to travel at the same rate. They soon learn to step in the tracks of the dog ahead for better footing. If the dogs start shoving each other, fighting over the narrow trail, run them in single file.A dog with years of trail work can handle an amazing array of astounding obstacles and learn just what do in every situation. By the time they’re five to seven years old, most of our lead dogs know that if they can’t see an obstacle obliterated trail crossing a lake, they can travel from one willow marker to the next, connecting the dots to the far side. Lacking willow wands, they pick an open spot (hopefully on the trail) on the far shore and make a beeline for it. With little guidance, they decide whether to slog through overflow or go around it, and determine the best place to cross bad ice on a shallow stream. Most of our dogs relax easily during rest breaks and camp happily anywhere we string a picket line.A recent 100 mile circuit of our trapline was a typical wilderness experience for our team of seasoned dogs. They camped “in” at the cabins and camped “out” at a tent camp, and waited patiently when I stopped for half-hour periods to brush trail. They safely moved the loaded sled across miles of rough muskeg, slowing when safety demanded and flying along better stretches. They scrambled up cut banks, pausing on command just before the sled jammed and then muscling it up when I lifted the bow.Loose dogs stayed close as we tumbled down steep hills. The team jumped over open streams, crossed overflow ice, jogged along brushy, overgrown trails, and skirted boulders that the sled bounced wildly over. At one treacherous permafrost sink-hole that had collapsed under the trail, the dogs filed around the rim of the rift, hesitating when I shouted “Whoa” as the sled crashed into the five foot deep pit. I let go of the sled and walked around the hole. The dogs popped the sled up, I stepped on the runners, and we cruised off down the trail.Those dogs wouldn’t win any races, but they knew their business when it came to wilderness travel.Miki and Julie Collins run an 80-mile trapline by dog team in Bush Alaska and are authors of Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher.


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