Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Team: Lead, Swing, Team and Wheel

    One of the first questions I get asked when introducing the dogs is: "Who's your lead dog?" My answer is, "There are several." I quickly point out that each and every position is important...

    Nowadays, mushers typically run sled dogs in double file. This means two leaders, then the swing (or point) dogs, then 1st team dogs, 2nd team dogs and so on until the wheel dogs. Many people assume the largest dogs run in wheel. I can't speak for other mushers, but something I learned in Alaska was to put your medium (or even a small, hard pulling dog) in wheel and put them in single wheel. I feel it gives the dogs a better experience - they have more room to move when we go around a tight corner. Also, a large dog has more pressure on the hips from the tugline in wheel. I rotate all dogs in wheel. If they have a really smooth gait, it's helpful to avoid injuries. Another plus is if they are good at switching over and under the gangline - so they use the extra room they have by running single.
    Over the years, I've found most dogs will lead - if given the chance. But a natural born leader is a gem. I look for dogs who are receptive to commands and hard-driving. Of course, there are exceptions: dogs like Razz who aren't hard-driving but will lead just fine despite not knowing commands. But the majority of my leaders are dogs who like to be up front. Achilles is a natural leader - he really wants to be up front and will "go around" the leaders if he's in swing. I typically pair a male and female together; it just seems to work out best for me. But I work everyone in lead together at some point in training.

    Something else I like to know about my leaders is if they will single lead. Although it doesn't seem too common to have a single leaders, putting a dog in single lead really gives them a confidence boost (if they can handle it). It's also helpful when breaking trail when someone has driven a truck through the deep snow (this just happened today - double leaders were having a hard time staying in the track and kept pushing each other around but Sweetwater happily led in single lead until we got out of the mess).

    I like to put reliable, no-nonsense dogs in swing. Because of intersections and any other circumstances that might make a leader balk, the swing dogs are a great help. They can pull the team in the right direction and give stability behind a young leader. I also like to put young leaders-in-training in swing because they can watch the leaders and learn. I'll put young dogs (yearlings) who have lead potential in swing so they get comfortable at the front before being put in lead.

    Team is where all the dogs get a chance to run. There are some dogs that seem to always get tangled in their necklines or may not be the strongest in the team and I tend to keep them in the team positions. It's a good place for uncertain yearlings in the fall - if they're afraid of the 4-wheeler. In team I'll mess around with pairing dogs up. I like to have dogs matched up by gait and size. I also watch and see who runs well together (do they like each other?) and if they don't like a particular teammate, can they run comfortably ahead or behind them? If not, then team is where they will learn to get over their dislikes!

   As you can see - every part of the team is important. We wouldn't get very far down the trail without each position filled...especially when you're breaking trail!

Monday, December 14, 2015

How It All Started - Part 5: Races in 2007

    So I was training my 4 dogs for short races and the ISSSC folks invited me to come to their December fun race which was 16 miles. I thought I would be terribly under trained, and perhaps I was, but the dogs did just fine. They let me borrow a dog named Moonbeam and Wonder's brother, Wise Guy. 
    I can honestly say I wouldn't have bumped up to 6 dog mid-distance if they hadn't pushed me to do it. I didn't think I could do it...or the dogs. Yet the 5 dogs (I bought Moonbeam that weekend) pulled my mom and I on 25 mile training runs - up and down mountains too.
    We had to get special letters of recommendation for the races because I was so young but Elaine at Conconully was supportive and we got in! Even more exciting, much to my surprise, we came in 5th! I think the dogs were ecstatic just to be pulling me on a groomed trail...Our time was far from impressive, looking back, but we got a check which always helps for dog food.
    Something funny about Conconully is that we stayed at a place called "Comfy Cabins" which is probably the worst place to stay in Conconully - it was cold and there were no showers or anything. Needless to say, next time we found a new hotel!
    Conconully was an instant favorite race - the trails are most similar to what we run at home and the dogs and I had a blast. I was terrified I'd get lost or have trouble passing but everyone was super nice and we met the nicest folks. Also, the trail is marked so well you could do it blindfolded! 
    Priest Lake is the closest race to us and there we had a tough time. It was the beginning of purebred politics and I remember loving the dogs but not liking the race at the time. Still, it was exciting to beat a musher who had told us Siberians weren't real competitive racing dogs.
    Oh, and something fun about Priest Lake is the switchbacks on the back side of the mountain. The race is an out and back and there are some serious switchbacks. The sled I'd bought was bolted together and so stiff you basically had to fall over to navigate around some turns. It's not nice to have a a snow hook bouncing inches from your face. However, every time I fell the dogs stopped and let me get back up. 

