Training the Adult Team: A Brief Overview
By Robert Forto, PhD
I have been a professional musher with Team Ineka for the past fifteen years and I am just getting back into it full time after a hiatus of several years for what I like to call, life getting in the way. I have moved from northern Minnesota to Colorado and there just isn’t enough snow here so I will probably move back in the near future or maybe to Alaska where, as they say, the real mushers live. I cannot say if that is true or not but I am willing to find out.
Each week I bring you a short article about the sport of dog sledding. In the past few weeks I wrote about sled dog psychology and that was a lot of fun. Now we are going to get into training. There are many ways to train a dog team and the mushing greats will tell you it’s all about knowing yourself and knowing your dogs. I have had the pleasure (and the pain) of literally living with a pack of sled dogs and what an experience that was. We will discuss that in later posts. But now, here is a brief overview of training an adult team.
Training the Adult Team
The best teacher for an untrained dog is a trained sled dog. Dogs communicate in ways that humans cannot comprehend. This is done mostly by body language and slight gestures that only a dog can understand. They learn from each other. It is nature versus nurture. It is innate and ingrained as pack behavior.
For a musher to start with a number of untrained, inexperienced dogs and mold them into a united, obedient team, is an awesome task. By placing a “green” dog with a well-trained mate the driver’s job will usually be reduced from teacher to overseer. The dog sees his companions working eagerly and often catches on with very little prompting from the boss on the runners. Even a single good leader can work wonders with a scatterbrained bunch of trainees. The musher should introduce the untrained adult dog carefully into the team because it might be confused or panicked by the speed, power and a tight, unrelenting towline.
The musher should use a very small team until the dog catches on. The driver must be patient and reasonable. Some dogs do not have the drive to be sled dogs. Just because he is as Siberian Husky does not mean he can cut it in a team—any team.
These new additions to the team should be broken in gently. Even if the dog is a leader, he should be placed in the middle of the team to let him settle in before trying him up front. The training should start slowly, not very fast or far at first. A dog needs time to adjust to his new home, his comrades, to the pace of the team and to the musher’s commands and voice. Some dogs fit right in, but older dogs might take a year or more to adjust. Dependable leaders will teach the musher as well as his crew. Older leaders that have grown too old for racing make excellent trainers for yearlings and new adult dogs.
If you would like to read my complete doctorate dissertation, Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005) please contact me through my website at Team Ineka. I offer the dissertation for sale in .pdf format for $9.10 plus shipping.
Next Week: Training Leaders
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. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at http://www.teamineka.com