Exercise & Training
Your Dogs' Training and Conditioning Regimen
Many training principles are specific to the type of activity in which your dogs will be involved. Other variables include climate, terrain, age of the dog, breed of the dog, etc. All forms of mushing, with all the different variables, are wonderful ways of forming a close bond with your dogs.
In general, training can be separated into two categories: education and physical conditioning. When you are planning your training schedule, consider your goals and your dogs' abilities. Simply counting miles, for instance, can be deceptive. The type of conditions that the dogs encounter are important too, i.e. steep hills, trail breaking in heavy snow, extreme temperatures or wind. New mushers should consult books and experienced mushers for help, but also use common sense. Think about what your dogs have been trained to do and do not allow them to get carried away in their enthusiasm to run. Never ask your dogs to do more than you are reasonably certain they can accomplish.
Educating Your Sled Dogs
Anything you do repeatedly with a dog is educational. Be sure you want your dogs to learn what you are teaching. Think about the signals you are giving your dogs, and don’t send mixed messages. For example, if you want your dogs to pass well, don't stop and chat with the neighbor every time you pass. Doing so trains your dogs to stop at every pass.
It is important that you never lose your temper with your dogs. Try to train them in a calm, consistent manner. If one method is not working, try another. For example, if a dog is not pulling well in a large team, reduce the size of the team and put that dog in wheel position for a week. If a dog continually plays with the dog next to it while running, run that dog alone for a few weeks. Remember that repetition is a great teacher. If your leader is not taking gees/haws well, go out with a very small team and work on commands. Always praise the dogs enthusiastically when they are doing what you want.
Recent research has proven that dogs learn much more readily with positive, reward-based methods than with methods that rely primarily on punishment. Positive methods also result in a closer bond between musher and team, and are much less likely to cause unwanted fearfulness or human-directed aggression in sled dogs.
A reward is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. The value of a reward is determined by the dog, rather than the handler. Just because you think something should be rewarding doesn’t necessarily mean your dog will agree. A food treat is only a reward if the dog is willing to repeat the behavior in order to earn another.
Most sled dogs place high value on tasty food treats and on running, but there are exceptions. If your dog doesn’t respond to one type of reward, switch to something the dog is more willing to work for such as chance to play with a favorite toy. If your dog does not place a high value on running you may want to reconsider its suitability as a sled dog. You may both be happier if the dog becomes someone’s pet.
In addition to the cues used while mushing, training classic ‘obedience’ cues is a great way to help socialize your dogs and provide psychological stimulation. Formal training classes expose your dog to new situations and introduce a positive image of sled dogs and mushers to the general public. The learning process will help your mushing training continue smoothly during the working season and the day-by-day, step-by-step progress will keep your dogs active during their offseason. Different dogs will enjoy different activities, but each dog needs individual attention.
Do not expect your dogs to do more than they are ready for. Watch each individual. Dogs work as a team but they have individual needs and abilities. Don't be afraid to be conservative and don't worry about how far other mushers are taking their dogs. Never push a dog to go any farther or faster than it is capable of going.
Have fun and build relationships with your dogs. Small teams are better for training. Depending on your preference and the size of your kennel, training teams might include only three dogs or as many as six to ten. Dogs can only run at their own pace and must never be pulled, whether by mechanical or other means.
Summer/Warm Season Training
Dogs needs some form of physical exercise all year long. As long as your dogs are in good health, light training in the summer is fun and beneficial. Equipment options include a bicycle, cart, dog walker, ATV, or a leash. For some dogs and mushers, running a few dogs loose may be an option. It is important to always use proper harness sizes and gang line lengths. Always check each dog for foot problems or injuries after each run.
If you mush dogs in the summer, ensure they are well-hydrated before and after each run. Wetting them down beforehand with a hose or with creek or lake water can be effective. It is best to exercise sled dogs during the coolest time of the day, but even then you must watch carefully for signs of overheating. Signs of heat stress include heavy panting with an open trachea, gait change, wobbly legs and vomiting.
