Training and Exercises for Mushers and Dogs

Tim White and Stephen Lee

Some of the biggest problems that experienced and beginning mushers alike encounter are caused, either directly or indirectly, by our own dogs' impaitence. Children, adults, and dogs don't like to spend time on the fundamentals. They tend to be repetative and boring. Most won't wait for the proper conditions or until completely prepared to do something. Many like to just jump right in. For example, lots of dogs don't like to stop for anything. People are'nt much better when, for example, they have the choice between harnessing up and taking off, which is fun, or mending lines or teaching dogs to sit, which is not as fun. How many teams have gone the wrong way because the leaders weren't sure about commands or were too excited to think or slow down? Do any of you remember the old joke, in which someone lost asks a famous conductor how to get to Carnegie Hall? The conductor replies "Practice, practice, practice." This is focusing on the fundamentals, which far to many of us let slide.

Tim recals once instance that cost him $20,000 (U.S.) and could have easily gotten him, and his dogs, all killed [perhaps Tim will elaborate?]. People that fail to work on preparing trails in the summer spend an unreasonable amount of time trucking their dogs all winter long. They and their dogs wind up paying for their impatience. Training yourself, your dogs, and your puppies before the necessity presents itself is a good investment that will save more time than you want to know! Motivation to work on these fundamentals can be found by using exercises that are both fun and interesting. Exercises that are fun, even game-like, are best because they encourage both you and the dogs to continue, rather than skipping working on the fundmentals in the impaitence to hook up a team and be away. Stephen, when he started mushing, spent a lot of extra time and money simply due to this impaitience. He wanted to hook up the team and be away already, rather than spend a lot of extra time up front in boring, seemingly meaningless, drills. Working on the fundamentals always pays dividends come race time.

Here are some ideas that we have used ourselves or have been recommended by others. These thoughts are not exhaustive! We would like to hear from you about exersices that have, or have not, worked for you in different situations. These lessons are good for beginners teachin a sled dog the fundamentals for the first time, but are of equal importance for all mushers, regardless of experience or cicumstance. Please select the mailbox at the end of the article to send additional ideas. We welcome them.

One thing that is often lacking in fundamental training is socialization of the animal, and getting the dog used to obsticles, people, distractions, and so on. Begin by walking your dog with a leash. Once you have mastered simple walking on lead, stroll through a woods with obstacles, through a parking lot, and finally in some place like a shopping mall or crowd of people. Get the dog used to these simuli. It also follows to teach your dog to respect automobiles and keep their distance. This is important as most northern breeds have precious little fear of cars. It is important, particularly if you plan on cart or sled training on logging or other roads that are still in use. You do not want to have to wonder how your dogs will react to a car approaching them while you are training. You want to have tought the dogs ahead of time how they should behave.

Have some surprises on your training trail. Some people put up tunnels with bales of straw. Pam Redington made a bunch of scarecrows with Halloween masks to put out on the trails around Manley. Tim has some narrow trampoline like plywood bridges. All of these things, and any others you can think of, will reduce the chance that your dogs will spook at new situations on the trail.

Put puppies in sky kennels and in dog boxes when they are young. You don't necessarily have to go anywhere but it also helps make it fun to drive around with the puppies confined in the car or truck. For most dogs that get sick and start drooling when they are transported it seems to be as much a result of being enclosed as from the motion. This exercise can prevent those problems down the road.

Teach your puppies to sit and wait after you dish out the food for them. This was suggested by Martin Buser to the juniors in Fairbanks as a good fundamental exercise and lesson. Additionally, you can teach your puppies good manners and not allow them to jump all over you and horseplay while you are using tools and cleaning kennels, or in harness. This was suggested by Rick Swenson at the Alaska Dog Mushers Symposium in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1995. He prefers dogs that know when play is approprite and when it is not, and as always, it is best to teach the dogs what you want them to know early.

Noisy dogs are problem dogs, particularly if you live in a suburban area. You should make your dogs stop barking by teaching them to go in their houses when you tell them. In this w ay, you are teaching them to do something for which you can praise them, as opposed to negatively teaching them directly not to do something. Dogs that are inside houses rarely bark. It makes a potentially negative lesson positive. A simple lesson like this can avoid all of the gadgets and operations that many are forced to try to quiet unruly dogs.

Let your puppies and young dogs run around loose in an enclosed or safe area coupled with a short neckline. They learn to work together and manage or avoid tangles as a two dog team while they are having fun. You need to stay near to supervise your pups and keep them moving during this exercise. It only takes a few minutes a day, but can save a lot of time, and even a life, on the trail years later.