Dog Sledding 101: Training Sled Dogs to Be Good Citizens
By Robert Forto
Dog Sledding 101 is a weekly series in which I explore a different topic relating to the sport of dog sledding and it’s 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
Training Sled Dogs to be Good Citizens
This article is an excerpt from my dissertation.
Socialization is the key to making sled dogs safe for kids, adults and other dogs. Every dog is equipped physically and mentally to bite under the right circumstances. In fact, dog bites are the second leading public health hazard in the United States with over one million bites reported annually. Every year several children are killed by dogs, some even sled dogs, and several more are hospitalized with injuries.
Dogs raised in a group are naturally socialized with each other and learn through interaction what is acceptable behavior among dogs. Sled dogs will be expected to interact successfully with many other dogs during their lives, so it is imperative that they learn how to behave in a group. Sled dogs need to learn manners around people as well. Ideally this is done during the first three months of life, when all experiences are new to a pup and a trainer can have maximum effect on a dogs personality and temperament.
This researcher encourages trainers and sled dog enthusiasts to socialize their dogs. At minimum these dogs should be socialized at least to the point of accepting handling from strangers and at maximum training the dogs to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test offered by the American Kennel Club. The purpose of the Canine Good Citizen Program is to ensure that our favorite companion, the dog, can be a respectable member of the community because it has been trained to be well behaved in the home, in public places, and in the presence of other dogs.[i]
Can sled dogs be overly socialized? Many mushers prefer their dogs to remain slightly wild, fearing that too much socialization could make the dogs soft or less willing to work hard in harness. But taken to that extreme, these dogs can be unruly and downright dangerous to other teams and mushers. By contrast, four time Iditarod champion Martin Buser often lets his dogs loose as they come out of the dog truck and they stay right with him until they are hooked up.
To some extent the amount of socialization is a personal preference, but it is certainly time that sled dogs can be treated as pets and still be hard workers. As all mushers know, a dog’s life on the trail is relatively short. If these dogs could be socialized, they may even become A.K.C. Canine Good Citizens.
Further research should be conducted on the feasibility for sled dogs to become well-trained pets. This would save thousands of dogs from euthanasia, death by the musher, or worse.
I have been a professional musher for the better part of 15 years. I have been out of the race circuit for several years because, I say, life got in the way. I followed by wife, Michele, to Denver for her to pursue a paralegal career. She hated it and after five years she quit and is now working for Denver Dog Works full time and couldn’t be more happy.
All of my dogs from teams in the past have retired and placed in new homes. Many of these dogs became ambassadors for Siberians everywhere. Many went into homes with families and children, while others continued to race. But I was always mindful of what my dogs were and what their role would be after a relatively short racing career, often about six to eight years. This is what prompted me to earn my certification as an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Evaluator. Many of my dogs passed this test over the years and in one case, we adopted and trained a dog-aggressive Siberian named Juneau. With the help of my kids and their hard work we rehabilitated Juneau and he passed the C.G.C. test! This is a testament to the breed and what a bit of hard work can do for an otherwise unwanted dog.
At Alaska Dog Works we always use a Canine Good Citizen Test as a pre-cursor for any working dog that we place in a training program for service work, therapy dogs, our breeding program or any advanced obedience programs such as agility, tracking, rally or protection. While we don’t always do this to our sled dog at the beginning we do it afterwards so that they can be well behaved companions. We are conscientious of our role as training professionals and the handlers of exceptional canine athletes and this is why we strive to live up to our motto: We have the best and train the rest every day.
If you are interested in learning more about canine sports, mushing, working dogs or the C.G.C. test please contact us anytime at 907-841-1686 or contact us through our website at www.alaskadogworks.com
[i] Volhard, J., and W., The Canine Good Citizen: Every Dog Can Be One. New York, NY: Howell Book House, 1994. Pg. 3
Robert Forto is a professional musher racing under the Team Ineka name. Forto is training for his first Iditarod in 2017.