Conconully 2007 - 5th place
Wonder Woman X Moonbeam in lead
Ella X Quest in Swing
Chase X Wise Guy in Wheel

Priest Lake 2007 - 9th place
(Same team lineup as Conconully)

   I also wrote an article for the Continental Kennel Club about my experiences mushing thus far; it's a lot of the same information I've already written about, but including it here for "historical value!" CKC's support and sponsorship really made my early mushing career possible. I can't thank them enough for believing in a Jr Musher and giving me the opportunity to represent them...

           DOGSLEDDING IN IDAHO! How I Got Started!
    It all started with Nakota- a nine-month-old copper and white, blue eyed Siberian husky! When we brought her home I never dreamed we would ever dogsled, in fact we lived “in town” and it was a huge step to get a second dog. But since I was 10 years old and had demonstrated responsibility caring for  Sable, our German Shepard, my parents allowed me to get my first dog.  Later since my Mom wanted to re-train our German Shepard and because Nakota needed training we enrolled in a 6 week training course with a reputable, local trainer. Our Instructor gave us a lot of information and spent quite a lot of time on behavioral issues.  When we were through the trainer recommended a dog sledding friend of hers who might help me train Nakota to dogsled, if I was interested.
    It sounded neat so I gave the lady a call.  She was really friendly and patiently answered my questions. She eventually invited me to join her on a training run with her dogs and sled.  This invitation I could not refuse.  I took Nakota with me to the run, and even harnessed her up.  Well, Nakota ran faster back to the truck than down the trail! That was the day I got my first dogsled ride behind 6 malamutes.
    After that we fitted Nakota with a harness and my grandpa and brother built me a dog sled.  It was too narrow and we had painted it, not what you’re supposed to do, although we still used it on our city street when it snowed.  The following summer I had another bright idea, running Nakota pulling me on roller blades! It worked, Nakota ran great and she stopped sometimes if we were lucky. That summer I enrolled in a 4-H club and did the dog sledding project during which time I read about training, racing and the breeds of sled dogs. I read all the dog sledding and siberian husky books in our local libraries.
      That fall my Mom and I visited a “show husky” kennel and compared Nakota to some champion dogs- we found out Nakota was smaller and did not have enough coat for a winning show dog! But the kennel owner told me that he thought Nakota might have sled dog lines instead of show husky lines. I thought that was great but soon found that to be incorrect observation!
     A few months later (when Nakota was about 2 years old) My mom and I took  Nakota to get her eyes checked.  As we were leaving mom asked a customer waiting in the lobby what breed of dog her husky-looking puppy was?  She told us it was a Seppala Siberian Husky and some of the history of the breed, How the Seppalas were related to Leonard Seppala’s original champion sled dogs, from Siberia.  Mary Jane, the lady we met at the Veterinary office, also told me that Nakota did not have any breed lines she recognized.
Later, after another musher had told my mom “Siberian husky’s are too slow to be competitive” I started researching that Siberian breed and told my mom I wanted to find a siberian husky related to Leonard Seppala’s original dogs.
Mary Jane, invited us to watch their seppala teams race in a local dog sledding race and then to visit their kennels which we did. The seppala kennels,  happened to be just 10 minutes drive from my home this allowed me to help Mary Jane care for the dogs all summer during which I learned a lot about Seppala Siberian Sled dogs. That fall I was invited to help train the dogs and was told I could borrow some dogs to run a 3-dog race that February! I got to train the dogs I used: good old Nakota, Trapper (borrowed) and Cruiser- a dog given to me by a musher friend. Trapper was the only seppala but we still did well.
   At that race I bought a sled and a Seppala named Ella. She was a lead dog and (I thought) would be great with Cruiser and Nakota. She was way too fast! She has good lines and is a calm, “easy keeper”, I brought Ella home just a week before getting another seppala: Quest and we thought it was a big deal getting a second dog!
      Well, before getting Ella my Dad’s job moved us out into the country closer to some really good training trails. As I started training this fall I realized Cruiser was just not quite what I needed so I wrote to the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club to see if anyone had a Seppala for sale. It just so happened that their annual summer meeting was in a few weeks and they invited us to come.
   What a learning experience! I met an Iditarod musher and got to tour the kennels- it was cool to see dogs related to Quest and Ella! When we got home I began training again and was able to buy Chase- an 11 month old pup! Three weeks later I bought Wonder Woman- a 1\2 seppala X 1\2 Alaskan lead dog.  It is amazing how fast you can get by adding a dog or two.
      Now that I have 4 seppala’s I train every day but for a while I was worried about not getting on snow in time for my first (December) race! Well over Thanksgiving we suddenly got 6-8 inches of snow and it is still snowing and inch here and there!
     I’m 13 now and cannot believe how far Nakota and I have come (with plenty of family support) as we train for this season I hope that more people realize what they’re missing. Sure I don’t do a lot of the things kids my age do (and dog sledding isn’t for everyone) but I do get to do what I love doing- spending time with the dogs in the woods- you can just slow down for an hour, think and have fun!
    My favorite memory was running a training run this season on the cart with “perfect” snow falling, it parallels the time last season when I was running on a sled with the snow coming down and a great trail!
        Get out and do something with your dog today!


