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The Racing Siberian Husky Online
Winter 1999 Web Feature Edition
Published by Heritage North Press & WorkingDogWeb

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Insights on Racing Sled Dogs
Don't Run those Dogs, Train Them!

After the Halloween blizzard of 1991, I had my first experience with sled dogs. I loved it and -- as typical of my compulsive personality type -- I knew I would have my own dog team. My husband Michael saw the glazed look in my eyes when I talked about mushing and was scared to death. Nevertheless, about two months later and with Michael’s help, I had five sled dogs.

Though I’ve been running dogs a number of years, I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to training dogs. However, I have learned a few things. Like most new mushers, I thought training dogs meant hooking them to the gangline and putting on the miles. I read all the books and articles I could get my hands on about training and tried to apply what I read, but it still seemed as though I was just along for the ride.

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Over the years I spent hours listening to and watching other experienced mushers. I began to visualize what they described and incorporated what I could into my training runs. At one point I finally realized that "running" a team and "training" a team are two different things. Training a dog team is more than taking the dogs for a run. Training means having a strategy and identifying specific objectives for each run.

"... I finally realized that 'running' a team and 'training' a team are two different things."

Now, before each training run I ask myself one question: "what do I want to accomplish." I try to identify the specific training objectives I want to accomplish with each run. What does my team, or a specific dog need to learn, or if necessary, unlearn. (It’s a lot easier to teach a dog a new trick than to try to break a bad habit.)

Some common training objectives include: work ethic (keeping the line tight), conditioning, increasing confidence, lead training, speed, dog team etiquette (thou shall not bite thy neighbor), and passing.

Once I determine the training objective for each run, I plan so the dogs have an opportunity to do what I want them to do. Here are a couple specific training objectives and examples of things I do to help ensure my dogs have an opportunity to be successful.

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Work Ethic/Building Confidence:

-- I run the team at a speed that is comfortable for the dog.

-- If the dog is easily intimidated, I put him next to a calm dog that won’t make him anxious.

-- If the dog is overly exuberant but not easily intimidated, I may put him next to a more serious dog that will mind his own business but help keep him in place. (Be careful if you are also dealing with a dog that lacks confidence.)

-- I may shorten the tug by wrapping it around the loop & back to the tug. (This keeps the dog a little behind his neighbor.)

-- I don’t run the dog in lead.

-- I go slow down hills to help the tugs stay tight. Dogs lean into the harness when they pull and this helps ensure the dog is not thrown off balance.

-- I watch the dog and the surroundings for any thing that may cause the tug to go slack: Is the trail slippery, am I going to fast, is the dog getting tired, is he tangled. I make changes as needed.

Lead Dog Training

-- I select a dog that has demonstrated good work ethic and confidence.

-- I don’t put the dog in lead at the start of a run.   Instead, I will run the dog in point awhile with another experience dog (leader if possible).

-- I use my best leader with the new leader.

-- The first few times I put the dog in lead, I wait until I’m about 1/2 mile from home. Then I stop and move it up in lead.

-- I may shorten the tug by wrapping it around the loop & back to the tug. (This puts the experienced dog a little ahead of the new leader.)

-- After a few runs and depending how the dog is doing, I begin to move the dog in lead earlier in the run.

-- I rotate the dog in lead on different runs and avoid putting it in lead two runs in a row.

--After the dog has demonstrated confidence and ability, I will run it from home in lead with another experienced leader.

Some training scenarios are useful for more than one training objective. It depends on my dogs, the conditions, and what I want to accomplish. Another important factor is control. Can I slow my team, or if necessary, stop and leave the rig or sled? I must be able to control my team to help ensure a successful training run. Without control, my best laid plans turn into wishful thinking.

I still consider myself a novice and I am always working to improve my training strategies. I read and reread books and articles on training, and listen to and watch other mushers for new training ideas. I learned a lot the past seven years, but I know there is so much more to learn about training a dog team.

-- Robin Gaspard, Snow Dance Kennel, Big Lake, Minnesota
Originally published in the
North Star Sled Dog Club
newsletter called The Tugline

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