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Sled Dog Psychology: Communication

Sled Dog Psychology: Communication

By Robert Forto, PhD

Each Thursday on the Dog Sledding Examiner we will talk about training of sled dogs. Sled dogs are some of the best athletes in the world and training them to be the best takes a tremendous amount of trust, teamwork and communication. This week will will talk about communication.


You can communicate with dogs in two ways—your way and their way.  Dogs can learn a number of words, even the names of their close companions.  They also respond strongly to tone and inflection.  They pick out key words and let the rest of your sentences slide, as in “You want to go out?” or “Stay out!’ (This is why you should not say, “You can not go out”—the dog will not understand.)  The natural human tendency to repeat short phrases helps dogs pick up words. We say, “Good boy, yes, what a good boy.”

If you also understand how dogs communicate, you have an extra edge in training them.  Body language and physical contact play a greater role here than the voice.  Drooling, panting, and shivering are natural processes, but they can also occur at other times, such as when a dog recognizes a friend that he admires (you).  A dog will also shake off a bad experience.  If you have just freed a dog from a choking tangle, and he does not shake off, suspect a possible problem, such as shock or depression.  But a musher must know the dog—not all dogs will reliably shake off even when they again feel great.

Tail wagging can indicate either friendliness or aggression, depending upon whether the tail is waived loosely like a flag or in a slow arc, taut as a wire.  Eye contact, or avoidance of it, shows full attention, dominance, subordinance, or confusion.  No musher likes a dog that constantly looks backward, but unless it has become a habit, the dog is trying to make eye contact for some reason.

Howling brings dogs together and appears to relieve stress.  Most mushers like to make their dogs howl (by intimidating a howl) during long trips; it revitalizes the teams and keeps the dogs happy and secure. Vocalizations are often the sign of a dog’s mood as well.

Physical communication on the musher’s part includes petting for a reward, or putting a dog to the ground, as punishment, or to establish your authority. Pinning down a rebellious dog proves your authority by sheer physical control.  A dog understands this—you are talking its language.  Some experienced mushers bite a dog’s ear to punish him, and they feel that it is a natural form of communication.  While it is effective, most mushers would hesitate to inflict sudden pain with their face so close to a dog’s jaws.

When you resort to your own language, you can only expect the dogs to obey what they know. Teaching them a few extra words helps you communicate with them better. For example, on a long trip many dogs learn the words, “We are going to camp now.”  They will leave the trail to struggle through deep snow to the campsite if they know the reason for it.

Most lead dogs learn that “Trail!” means a broken path to follow. If they lose the trail and we spot it, most mushers say “Gee, trail!” and the dogs watch for it on the right.  With just a trace of the trail in drifted snow or ice, the dogs may wander away, but a sharp “Trail!” command wakes them up and gets them back in line.  When breaking trail across an untrammeled field, most dogs cross animal tracks without a glance, but if the track is going the way of the team, the command “Trail!” makes the dogs stay on it.

Most mushers also say, “Let’s eat!” at feeding time.  Even if we say it at an odd time, the dogs are up and yowling. Mushers often use this, or a similar command, to lure in runaway dogs.  Some mushers will use this command to gauge how tired the dogs are.  If a musher stops to snack, and the dogs do not respond to the words “let’s eat!”, they know that the dogs have been pushed too hard.

By communicating with your dogs, you will build a stronger rapport with them.  They will also better understand what you want. Dogs, especially young ones, sometimes disobey simply because they do not understand what you want.


Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner and a musher training for his first Iditarod in 2013 racing under the Team Ineka banner. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at Team Ineka.

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