Friday, December 11, 2015

How It All Started - Part 4: Getting My Own Seppala's

So where are we in the “How I Got Started” adventures? It’s been a while since the last “episode” of how I got started so I thought I’d do a recap. Fortunately, I found a “historical” email from that time – which also flushes out the dates for things (it’s amazing how much I’d forgotten already).
   Below is a letter I wrote as a 12 year old after seeing a bulletin on the International Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Club (ISSSC) website. On the humorous side, when we went to our first ISSSC meeting, they thought my mom was the musher – even though I put my age in the letter!

I’ve copied the letter here (as exactly as I can – without any editing, where I could help it – so you get the feeling as it was then!):


Sent: Thursday, august 03, 2006
Subject: Applying for Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Pups

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to apply for a Seppala Siberian Sled Dog puppy that is in the program mentioned on the ISSSC website as being sold at minimal cost or given away free. The bulletin mentioned that this program is a good opportunity to get top racing Seppala Siberian Sled Dogs if you are a newcomer to Seppala’s and that to apply I should e-mail or call with my credentials.

Hello, I am 12 years old and this is my 4th year since I STARTED my dogsled “Journey.” I had always wanted a sled dog and in 2003 I got my first sib. She was a show dog and would pull but was a lot better at other canine sports. I really wanted to dog sled so in 2003 and 2004 I went to Priest Lake dogsled races and watched, asked questions and learned. During those years I met several Mushers’ (Suzie and Jim who have Malamutes and Jill and Bob who have Alaskans and Samoyeds) who sat down and answered a lot of my questions. I was also involved in a 4-H dog sledding project and learned a lot from that experienced- I got some sled dog training books and trained my show sib. I was still trying to find someone who raised Siberians because the Malamute musher’s used Siberians to speed up their team and I did not want Alaskans. Well, right before Priest Lake sled dog races 2005 I ran into MJ- Holding a Seppala pup at the vet office. We lived in town in Idaho at the time so after Priest Lake I went and visited Sepp-Raptor Kennels. Over the summer I visited Sepp-Raptor kennels several times and then was invited to help with the dogs while learned the care, the time it takes and what to feed. I also learned about puppy care since the G litter of 7 puppies was a few months old when I first visited Sepp-Raptor. That summer (2005) my family and I moved to the country in Idaho. There we put up kennels and a dog run. The fall in 2005 I was invited to help train dogs on a 4-wheeler. There I learned that you keep to schedule and run even in the slush and rain. I learned how to tell if a dog was pulling or just keeping the tug-line straight and a lot of terms & meaning, how to train and how to care for them afterward. After one of the training runs Curt said that Ella of Sepp-Raptor (Bambi of Seppalta X Sepp-Stars Eddie of Seppalta), a leader was for sale. I instantly said yes and agreed to pick her up after the season was over. I was able to help run dogs right up to the time I got Ella. In January 2006 I was invited to the Snow Dog Super Mush in Conconully, WA as a handler for the Sepp-Raptor dogs. I saw some Seppala teams; one was a 12 dog team and the rest were 6-dog teams. Before Conconully I had signed up for the Priest Lake 3 dog Class. I was using my show Sib, Trapper (Sepp-Raptor), and was still looking for a 3rd dog. At Conconully I met Amy Hanley- who started out a few years ago and has one of Ella’s brothers. She gave me Cruiser, a Siberian husky. So I had my 3 dog team! Although I had an interesting team- 1 show husky, 1 seppala and 1 Siberian husky-cross (Cruiser is not a Purebred although he looks it) we won the race and came home with my first sled which I bought from Amy also. After and before the race I ran Cruiser and my show Sib together a few times. Later that spring I bought Quest of Seppalta (Hudson of Seppalta X Articsky’s Avior of Seppalta) from Amy. I did not get Quest in time to run him this spring but ran Ella, Cruiser and my show sib together.

My goals for 2007 are to fill out at least a 4 dog team with all Seppala’s. I’m already halfway there! I also plan to race in 3-4 races. I would like to add to my dog run either down the hill or on the flat as well. By next summer I would like to have a 6 dog team of all Seppala’s. I would also like to become a better driver, especially if I have a faster or bigger team.

If you need any more info please contact me.

    That letter was a turning point for me because I was invited to the fall ISSSC meeting in Seeley Lake, MT and from there, made contacts and eventually got Quest's brother, Chase. Later, I got a half-Alaskan named Wonder Woman and ran Ella, Quest, Chase and Wonder...Cruiser had already become too slow. Also, because of going to the meeting I applied and received sponsorship from the Continental Kennel Club for my first season.
    At first it seemed a big deal to have non-AKC purebreds and I won't deny there's a lot of politics in it all but I was just a young musher who wanted to run Seppala's. For now, I ignored it all and just enjoyed the would catch up soon enough.
    That first fall I had little idea about what I was doing on my own and trained the 4 dogs 5-6 days per week around our house. I could go about 3 miles with lots of turn-around's and did this up to 4 times for a 12 mile run. Poor dogs! They must have been bored but they never showed it. We had a blast! 
    Throughout the fall, I kept it touch with Doug - the Seppala guru of the area - and he kindly responded to my numerous e-mails with questions about Seppala's and dog mushing in general. Looking back, some of the questions seem rather redundant but I really had no idea what I was doing - it's a whole lot different doing it on your own versus helping another musher who has their "system" down.
    I also immersed myself in everything Seppala. I kept track of all the Seppala kennels and scoured their websites for dogs for sale, bloodlines and anything else out on the web. It was a blast - I have no idea how many hours I spent on it. 
    Here's some pictures of my first team:

Quest - "the best!"