If you are concerned that a dog might have heat stress, remove the dog from the team and carry it in your sled or vehicle. If you need to cool a dog down during summer, wet it with cool water. During winter, pack its body in snow. During and after cooling, continue to monitor its temperature with a rectal thermometer. Dogs routinely have temperatures of 103 to 106 degrees F while running (normal is 101 to 102 degrees F). Recheck the temperature every fifteen to thirty minutes as the dog cools. If the dog's temperature is still not normal after you have attempted to cool the dog, call your veterinarian. This could indicate a serious problem.
Most mushers like to start on some kind of wheeled rig before the snow comes. Make sure the rig has good brakes to slow the dogs down and that there is some type of parking brake. ATV’s are widely used because they give the musher complete control over the dogs' speed, and they steer more easily than a cart. They also have lights, which provide safety in darkness, especially along roads, and they make noise that warns wildlife of the team's approach. A speedometer is convenient on any type of training vehicle.
Start your fall training season with small, easily controlled teams and short runs, perhaps only ••• to 3 miles in length. Early season runs may require frequent rest stops. Decrease the number of rest stops and gradually increase mileage in subsequent runs as the dogs get stronger and fitter. If you have run the same distance over repeated training sessions and the dogs are finishing strong and happy, it is time to move up to the next level. In early fall training, don't push the speed too much. The dogs' muscles are not well-toned yet and it is easy to injure them. The goal of early training is to build up the dog's muscle structure to prevent injury later in the season.
Any training schedule must include rest days to allow time to build muscle. You might run a dog every other day, or run two days followed by a day off. Water (or broth) your dogs when you return from a run, and check for worn pads, especially if they are running on gravel or pavement.
Once you are working on snow, continue to build slowly to the distance and speed of your choice. Always check each dog's feet and provide plenty of water or broth. It is not good enough to let them bite snow for their fluids.
Not all injuries are easy to detect. A dog does not always show a substantial limp, so watch carefully for subtle signs. If a dog seems weaker or slower one day than the previous week, it might be due to injury or illness. A back can be injured without causing a limp, or a dog can be so excited to run that it will not show any signs of injury while running. You may be able to detect problems by observing the dog at home.
Detecting injuries or illnesses early can keep your team healthy and working all season, and can save money on veterinarian fees. Check each dog over carefully at least once a week. Knowing each dog’s “healthy” condition will make it easy to detect changes. Consult with your veterinarian or another expert if you suspect problems.
Booties should be used to prevent injuries on rough trails, including when snow crystals are abrasive in severely cold weather. If your dogs' feet develop any signs of worn pads or soreness, use booties on those feet until the problem is completely healed. You might consider not running the dog at all for a short while, depending on the severity of the problem.
Be sure the booties fit well. A bootie that is too large flops around, picks up snowballs, and makes it difficult for the dog to run normally. A bootie that is too small can constrict the foot and be uncomfortable.
Be sure to check booties regularly. A bootie with a hole in it can cause more problems than no bootie at all. Also, pick off all snow and ice balls around the tops of the booties frequently, as these frozen clumps can cause severe chafing. If your dog has dewclaws, watch for signs of wear around them. Remember that booties are not a cure-all for every foot problem. Consult your veterinarian or an experienced musher for more advice.
In extremely cold or windy conditions, dogs can get frostbitten on some body parts. On a male, watch the sheath of the penis and the scrotum. On a female, watch the nipples, flanks, and vulva. Be extra careful with any female that whelped over the summer. Her nipples are usually somewhat enlarged throughout the winter, making them more susceptible to problems. Special dog jackets, belly pads, and fur sheath protectors are available and can help prevent cold-related injuries. Contact a mushing equipment company or other local mushers for ideas. Remember that males and females have very different problems, and the same equipment does not always suit all dogs.
Minor spats and squabbles are relatively common among dogs, but serious dogfights are dangerous for both dogs and mushers. Dogs should be taught at a young age that fighting is unacceptable. It is essential to stop a dogfight before a dog is injured or killed. Fighting dogs must be separated and restrained, but be extremely cautious when handling highly aroused or aggressive dogs. In the heat of the battle, the dog may redirect its attack to you, inflicting serious wounds. Mushers have been severely bitten while breaking up fights and care should be taken when intervening.
