Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Calm Team

    A friend recently asked me how to train your team to be calm. I thought it'd be a great blog post as I needed some time to think about how to explain it. A better description would be a well-mannered team.

    As I think back over the teams I've run over the years, the most enjoyable ones have been those from the last couple years - since Alaska, in fact. The transformation happened almost imperceptibly. The first time I'd ever heard the concept of a calm team was when Nancy Yoshida, from whom I obtained dogs in 2010, mentioned that Aaron Burmeister's dogs aren't allowed to jump and bark at hook up. While this is not entirely true, it's sure close to the truth if you compare his team to what I was used to before going up to handle. The second time it came up was when Leila ran with me and mentioned how surprised she was that the string of yearlings stopped upon command.

   So how do you condition a team to be well-mannered? I'm sure there's a lot of different approaches, but the following is what I've done.

    The first shift is the outlook on running a team. In Alaska I ran dogs almost every day and the back of a dog sled really felt like home. When you know you're going to run dogs day in and day out you relax. You get comfortable with the dogs and comfortable riding a sled. You also realize that if you're going to be running these dogs so much, they need to behave - you rely on them to take you miles into the wilderness and back. You can have fun and not be hurried, but they'd better mind and stay focused on the job at hand. For example, just harnessing, booting and coating dogs is really tedious if they're leaping around and barking. The dogs really figure it out themselves - they learn to wait patiently, thought they're as excited as any dog out there.

    A lot of manners are taught at puppy hood. I've always made a point to spend a lot of time with my puppies - touching them (especially feet), rolling them on their backs, playing with them and taking them on loose walks. They learn to come when called (albeit, some better than others!) and to behave around people (no biting and chewing). With the Robin Hood litter,I'd sit out with them until they would all curl up around and on my lap to go to sleep - by far the calmest littler I've had so far!
   I often wonder if  the general "craziness" of sled dogs is because they are so eager for attention and willing to please. Based on the kennel size, the amount of attention time per dog is limited - it's not good or bad, it's just a fact (although it is an argument for a small kennel). Making a conscious effort to pet each dog every day takes time, but the benefit is huge. If the dog is willing, I train them to jump on their houses for petting (and, later, harnessing) - but not every dog...some just really prefer to keep all four paws on the ground unless they're leaping in harness!

    Harness breaking is a key point for training manners. Although I used to harness break pups between 4-6 months old, I've come to the conclusion it's better to wait (we'll get into this another time). The more mature and larger puppies fit the harness and gangline better, making it easier to work with. My kennel is set up so the puppies watch me run the team quite often - even before they are chained out. When I hook them up for the first time, I place each puppy next to a reliable adult (carefully chosen based on the puppy) and we go slow...for a half mile run. We do this 2-3 times and then go a mile 2-3 times and then go 2 miles and so on. Never fast. The puppies learn to work hard. They learn it's fun because they're never put in a position to fail. If they get tangled, they can usually work it out - rather than getting dragged along at a lope. I also don't put puppies or yearlings in lead until they have a season under their belts (something else I can get into in more detail at another time). By the time they run in lead for the first time, they are thoroughly comfortable with running in the team.

