Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Training a Lead Dog, Part 1

Dogs love to run and a dog driver only enables his dogs to do what they love to do. Dogs need guidance to know what is expected of them. Not all dogs easily get the idea of mushing. Some people like to say that this dog or that dog is a born leader. Born leaders are a rare trait as some like to think. There is a lot of myth and hooey about what makes a good leader. Some great leaders are very shy dogs and some are very gregarious. There is no specific personality trait that would help someone sort a lead dog from the rest of the pack. The leader is not always the alpha dog. One thing a good leader does is listen to the driver.

A dog out in front of you on a line needs to be a sociable dog. Dogs that have a tendency for aggression do not make good leaders or team dogs. You want a dog that will run by loose dogs and not want to stop and pick a fight. Aggressive dogs tend to stay that way. Some dogs can learn to be more disciplined but aggression is often an incorrigible trait and difficult to vanquish. For dogs that can be bullies, a muzzle designed to allow the dog to breath while it runs can be used.

The easiest way to train a dog to pull is to use another dog that is already trained. Dogs learn very quickly from each other. Many mushers who have lots of dogs never actually trained their first leader. They often buy an already trained leader and use that dog to train the rest of the team.

This Photo shows my dog Otto training another dog "Copper" at the SNDD fall training clinic. I am behind on a bike with Seamus pulling me. Notice the single file line that I use to train other dogs. Single file formation allows the dogs more room and does not allow petty bickering that a side by side lead might allow.

The urban musher who is limited by the number of dogs they can have does not have the luxury of buying a trained leader. If you have only one dog then you still can train your dog to lead. It will take a lot of patience and a lot of time. The time that it takes in the long run will be only a small part of your dog's life compared to all the years that you will be rewarded from having a trained lead dog. To accelerate your dog's training it might be helpful to seek out someone with a working team and arrange for your dog to run with a team. One such opportunity is the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers Fall Training Clinic held every October near Truckee. There you and your dog can gain a lot of knowledge in a short time.

Once you have trained your leader, you can hook up your next dog with the first dog and the new dog will learn profoundly faster.

blog post photo

This dog in the photo is "Flash" in his younger days.

Flash was a cull from an elite competitive mushing kennel. He was the result of an accidental breeding between an old retired leader and a very young untested female. His looks are typical of the Alaskan Husky breed. Flash was my first dog that I trained to be a leader. Although he is from a top kennel he was acquired as a puppy and never had the opportunity to run with a team before I acquired him. In spite of his pedigree, it took a long time for me to train him without the help of other dogs. He went on to lead me to two ISDRA gold medals and a silver medal at the BC championships in skijoring.

In my following posts I will detail methods that you can use to train your dog to get out in front and pull.

Go with dog.

Mike Callahan

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