Lead Dogs and Their Role in a Winning Team
By Robert Forto
Their names were Yak, Zerlina, Ineka, Rutgrr and Ryche. All share having played an important role as lead dogs for their owner; they were the deciding factor on the mushers’ greatest success.
Rutgrr was Robert Forto’s prototype of a good lead dog. Forto stated, “that he had the perfect combination of speed, strength and endurance, and on top of all that a strong race instinct.” [i] Forto knew when the stakes were high, he could inspire the team to reach top performance, and this lead dog had just that extra something needed to win races. Good lead dogs lead the dog team and execute most of the musher’s commands. Excellent lead dogs, according to Martin Buser also stand up to the musher for the “good of the whole team.” [ii] Buser teaches his lead dogs to make their own decisions consciously by praising them when they do. Jacco Ulmann who runs Siberian Huskies in Switzerland adds, “I don’t want a lead dog that takes me on to thin ice just because I told him to do so three times. A dog is also an independent being and I want to accept that.” [iii]
For many mushers it is important that their lead dogs be reliable. They take responsibility for the entire team and competently lead it with assurance past spectators, public address speakers and other distractions. Some lead dogs also give the musher himself, security and confidence.
A winning team often needs an exceptional pair of lead dogs. For the entire team to truly reach it’s potential, it needs to possess the same qualities. In this respect, DeeDee Jonrowe warns not to concentrate only on the best dogs on the team; but that it is more important to pay attention to the weakest. “It is this dog that will limit the team’s possibilities.”[iv]
No musher should have only one or two lead dogs. In every top-notch team at least half of the dogs should sometimes run in lead. The advantage of this strategy is clear. The responsibility for the psychologically and physically demanding tasks of leadership is divided among the dogs, and this allows them time to recover, particularly during long races. Forto tries to train every dog on his team to run in lead. However he clearly states, “For an important race, I always have my favorites.”[v] A musher who depends on just one lead dog runs the danger of suddenly standing there without it. For even the best lead dogs can drop out of a race due to injury, illness or unwillingness to take commands. Even though the performance of the entire team is always paramount, nothing works without leaders. Their task is in fact to lead the team to the finish line and to maintain the speeds demanded by the musher.
Renowned musher/researcher Dr. Arleigh Reynolds says that many mushers, in their drive to compete and put miles on their dogs, can potentially over-train their dogs and inadvertently overlook the benefits and necessity of rest. Such oversight can work against the goal and set the team back. This can also cause burnout and stress on the leaders and they may be unable to perform.[vi]
While races generally have easily recognizable trails, dogs sometimes have a hard time finding their way on training runs and guided dog tours. Forto’s adopted Siberian Husky, Ineka, was rescued from an animal shelter in Washington State, and was “born to be a leader.”[vii] After a plane ride, a night’s rest and a quick warm up the next day, he was leading a team of twelve on a wheeled cart designed for small teams of three or less. This dog would leave the trail on command and would even burrow in deep snow to reach a goal. Ineka had no trouble running perfectly straight, while many dogs often pull left or right. Such an exceptional lead dog becomes very important on guided tours and training new or inexperienced dogs. They relieve the musher of some of the stress associated with the trail and ensure that he reaches his destination quickly. A good lead dog is almost like “life insurance” on a tour.[viii]
A musher can not tell the potential of a young dog by external characteristics alone. To find out which dogs are fit to be lead dogs, the musher should give all dogs an opportunity to run in that position. In doing so, the most important thing is to make the run a positive experience for the dog. This is best done on a small team that the musher can easily control.
Three-wheeled training carts and four-wheel ATV’s offer great security for fall training. It is best to hook the yearling pup up to a gentle, experienced leader for the first try. During fall training, Forto would often hook Ineka up to Nixon on his slower teams. This procedure not only trained the pup, but also the junior and inexperienced mushers behind the sled.[ix]
Dogs with a high pack drive have shown success when first placed in lead on the way home. Pack drive consists of behavior associated with being part of a pack. Pack drive is stimulated by rank order in the social hierarchy. [x] Often a dog with a high pack drive is happiest with the musher, and likes to work with him. They like to stay close to the kennel and follow the musher around.
Martin Buser will sometimes run his puppies in lead on their very first training run. However, most mushers wish to introduce their dogs to the tug slowly. It is important to create situations for them that even an inexperienced lead dog can manage. Discipline is always a negative experience and should be avoided.
Buser also lets his pups run ahead of the team. Those that want to stay ahead and do not leave the trail are his favorites.[xi] Mushers who want teams with a high proportion of leaders cannot avoid paying attention to this trait when breeding. A musher will find more potential lead dogs among pups of a leader than other litters. This is a strategy that veteran musher Egil Ellis has been following for years.[xii]
Each training session should be leader training. The constant use of the same commands teaches all the dogs what to do and what is expected of them. Swing dogs must learn directional commands particularly well, so it is a good idea for a musher to regularly run potential leaders in this position.