Ella (white) and Wonder Woman (black) in lead. Chase (white) and Quest in wheel.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dog Box Setup

At races, I like to look at everyone's dog box - everyone has something different which works for them. When my dad built my dog box I tried to incorporate as many ideas as I could. So I thought I'd share photos of the set-up. 

There is storage inside (wish there was more, though - I still have to use a dog box or two depending how many people come to the races with me and for drop bags) and the sled goes in the middle (where the buckets/harnesses are in the picture). I like the sled being inside - it keeps it clean, means I can leave the bag on and gear in it to save time for training hook-up and break down. If I were to change anything, I'd do a 10ft flatbed so the runners don't stick out at all - this would also give me more room for storage and, if I could make it 8ft wide, I could fit two sleds.

There are 8 boxes on the bottom (4 to each side) and the dimensions are 2' X 2' X 2'. It would be nice to have them a bit deeper, but my dogs aren't huge so they work. On top there are 4 on the driver's side and 3 on the passenger side (because of the storage area). The front 4 boxes (2 on each side) are 2' X 3' X 2' - perfect for one large dog or two smaller dogs (who want's to lift a big dog up there anyway?). The remaining boxes are the same size as the bottom. I like the large doors - makes it nice to work on a dog in the box or pull a shy one out. It's also nice for cleaning out the box.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Experiments Free-Dropping the Team

  Something which sticks in my mind about Iditarod musher Jessie Royer is the stories about how she free-drops her dogs and lets the dogs "be dogs." I've always been scared to let the dogs loose and, at most, would let Legolas and a few trusted old dogs loose (although at home, loading/unloading I always let the dogs loose). This year I decided to make some changes...
    Starting on our early fall runs, I began to let about half the dogs loose after unharnessing. I'd load them, then get the rest of the dogs. Later, I'd let them all loose. I think I wrote about the interesting things they've found at the trail head!
    Unfortunately, one day Saxon took me on an hour chase on the highway frontage road when he decided not to come and took off (in the direction of home, believe it or not). Discouraged about Saxon, I let everyone else loose and kept him on the line. I figured it must be the stubborn side of the Seppala in him!
    I found it interesting how the dogs responded to being loose. They relax and trot around - with a couple not interested in leaving the truck at all. However, when I begin to load up they all come over. I try to spend a couple minutes just playing with them - at first some of the dogs weren't so sure about it, but now more of them will follow me around and mob me in a group (with silly Achilles and his growling trying to scare everyone off). I've had a few small arguments, but I think it's better to get them settled off the line - then they know their place in the pecking order and can focus on running.
    It's made things fun; relaxing with the dogs after the runs. When I stopped for a couple runs because I had Emily to help me and some of the dogs were hard for her to catch, I noticed the dogs weren't as happy. I resumed and they are back to themselves. It's interesting how most of my core dogs are my shadows - if we didn't have livestock at our house and lived farther out I'd love to take them all out on a hike. I think they'd stick with me.
