Sled Dog Psychology: Attitude and Burnout
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 email@example.com and be sure to check out our new website at http://www.teamineka.com
This week’s article is about a dog team’s attitude and burnout. Many mushers will tell you that they try their best to keep stress down in a kennel. A stressed dog is a slow team and a slow team is no fun. I teach a course at Denver Dog Works on training people to become certified canine obedience instructors. In doing so we spend an entire session talking about stress and your dog and how important it is. There is a very close parallel to human stress and canine stress and you would be surprised how many people deal with it in a way that is detrimental to their dog’s well-being. Well, now take that and multiply that by 50 (the typical size of a professional racing kennel) and you have a big problem on your hands.
Many mushers believe that attitude is critical to a strong team. Others feel, that compared to physical potential and training, attitude is much less significant; that is, a dog cannot run on heart alone.[i] Since every team takes on a unique character, often complementing the musher’s character, the importance of attitude probably varies among teams.
At the same time, most mushers today run dogs primarily because they like dogs. They want their dogs to be happy. For the recreational musher, attitude is rarely a problem unless severe disciplinary or training problems arise. Hard working dogs, however, can get so tired of the daily grind that they slip into a depression, provoked by fatigue. The problem may affect a single dog, called burnout, or the whole team, most commonly referred to as slump.
All mushers should learn to recognize depression before a major burnout, and rest their dogs before they have a chance to go sour. Symptoms of a sour dog include a reluctance to be harnessed, irritability, anxiety, apathy, lack of appetite, decreased performance, rebellion, a refusal to take commands or a change in character. Whereby a sober dog might act goofy—looking backward, leaning on his partner, or plunging off the trail and the hyper dog may turn sober, apathetic, and sluggish. Again, mushers must know their dogs.
If the dog is just trying to avoid responsibility, he needs discipline, but if he is truly burned out, discipline will only depress him more. A musher can not cure fatigue by whipping, kissing, or giving drugs. Only rest can cure it. After a tough race a dog needs time to recover. It may take as much as three weeks for him to truly regain his vitality. If the musher demands too much, or tries to bring him back to soon, he may never completely recover psychologically.
Sometimes a dog tries too hard in a team that is a little too fast for him. Perhaps new dogs outclass him this year and he is burning his heart out to keep up. Or maybe he is older and slowing down. It is not fair to drive this dog. The musher should put him in a slower team before he burns out, or retire the dog altogether.
A dog that is simply bored is usually helped by time off. The musher can also run this dog in a different position, behind other dog teams, on different trails, or even the same loop in reverse. The musher should convey to the dog that he really does care. Spending extra time with the dog, bringing him inside and making him feel good are excellent ways to remind the dog of this.
Some mushers will take a burned-out dog on a private walk. After the dog entertains himself for awhile, the musher will call him with open arms, hug him and let him go. Soon most of these dogs are flinging themselves into the musher’s arms, and wriggling with joy. Afterward, when the musher cries “Let’s go!”, that fatigued, depressed dog, is running in circles of insane joy.
Just playing with a dog on the picket line or in the kennel can help stimulate him. When men are caught in survival situations, experts recommend play periods to relieve stress. Dogs are the same way. Play relieves their tension and helps to reestablish the musher’s rapport with the dogs.
Next Week: The Slump
[i] Pilón, A., The Universe of Sled Dogs. Montmagmy, Quebec, Canada: Edition Marquis LTD., 1999.
Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher and is training for the Iditarod. Dr. Forto is also the training director of Denver Dog Works and The Ineka Project in Colorado. Dr. Forto is the host of a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show, every Saturday. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at http://www.denverdogworks.com