    I can't stress enough how much the dogs (of all ages) learn from reliable, well-mannered teammates. Everything I do with the dogs surrounding hooking up for a run, is geared to be efficient. This means that I let the dogs loose to load them in the dog box to go to the trail. The dogs learn to come. They can run around, but if they want to get to the trail, they'd better come and get into the truck! At the trail head I loose drop some dogs, but other's I drop directly onto the gangline. The dogs learn to relax (and not to chew) lines and harnesses because I go methodically through the string with harnesses and booties - chewing and barking won't get us out on the trail any faster. Many learn to lay down and wait for their turn. But when I start clipping tuglines, the dogs start to bark and jump.
    One of my greatest fears is having the snowhook popped. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in Alaska was of respect. The bond between a musher and dogs is one of respect and trust. The dogs must respect your word and obey it - it could get you out of (or in) trouble. The first step is at hook up, for every run. Once the dogs are harnessed and tuglines hooked up, I go back to the sled (or 4-wheeler) and put on my jacket. I might sit there for a minute, but before we move an inch I as, "Are you ready?" The dogs respond with added eagerness but still we don't move. This is their cue to get ready - if we are out on the trail for a quick snack or water break, they relax until I give them the command to go: "alright."
    It's frustrating to have bad snow conditions and stop multiple times after the team drags the sled at "are you ready" but the lesson is soon learned. By the end of December, the dogs know to "take a break" until I get on the sled, pull the hook, ask "are you ready" and then give the cue to go. "Take a break" is another command I use. If I'm off the sled/4-wheeler and untangling a dog or maybe fixing runner plastic, I tell them to "take a break." If they get rowdy while I'm working, I keep telling them to "take a break." It eventually sinks in.
    I recall reading in a lot of sled dog books that sled dogs don't know "Whoa." Well, mine do. This is something taught along with the other commands from day one. Before they know "Gee," "Haw," or "Come Haw," they know "Whoa." Every time we stop, I say "Whoa" and every time I say "Whoa" we stop. Because I prefer a slower, steady team for distance, we don't stop often or for very long at any point in training. By late November the dogs are usually quite happy for a break - they slack off when I say "Whoa."
    Reviewing the above, I don't think I really do things much differently than other distance mushers - it's certainly nothing original - but it's worked for me and made for a much more enjoyable team. And at the end of the day, running a well-mannered team is not only more enjoyable, but a necessary safety precaution for those of us who run alone.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

May 2016: 10 Years of racing sleddogs

    This month happens to be the 10th year anniversary of when Quest arrived, to start my sled dog kennel. As promised from the "How It All Started" posts, I dug up some early's some more photos from 2006/2007 (in no particular order). Enjoy!
2007 Priest Lake start - talking with the Race Marshall

Wonder Woman

Wise Guy - Wonder's brother - he was borrowed for the 2006/2007 races...I always kicked myself for not buying him when I had the chance!
Wise Guy
Wise Guy
Nakota, Ella and Quest
Wonder Woman & Chase (Quest's "little" brother)
Nanook - soon after he arrived in March 2007
Nakota - the dog who got it all started!
Nakota sitting in my very first sled
Nakota and our Pyrenees Timber.
Priest Lake 2007
Kowtoo, soon after he arrived in March 2007 - he was still recovering from the car accident.
Ella - 2006
Ella & Quest - Priest Lake 2007
Chase & Wise Guy - 2007 Priest Lake
The first kennel

Not a great photo, but the cart I used to train the first team (Quest, Chase, Ella and Wonder Woman)

My first race - Priest Lake 2006
2007 - my first sled and dog box trailer

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How It All Started - Part 7: The 2009 Season

    With the "A" litter harness broken, the fall of 2008 was more learning. My team was noticeably better, hard pulling and eager to go. We explored trails behind our house on the 4-wheeler (I always had someone come with me) and worked with the new dogs: Ruby and Mermaid. Mermaid was a big girl who liked to dip snow a lot and Ruby was a sweet dog with great bloodlines that I got from Lanette at the fall meeting.

   That fall I also had the "B" litter - a batch of 7 pups from Nala and Nanook with names such as B4U, Breakneck Speed, Beruna and Bullet. (Breakneck Speed or, Brea, would eventually compete with me in 4-H agility, winning his first event. The agility judge came up to me afterwards and asked me what breed of dog he was!)

    With the growing kennel and no Seppala club races being held, we decided to expand our horizons and try some new races. The first was the Flathead Sled Dog Days in Whitefish Montana. This introduced us to some amazing folks, although we came in dead last. It was snowing and I ended up with Kowtoo in lead, but running on the Montana hills was great training. My team was Chase and Kow, Quest and Mermaid and Ruby and Vixen.