    The biggest change, however, is from Saxon. As I've probably mentioned, my favorite part of dog mushing is watching the dogs transform. Here is a dog who started the spring with amazing abilities but no training. He's also a bit shy, but he fit in by figuring out he can trot and pull with the best of them. But he wasn't really a part of the team still - something was missing and I couldn't seem to break through to him. I never imagined I'd put him in lead.  
    There is a moment when you know a dog is "yours." With some it's instant - like Razz and Frost. For others, even though they were born here, it takes months - like Odysseus. And then there's Urchin who was "my boy" in Alaska but has come to a whole new level this year (he's a very reserved dog whom I don't think has ever misbehaved, yet he is so stoic I could never tell if he liked me...until this spring, when he finally let himself get excited). It's interesting that part of Saxon's transformation might be linked to Urchin.
    It happened like this: I was unloading the last couple dogs at a new trail head and had Rowdy and Saxon in my hands. Saxon slipped away and I thought, "Oh, great, I'll be chasing him all night." I got Rowdy hooked up and then went for Saxon. He trotted over to the team (he knew where he was supposed to be!) and paused at the line. I made a grab for him and caught his fur. Like any dog might, he tried to pull away and, since I held on, instinctively turned around and nipped at my hand. Urchin was hooked at that section and he immediately jumped on Saxon and gave him a scolding...Urchin, the boy who never fights!
    Now, I've seen dogs do some amazing things (my Collie, Handsome, has bowled over dogs to break up dog fights and barked/nipped at them until they are all cowering) but never had one protect me from another - and it wasn't even like Saxon was really trying to be a bad dog. About this time I also tried Saxon in lead as a last resort. He stands a bit taller and grows in confidence every time he's entrusted with leadership of the team. My theory is that some dogs just need to be given the responsibility and they'll grow into it. It's part of the reason I parted with some of my old, Iditarod veteran's this year - it's time for the young dogs to take up the challenge (and I have an unfortunate tendency not to let them, if I have an "old reliable").
    Getting back to Saxon...on Thanksgiving week I decided to let him loose after the run. There is so much trust involved in dog mushing - I wanted to doubt that he would come but I didn't let myself think on it and treated him like the other dogs. After all, he'd started getting excited when I went through the team during runs to give them some encouragement. And in the yard, he'd not had any trouble coming to his spot to be chained up.
    So I let him go...
    I let the dogs play for a couple extra minutes as I snapped the pictures below and played with them. Saxon came up to me at this time and I pet him, but didn't lock him up (I was sorely tempted, thought). Later, I started on Saxon's side and although he wasn't the first dog to come over, he eventually came and let me put him up. Since then, he's actually come and put his front feet up on the truck, asking to be put into the box.
    Are the challenges over with Saxon? I think not - with those Seppala bloodlines I'm thinking he'll be a dog with lots of stories! But sometimes those are the very best sled dogs...

