Sled Dog Psychology: The Slump
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 https://teamineka.com
“Has your team slumped yet?” is a common question in January. After heavy training in November and December, the whole team can go into a slump. In a way, the slump is good, because the dogs learn that they must work whether they enjoy it or not. The trick is to pull them out of it before the Big Event.
Mushers should first recognize the problem. Are the dogs eager on the chain or in the kneel, but lack spirit on the trail? Do you climb a hill and there is no power? Do they not have any rhythm or unity? Tugs go slack and enthusiasm wanes. They bicker, goof off, and look for excuses to mess up.
Next, a musher must determine the cause of the problem. Are the dogs fatigued, dehydrated, on a poor diet, suffering from infections or bad feet? Or are they simply bored? Only in the last case is the problem psychological and this usually goes together with general fatigue.
The musher should rest the dogs for a few days, then run them on new trails, even if you have to truck them somewhere. Surprise them—head out the twenty-mile trail but turn back after three miles. Time off is the best bet. The dogs will bounce back eager and responsive, without backsliding much physically. This is called peaking the team.
Pep talks along the trail can work wonders. Most mushers will walk among the dogs, telling them how fantastic they are, even if you have to sometimes lie. This works well after a bad run. Maybe the dogs were pushed too hard on a hot day, or maybe the dogs had a fight, and they are now shooting dirty looks at each other. After correcting the problem and the dogs are going reasonably well, the musher should stop and walk among the dogs. They will not feel so bad. On a long, tough pull, frequent stops keep the dogs motivated. They will not worry that the musher will never stop, so they slack off less. A musher should be careful not stop too often or it will break their rhythm and annoy the dogs.
If the dogs rebel during a slump, a musher should not demand too much; but should not let them take advantage of you either. The musher should just cut the run short. A good musher will keep the trip home upbeat, because the dogs go to sleep remembering the last thing that they learned during the day, not the first. If the musher must run them the next day, they should go on a different trail or they will almost certainly have a repeat disaster.
A veteran musher’s advice is to make certain the dogs think you are holding them back, even when they are tired. The question is how? The answer is by using reverse psychology. When the dogs are tired, they are glad to stop, but after a few minutes, they are usually ready to go again. This time lapse is called the recovery time. If the musher asks the dogs to go before they recover, they will have no enthusiasm. If the musher asks the dogs to go afterward, they need no second bidding; this is reverse psychology.
Many mushers feel that like children, the dogs are trying to get the better of them. If they think that you want to go, they want to stay, and vice-versa. The turning point in their mood comes after they have recovered, when they feel like going again. Standing up, shaking off, harness-banging, braking, and looking back are signs that the dogs have recovered. It is important to note at this time that most behaviorists believe that dogs are not out to spite their owners, or “get the better of them”. Whichever view an individual may hold it is important to ask, “What is really happing here, and what is the dog trying to communicate?”
By stopping when the dogs are not ready to stop and by resting longer than they feel is necessary, the musher is using reverse psychology to make them want to go. It keeps them willing to go on a tough trail. If the musher knows his dogs well, they will know when their dogs have recovered, even if they do not stand up together. Shaking the handle-bow, whistling, or clucking brings the dogs to their feet readily. The recovery period varies considerably, but half a minute to five minutes is usually all it takes.
Lead dogs require special attention because their attitude can hold together a ragged team. Depressed leaders often turn a deaf ear to commands. They must be replaced to avoid a worsening problem. Just moving them back in the team can work miracles; or ask the dogs to go slower so that they are not pushing the front end so hard.
Next Week: Problem Dogs
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