Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Training Your Dog to Pull: Run What You Brung Dog Sledding Programs

Two novice dogs running with the team during a Run What You Brung

Taking a novice dog and turning that dog into a dog that pulls, on command and is capable of participating in dog powered sports including dog scootering, bikejoring, skijoring, canicross, dog sledding, and dryland (wheeled) dog sledding can be a tall order.

After all, dogs, as you might expect, learn better from other dogs. Training a single dog from scratch can be tough simply because without an experienced dog to show your new dog the ropes, you (the human) must do all of the training from scratch and, let's face it, we humans simply don't speak "dog" as well as other dogs do. A trained sled dog can teach a new dog more in ten minutes than I alone can teach that dog in 10 months. To that end, Maryland Sled Dog Adventures LLC offers a very special training program, our Run What You Brung, for folks with high energy dogs, 30 lbs and over, who are interested in getting into dog powered sports with their own dog(s).

A novice dog running with the team

Over the years, we've frequently heard from folks who have approached dog powered sports from the stand point of pet owners thinking that because their dog(s) pull on leash that they will "naturally" pull well in harness. Generally, we hear from these folks when they are frustrated, complaining that their dog will run down the trail for a mile or two and quit, won't go past distractions, stops on the trail to relieve himself or herself, etc. And after nearly ten years of training sled dogs, I can definitively say that there is very little, if any, correlation between how well your dog pulls on leash and how well your dog will pull in harness for dog powered sports.

Dog powered sports require your dog(s) to pull on command, to stop on command, and to follow directional (gee, haw, on by) commands. While a dog that has excess energy and pulls on leash might run down the trail for a mile or two, it's also likely that same dog will stop when he/she grows tired or bored or distracted. A trained sled dog pulls on command, stops on command, follows basic dog sledding commands given by the musher, and will run singlemindedly down the trail even when there are distractions (squirrels, loose dogs, other dog teams, wild animals, etc), and will run even when tired. This is a very important distinction that very few novice dog drivers fully understand. Most think: My dog runs in front of me down the trail, end of story. As Lee Corso likes to say on College Game Day (we're big college football fans here at Maryland Sled Dog Adventures): "Not so fast my friend." The main difference between a sled dog and a pet dog with excess energy is drive and training. Drive is the dog's innate desire to go down the trail; to see what is around the next corner and over the next hill. Dogs are born with drive. Drive is not something that is trained.

Being passed by another dog team

It is training, however, that teaches a dog to pull on command, stop on command, and follow basic dog sledding commands. Training is also frequently misunderstood by novice mushers. Training is the act of showing your dog what you want him or her to do. Training is not just going out and running your dogs down the trail. To train a dog you must be able to control the dog as he or she runs down the trail (this requires good quality equipment with adequate braking power and the ability to be locked in place). When you give a command, either your dog follows the command in which case you should praise the dog ("good gee") or the dog does not follow the command. If your dog does not follow the command, you must get off the scooter, bike, rig, sled, etc. and show your dog what you want him or her to do. Failing to do this (or not being able to do this because of inadequate equipment) tells your dog that it is ok to ignore your commands. To this end, you need to have equipment that can be held in place (under any circumstances including in the presence of squirrels, loose dogs, other dog teams, etc) while you get off and show the dog what you want him or her to do.

Training "line out"

Multiple teams: All lined out

The musher's ability to stop on the trail and get off the rig is necessary to train the dogs

Command training with a double snapped leash

Side by side line out training: Note that the trainers are behind the dogs

Command training using a double snapped leash

Passing another dog team

Training is also frequently confused by novice dog mushers with conditioning. While training is the act of showing your dog what you want him or her to do, conditioning is putting mileage on your dog(s) over time at, hopefully, either increasing, or at least consistent, speeds. Conditioning should not be confused with training. Here at Maryland Sled Dog Adventures while we feel that conditioning is important, we feel that training is paramount. Thus, even training runs with conditioning objectives include training objectives as well. To us, a missed command or an unusual trail situation (horses, fox hunts, loose dogs, other dog teams, etc) are all training opportunities. In other words, these are opportunities to show your dogs what you want them to do.

Our Run What You Brung program is an opportunity for experienced sled dogs to show your dog the ropes and will provide you with the tools you need to train your dog to pull, on command, for dog powered sports. While you might think it is your dog that will receive the "training" during one of our Run What You Brung programs, it is not. Rather, it is you who will be "trained" as our Run What You Brung program is a "train the trainer" program. It is designed to give you the tools you need to train your dog to pull. And these tools are not dog scooters, lines, harnesses, bikes, and rigs. These are training tools because, as we like to say here at Maryland Sled Dog Adventures, training is "the gift that keeps on giving." No matter how nice your equipment, it will not train your dog to pull on command.

Drag training

Drag training

Dog sledding and other dog powered sports can be an expensive hobby (addiction) and while your bright shiny new equipment will not train your dog to pull, a basic level of equipment is necessary to safely run your dogs. Thus, if you find yourself unwilling or unable to spend money on your new found hobby, you have no business on the trails. The main factor to consider with any rig or vehicle used for running dogs be it a dog scooter, bike, rig, sled, or ATV is whether you can stop your dog(s) at any time (beginning, middle or end of the run) and under any circumstances (squirrels, loose dogs, leashed dogs, wild animals, other dog teams, etc.). If the answer to either of those questions is "no" or "not really" then your equipment is inadequate and is dangerous for you, your dog(s), and other users on the trails. Moreover, if you cannot control your team (be your team 1 dog or 20 plus dogs), you cannot adequately train (see above) your dog(s).

Fritz Dyck rig. Note the locking "digger" (earth) brake and that all four wheels have locking brakes

Not only is the ability to stop at any time under any circumstances a safety issue for you, your dogs and others, it is also a courtesy issue for other trail users. Mushers are a minority user group and most trails are multi use, shared with other users ranging from snowmobiles and quads to bikes, pedestrians, and dog walkers. Moreover, mushers are easily identifiable. Mushers must courteously share the trails with other users. This includes running your dogs on the right (at least here in the US), being able to stop your dogs, yielding to other trail users, cleaning up after your dogs, and in general keeping the trails a nice place for all types of users. Common courtesy and common sense go a long way towards keeping trails open to all uses and rude behavior and a general lack of common sense will close trails to mushers faster than anything else. To that end, you will frequently find us picking up other users' trash on our trails, always scooping our dogs' poop (very few pet owners clean up after their dogs), running early in the morning to avoid as much trail traffic as possible, rotating the trail heads we use, training our dogs to run on the right, yielding to other trail users, and running our dogs under control at all times.

Running on the right: All "gee'd over"

Sharing the trails with other users: Running right so a bicyclist can pass