Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Training a Lead dog, Part 2

To better understand running dogs, it is helpful to know a little about wolf behavior. Dogs are almost genetically identical to wolves. Wolves prey on varmints but as a pack they can also bring down bigger game. A deer may be able to outrun a wolf in a short distance but the wolf will eventually overtake a deer by "doggedly" chasing it. Wolves typically can run over fifty miles in pursuit of a meal. The deer will eventually become exhausted and have to face the predators.

Dogs have the body and innate drive to run and chase down prey. It is the dog musher's joyful job to harness that dog energy. People who claim you need to force a dog to work are mistaken. "You can't push a rope." Dogs work eagerly and willingly for the driver. Humans typically do not enjoy running, but for a dog, the act of running is a hard-wired primal urge.

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This photo shows Mojo just starting out on a run. Notice how tight his tugline is and how crazy happy the look on his face is. I got my Mojo working! All I have to do is let go of my brakes and I get whiplash from all that enthusiasm. Notice that the gangline leading ahead to Seamus is also piano wire tight. This photo illustrates the fact that contrary to what you see from Hollywood, you do not need a whip to run dogs.

The type of dog running I do is mushing style. The distinction is that the dog needs to be in front of you on a lead or line. There are other methods of running dogs that use a rigid connection that connects the dog to the wheeled rig. The rigid connection puts the driver in more control. This kind of rig can be good if your dogs have aggression problems or if you need more control in an urban environment.

Notice this wheeled rig known as a sulky has a rigid staff that extends out to the dog's harness and keeps the dogs at a static distance.

The rigid connection allows more control for the driver but it is not as comfortable for the dog. The mushing style allows the dog more freedom of movement. You absolutely must have a trained leader to do mushing style.
When your dog is in front, on a line then you relinquish much of your control. You have to be able to trust your leader to turn in the right direction and to keep the rest of the team on the trail. A good leader will be an extension of your mind. Dogs can learn, and rise to the challenge with a little more work on your part.

When just starting to train your first leader I like to use a canicross getup. The equipment required is a well fitted X-back harness for your dog, a line with a bungee section integrated into the core of the rope and a skijoring belt for you to connect with the line and the dog. I will discuss in detail the equipment you will need in a later post. Essentially it is a skijoring getup without the skis. The line can be a few feet shorter than a ten foot skijor line.

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This photo shows my wife in the year 2000 with her Rott/Lab mix on a canicross run on the Tahoe Rim Trail near Brockway Summit.

Puppies can learn to pull at an early age by harnessing them to an old tire or a chunk of cordwood with an eyebolt. Walk the puppy to get it used to pulling a little weight. Make the lessons short. Do not leave your pup unattended with a weight. It may spook the little guy. Always keep an upbeat attitude and have lots of patience.

To train a leader you must encourage your dog to get in front of you and pull. If your dog is trained to heel then you may have to overcome the inhibitions that you have trained into your dog. Most dogs when dressed in a harness will differentiate the objective after a while. When your dog gets out in front of you then praise her. Praise her when she begins to pull. Reward good behavior with lots of praise. I prefer the positive reinforcement method of training. Dogs respond well to a happy driver.

Don't mind when your dog does not pull very hard at first. Pulling is work and a dog has to build up strength. If your dog is already athletic then the extra work of pulling will still take time because there are different muscle groups involved. Endurance does not come with a breed. Endurance comes from miles on the trail. Start out with low mileage and work slowly up from there. Be careful that you don't run your dogs too far. You must know their limits and stay within them. Your dogs must trust you to always take care. A group of humans may be able to go much further on bikes on any day so you must always remember to put the dog's welfare first. Always bring extra water for your dogs or follow a trail along a creek or river that the dogs can use to cool off.

Always insist on tight lines. If the line is not taut then stop the lesson for a few moments or the day.

A dog does not know your language so somehow you have to convey the idea in a language your dog can understand. This may take months of kind patience. With your canicross outfit you can easily reel in the line and correct a dog by gently nudging her in the right direction. Younger dogs need a little gentle scolding when they goof off and mark or chase varmints. Be consistent and insist that the dog stay on the trail and keep the line out. When your dog is finally trained to lead then you will go quietly down the trail with very few corrections and commands. Young dogs take a little bit of nagging to help them get with the program.

Always be gentle and try to make every outing fun for you and the dog. Dogs pick up on your mood quickly. Never train in a bad mood and never get angry with your dog except when aggression towards other dogs is detected.


Before you start, your dog should already know the basic obedience commands, sit, stay, no and come. Beyond that, a leader should also know a few basic commands so that you can all go safely down the trail.

A small team should learn the command "Line out". "Line out" is taught using repetition.

This photo show my 1999 team lined out and ready to go after a water break. Notice the tight line while they wait for me to get on the bike.

When the dog naturally lines out then say the words. Try to always set up your dog for success. Use the command "Gee" for right hand turns and "Haw" for left turns. A leader should also know "On By" for moving past varmints, loose dogs or to discourage marking .

One of the hardest commands for a dog to get is "Whoa". I usually say "Easy" before I use Whoa and Whoa is reinforced with a hard tug on your brakes or a stiff snowplow on skis.

Another handy command is "Come around" when you want to make a U-turn. Use the command "Straight" when you come to a fork in the trail and you want your dog to go straight. If you are on a road and you want your dog to stay to the right or left then use "Gee over" or "Haw over" Push the line in the direction that you want the dog to go when you say the command. All these commands are learned with repetitive use. It may take a while before you can really rely on a dog to know what to do depending on how often you work with your dog. Mix up the trails you use so the dog can learn to listen to you when you come to a fork in the trail. When approaching a fork in the trail, you may notice the lead dog's ears perk as a signal for you to give a cue. I will often warn the leader before a turn by saying something like, "We're gonna go gee, We're gonna go gee" and then I say "gee" right before the turn.

Often you might have a tangle where the line is wrapped around a dogs leg or body out on the trail and you want your team to stop so you can untangle one of your dogs. In that case I will say "whoa" and "Mojo's tangled". The dogs will learn to wait until you untangle the dog before you can proceed.

Before you hook up a team to a bike or any wheeled rig you must have dependable leader. Train your leader on foot over the summer and then when it is cooler you can pick up the pace with your wheeled rig. If your dog is undisciplined then you greatly increase your chance of an accident.

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This is my all husky team with Streak in lead with Flash in wheel and Tempo the puppy running loose on the Tahoe Rim Trail near Tahoe Meadows in 1999.

The next post I will talk about equipment for running your dogs.

Go With Dog

Mike Callahan

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