  Worried by the slow speeds, we took a trip to Elkford, Canada to run in the 6-dog sprint class. Ruby, Vixen and Nanook led with Chase, Quest and Kowtoo filling out the team/wheel positions. We had great times and won! This was where I first glimpsed some Alaskan's I liked on Rick & Dena Wannamaker's truck. I also admired the wolverine ruff Aaron Peck had...not knowing who he was at that point (never dreaming, either, that I'd get to race him one day!). Despite the wonderful time we had, and the paycheck, I didn't feel drawn to short races...

    Alas, the snow didn't hold out for Conconully and we ended up driving down to Dubois Wyoming for a wonderful race in crisp, cold weather. My mom ran the 4-dog class with the Nala, Brea, B4U and a brand new dog from Lanette - Hadrian - while I ran my first 8-dog race with Nanook, Kowtoo, Quest, Chase, Mermaid, Vixen, Athena and Ruby. I was nervous, but it was a good experience on a technical trail - including wind and drifts we weren't used to. I also recall spending every spare moment pestering Lanette with questions - she's always been a great resource and I can't thank her enough for all the time she spent with me over the well as entrusting me with some great dogs.

    I think I forgot to mention that in November Wonder Woman had a surprise litter from Chase. Although I always kicked myself for not keeping any pups from the "C" litter, we had fun with the names - Catan, Caspian, etc. They were also the most adorable blue eyed puppies! I will try to find some photos...

    As always, Priest Lake was the next race on the agenda and I think it rained (as always) and we had an interesting run. Athena actually led part of the race and I left Kowtoo (since he was a big boy and Priest Lake is always warm). The rest of the team was filled out by Quest, Mermaid, Ruby, Vixen and Nanook. Hadrian, Nala and Chase ran the 4-dog class with my mom and my little sister ran Wonder Woman in the peewee class. She was upset because it was only 100 we had WonderWoman going back and forth on another trail for a while to wear the two of them out!

    We'd made friends with folks at Elkford and Whitefish, who invited us up to the first Bootleg Sled Dog Race in Cranbrook, BC. This was an awesome race, all on a golf course, and mostly in sight for spectators. With lots of short ups and downs and turns, the dogs charged hard and although we didn't win it was a blast! My younger siblings each took a team in the junior race with Chase, Quest and own team being Vixen, Nanook, Ruby, Athena, Hadrian and Mermaid.

    But the season didn't end then! Again, having made contacts, we went to the first Darby Dog Derby in Montana and my mom and I divided the dogs to run the six mile sprint race. This was Athena's first race in lead and Wonder Woman's first "real" race back since the puppies. Ruby and Moonbeam ran swing for me and Hadrian and Nanook ran wheel. My mom ran Quest and Vixen (her dog) in lead, Brea in swing and Chase and Mermaid in wheel.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Race to the Sky 2016: Part 5

    When we left off, we were sitting in Seeley Lake during our six-hour rest, hoping the rain would stop. Instead, it kept going.
    Perhaps it was just my imagination, but it slowed a bit as I was hooking up and leaving Seeley. But that didn't stop the road from being dirt for the first 1/4 mile and later ice, slush and puddles. The dogs left well but you could tell they were disheartened about the wetness also.

    A couple miles out of Seeley it began to rain harder and although I'd put all my extra great in plastic bags, I realized quickly that I was going to be soaked - it wasn't worth changing gloves. The slush and tattered runners also slowed the team; I knew the mileages well enough to know we weren't moving fast. Part of the problem is because the dogs are always more sluggish after a six-hour rest...part of it is because half the dogs were young or had never completed a 300 mile race before. Determined to stay positive, I turned on a story and tried not to think about how wet I was.
    Off the Seeley trail system we had a couple miles on road again - worse than I've seen it before - but we'd stopped for a snack before this part and with me running the dogs got through the gravel. I realized then my runners desperately needed changed but I wanted to wait for the worst part of dirt was over...the roads into Whitetail.
    A few miles from the road into Whitetail, though, I had to stop for Saxon. He'd been hardly pulling for several miles at this point and I decided to unhook his tugline and let him trot along. Not long after, he decided it was too much. But he didn't want to ride either...

