Dog Sledding 101: The Gee-Haw Problem
By Robert Forto, PhD
This is a weekly series in which I explore a different topic relating to the sport of dog sledding and its impact on the social fabric of America and our canine companions. I have been a professional musher for fifteen years and was given the privilege of writing my doctorate on the sport of dog sledding: Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005). In these weekly articles I will showcase the sport, the history, how a dog team prepares for racing, and many more topics. If you have a story you would like to share about dog sledding please send me an email anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to check out our website at http://www.teamineka.com
The Gee—Haw Problem
Some mushers expect a leader to turn instantly on command; others give the command some yards ahead of the turn so that the dog can absorb the situation. This explains why some mushers have trouble missing turns. A dog trained to turn instantly will jump straight into deep snow even if he sees a fork ahead. Serious training is required to make a dog leave the trail. The dog must respond automatically, without thinking. A dog less strictly trained often will miss the fork if the musher waits until the team is right on it.
The musher must learn to read his dogs and watch for the communication signals given by them when the dog approaches a fork in the trail. The lead dog will lift his head when he realizes that a decision must be made. The ears will go forward (which way?) or turn backward (what does the boss think)? He might even glance backward. The leader is most receptive to the musher’s commands at this instant. He will not have sized up the situation any earlier than this exact point. A split-second later he will have already decided which way to turn. He might not be able to collect himself and the team in time to change direction.
Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher and the training director for Dog Works Training Centers. Dr. Forto hosts a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show every Saturday morning at 9:30 am MDT. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at http://www.denverdogworks.com