L-R: Razz, Achilles, Bella, Urchin, Legolas

L-R: Bea, Summer, Saxon, Falcon


In the background you can see Frost really wants to get into the truck!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Snow, Burn and Puppies!

    It's been a busy time of training. The weather cooled off and before Thanksgiving we got some much needed snow, giving the dogs feet a break. It cooled into the teens at night which made it awesome! Here are pictures from Thanksgiving - we ran 27 miles:

In other news around the kennel, Peppermint got out and breed Sweetwater. Although this was not planned, Sweetwater had six adorable puppies in October. I'm sure you'll hear more about them!

I have a Jr Musher named Emily who is helping train the dogs on weekend and bringing her dog, Meringue. She is going to be training with me for the Eagle Cap Extreme Jr race. It's been nice to have an extra hand on the trail and good for the dogs to get used to another person working with them. The first night we had a trailer adventure - which I'll disclose fully in another post.

As some of you may know, we had lots of fires in Idaho this year. I've never run through a wildfire burn, but not far from the trail head we came across a small burned out area. The first time I went, in early November, it stank terribly but after a good rain and now the snow, it's hardly noticeable. 

This week has been one of ups and downs for dog mushing. On Tuesday we got a bit more snow, but rain loomed in the forecast. I didn't want to run in the rain and, with an already slick driveway, decided to do an impromptu camping trip with the dogs. We ran 30 miles on Tuesday night, camped 6.5 hours and then ran 24 miles - with a light rain as we finished. Unfortunately, the rain continued and the trails were ice when I checked last night. Since it's only rain in the forecast, I hope they'll be back to enough dirt to run on Sunday. Otherwise, the dogs will be getting some time off. Last time I checked the forecast, over an inch of rain is expected Monday and then lots of snow starting Thursday. Let's hope it snows and sticks so we can get on the sled! (For photos of the Tuesday/Wednesday run and other training photos, see There & Back Again's facebook page: )