    We went back and forth a few times and then had some close calls around corners. Saxon did not calm down - bumps and turns frightened him - yet somehow we made it around the worst switchback without tipping! The burms of snow on and off the plowed dirt road were worse, though. Saxon would be struggling and get half off the sled and the remaining dogs would look back asking what was going on, which led to a let-up of pulling power and caused us to keep almost stopping. Add the gravel/dirt road with a few patches of snow (which, it seems, my dogs avoided) and it we bumped and jerked along. I didn't notice until a bit later that the rain had stopped and apparently we were within view of Mark Stamm (he told me later) but I never saw his bright yellow rain suit - maybe I'd have done something differently if I had. In any event, I was thankful for the guy who was at the road crossings to help us - although the dogs knew where they were going, there was not much control in slush and dirt to stop or hold a team.

    Coming towards the intersection where we turned towards Huckleberry, one of the race marshal's had a truck. He was handing out water and I've never been so glad for a bottle of water - I had lots of food and water in the sled but getting to it was a problem now that Saxon had settled down to sleep and because I dreaded getting everything wet.

    We moved well past Whitetail, no balking or looking back, and started up Huckleberry as the sun came out. I'd been debating for hours about whether to break this last leg (72 miles) up into two legs for the young dogs or push on. With Saxon in the sled and the sunshine out, I decided to stop at the base of the mountain for a mini-rest to get some food in them and dry out. The dogs ate relatively well and sprawled out in the snow. However, with Bella in heat a couple were more interested in her than resting. This break also gave me the chance to change runners. Boy, did my sled glide with the new plastic! My old runners were shredded and notched - looking back I think I should've changed them in Seeley and again at the base of Huckleberry. We probably would've moved a bit faster because the change was drastic!

    After about 30-40 minutes, I got them up (rotated dogs, including my leaders) and we took off. I tried Saxon in team but he wanted none of it and settled back down in the sled - lazing in a comfortable ball with his eyes on me.

    Although it'd been raining down low, there was heavy, wet snow and wind at the higher elevations. Thanks to those who'd been over before us, including a snowmobile, we didn't have to break trail completely, but towards the top it was almost completely blown in. On the other side it kept balling up under the sled and I've never had to push a sled down the mountain before! It seemed to take forever to get below snow-line.

     Still, it took a lot less time going down than coming up and we soon hit the trail into Lincoln (there's bridge you cross). Now the trail was fast because there wasn't really snow but it wasn't down to was ice and slush. We also saw a herd of deer and they helped cheer the dogs on!

    As we came across the fields I was pretty emotional talking with the dogs. The end of a race is amazing - you are so proud of the dogs and thankful for the team (dogs and humans) who've helped you get there. You also don't want it to don't want to go back to normal life!

    But soon we came across people at the road crossing and I had to push the sled up the steep, short dirt hill. Then it was down the other side on grass to the dirt finish...where my handlers and everyone waited. The dogs were super happy and I was thrilled to see all of them dive into their food. I had a couple sore dogs - as one would expect after running 270+ miles - but no injuries. We got everything loaded up - piling the wet gear in the wet sled bag and leaving it for later - and went back to our host family in Helena. They had one of the best meals ready for us: lasagna and garlic bread. It tasted soooo good, now that I was warm and dry.

    The next day was a time to rest and recuperate and I can't say how much I appreciate our host family because not only did the dogs have a lot of time to run free and stretch out, but we got to enjoy a hot tub and relax. The sun and wind also helped dry out some gear as I unpacked and repacked everything. The trash bags actually worked quite well keeping my sleeping back and other gear dry - despite having rips and a wet dog on top of them.

    Montana is laid back and the awards banquet was too...but the honor of receiving the Best Cared for Team award for the Race to the Sky will remain with me for a long time. As a musher it can be hard to accurately judge how nice your team is looking when you are weary and have been watching the dogs for thousands of miles, so it is very special (as well as very rewarding) to have a third party compliment you on the team's condition. It's the highest honor a musher can receive.