An example with directional commands shows how dogs can learn. Shortly before an intersection a musher could give a command like “Haw!” If the lead dog does not respond, or responds incorrectly, the musher should say “Whoa! Stop!” and stop the team and repeat the command. If the dog then pulls in the correct direction, the musher should release the brake and praise it for a job well done. After three failed attempts Forto sets the snow-hook and goes up front to correct the leader.[xiii] The musher should gently pull the team on to the appropriate side of the trail before running back to the sled and pulling the snow-hook. Most mushers walk up to the right side of the team for a “Gee” command and up the left for “Haw”. In time, many dogs will learn which direction the musher wants to go by the side along which the musher is moving. In the end, the voice command is enough, though for a time the musher might still need to use a hand signal or a jingler. Jinglers also work particularly well in training the whole team to respond to commands. A jingler is a stick with some noise making attachments. (See Figure 5)
Figure 5: Directional Command Training Aides
In training, the jingler is jingled on the appropriate side simultaneously with the vocal commands “Gee” or “Haw”. Much like a clicker used in canine obedience training, the dogs are first interested in the sound, a phenomenon referred to as an orientated response. The canine then instinctively turns their head in that direction in order to investigate this curious sound. Where the head goes the body tends to follow. With a correct response the dogs are positively reinforced with enthusiastic praise. After a number of correct responses the jingler or clacker announces that the praise is forthcoming. The jingler has now become a conditioned reinforcer; in essence it announces to the dog that the musher owes the canine some praise.
This conditioning could also be accomplished with the phenomena known as sensatory preconditioning which involves the pairing of two neutral stimuli (the jingler and the command) prior to pairing either the command or jingler with the primary reinforcer, ultimately accomplishing the conditioning of both previously neutral stimuli. This type of conditioning was discussed in-depth in chapter four. It would however be much easier, and vastly more effective to make the jingler or clacker a conditioned reinforcer by pairing it with a primary reinforcer, whether it is a treat or a simple pat on the head. The conditioning would be undertaken prior to training in the harnesses attached to a sled or cart. The jingler would then announce the eminent arrival of whatever primary reinforcer was used to condition it.
If the canine hears the jingler or clacker and expects a nice, tasty treat, most assuredly the dog is going to go in that direction. Forto has used a jingler and clacker stick for years and has found that the dogs “respond particularly well to this type of command.”[xiv] Forto thought that this innovation was uniquely his, until he came across it while doing the research for this dissertation. Some of the mushing greats like Roland Lombard and Dick Mackey had used similar devices for years. It is important to note that from time to time the canine must actually receive the primary reinforcer in order to stave off occurrence of a phenomenon known as extinction. Again, all of these conditioning principles were discussed in-depth in chapter four.
A lot of mushers train the most promising dogs individually in front of a bicycle, while skijoring or on roller-blades, if they dare be so brave. The musher’s contact with the dog is much more direct than when the potential leader is in front of a sled and the musher is driving from behind. This method can quickly lead to success, especially in directional command training.
Before being given the responsibility in a big race for the first time, a lead dog must have the opportunity to gather experience in smaller races. A dog’s first race in particular needs to be positive and lots of fun. It is practically impossible, even with a lot of money, to buy super-leaders like Egil Ellis’s lead dog Mike. The breeder has invested incredible amounts of time and work in a leader; furthermore, the leader is genetically very valuable.[xv]
Martin Buser is another musher that does not sell lead dogs. He speaks of dogs with leader potential in high regard and feels it is essential for every musher to train and develop their own dogs. “A lead dog can’t be bought. Why should he perform for me?” Buser states further, “If you sell good leaders, people believe the dog will do all of the work. But the team, all the dogs and the musher, must do the work, not just the leader.”[xvi] Forto shrewdly added, “If I were to sell my good leaders that would be unfair to the competition. I wouldn’t ever have the chance to win!”[xvii]
[i] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
[ii] Buser, M., Web Document http://www.buserdog.com
[iii] Ulman, J., Web Document http://www.huskytrail.ch.
[iv][iv] Freedman, L., Iditarod Dreams: A Year in the Life of Alaskan Sled Dog Racer, DeeDee Jonrowe. Epicenter Press, 1995. Pg. 78.
[v] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
[vi] Hoener, T., “The Research of Arleigh Reynolds,” Mushing, May/Jun. 2005. No. 104 Pg. 17.
[vii] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
[viii] TR001. Male Tour Mushing Operator. Interviewed by. Robert Forto. 27 April 2005. Interview 11. Bayfield, WI.
[ix] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
[x] Forto R., and Bowersox R., ed. 2004. Canine Science Level I course material. Pg.56
[xi] Huber, M., “Lead Dogs,” Mushing. Mar./Apr. 2003. No. 91. Pg. 26.
[xii] Ellis, E., Web Document. http://www.egilellis.com
[xiii] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
[xiv] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
[xv] Ellis, E., Web Document. http://www.egilellis.com
[xvi] Buser, M., Web Document http://www.buserdog.com
[xvii] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005. Interview 1.
Robert Forto is a professional musher and the training director for Alaska Dog Works. Robert Forto hosts a weekly radio show on Dog Works Radio. Robert Forto can be reached through his her website at www.robertforto.com