Training and Conditioning Tips
Before you consider running a long-distance race for the first time, evaluate your skills carefully. You must be good at winter camping with dogs, starting campfires at -50 degrees F with a strong wind blowing, applying first aid to dogs and yourself or another musher should you get caught between checkpoints, etc. You must have advanced skills in handling however many dogs you choose to start the race with. (In your first race, it is better to start with fewer dogs. A smaller team is easier to control and means fewer dogs to feed and care for.) You must also be an expert in feeding and foot care during high mileage situations. The time to learn these skills is during training, not out on the race trail.
In general, to run a thousand-mile sled dog race, you should have at least 1,500 miles of training on each dog. These miles should be accrued in no less than a six -month period. To run in a 200 to 500 mile race, you should have at least 750 miles of training on each dog. These miles should be put on in no less than a four month period. Much of the training should duplicate your proposed racing situation, with weight in the sled, some four to six hour runs, camping trips etc. It is inadvisable to run any dogs under 18 months old in a thousand mile race. The ability of each dog in the team should be fairly equal so that no one dog is being pushed too hard. Teach your dogs to eat, drink and sleep in harness before you race them. Feed them the same diet that they will race with, at least during the latter stages of training.
To create a quality team, sprint racers use the same training and conditioning techniques as those used for other types of mushing. Distance and speed should be built up slowly on a schedule determined by your dogs' progressive conditioning and willingness. It is better to err on the conservative side than to risk hurting a dog physically or mentally by demanding more than it is ready for.
While speed may be the primary objective in sprint racing, not every training run should be at “race pace.” To prevent injuries in the fall, dogs should be physically conditioned with slower working runs before you allow them to run fast. Throughout the race season, vary your training speeds and your dogs will be more willing to go fast when asked.
Proper manners and well-behaved dogs are a must for a top-performing sprint team. Even the quickest stop for a tangle or problem dog is a major disadvantage in a race. Take the time required to teach your dogs the necessary behavioral skills. Some sprint mushers simply concentrate on maintaining enthusiasm in their team, but a well-behaved and enthusiastic team is possible and should be the ultimate goal.
Training a recreational team can be extremely rewarding and satisfying. It can also be extremely expensive, both in time and money. Keep your priorities straight, share the work among family members, and have fun!
Before you begin, decide whether you want a dog team for your family to enjoy and consider everyone's goals for the team. If you have small children, you may want to select dogs that are small and gentle so the kids are comfortable with them. Some older, well-trained retired dogs from another team may be perfect for you, and they can help train younger dogs.
Make your dog time quality time for your family. Chart the accomplishments of each dog. In the summer, you might have a weekly dog show to demonstrate each dog's new tricks. Having a small number of dogs allows you to give each individual lots of attention. The dogs will learn that they have fun with you, and they will be eager to please. Seeing your dogs thrive on this special attention, watching your family share the responsibilities, experiencing the magic of bonding with animals and the satisfaction of a job well done are ample rewards.
In winter, plan methods of training and goals for your team with family members. Listen, talk, encourage, and reward. Have fun and don't be afraid to ask other mushers for help. Practice "whoa" and "come haw" repeatedly, until the dogs respond easily; this will give the less experienced members of your family a better sense of security. You may want to work with the dogs on a leash, rewarding them for correct behavior.
Take a family member with you on the sled. A less experienced passenger can help out and learn what you ask of the dogs. Make sure your passenger is comfortable. After the dogs have settled down, let your passenger drive the team on a safe stretch of trail. Always train with small, controllable teams. Gradually increase your distance over the winter. Explore new trails. This gives your dogs experience in different conditions: breaking trail, running into open water and on ice, and turning around. Take a picnic along. Stop along the trail and build a campfire.
Your family might enjoy working toward taking the team on an overnight trip, either camping out or staying in a remote cabin. This could be a spring celebration after a winter's training. Remember that you don't have to go a thousand miles. Plan according to the abilities and desires of your family and the endurance built up by your dogs.
Skijoring is one of the simplest forms of dog driving, but common sense, patience, and general training principles still apply. Stay within your dog's capabilities for weight load, speed, and distance. Be aware that some dogs (including experienced sled dogs) can be quite frightened by the strangeness of the skis, and a dog may need extra time and lots of positive reinforcement before it will accept being followed by them. Avoid running into your dog with your skis or ski poles at all costs.
Proper equipment is important both for your own safety and for the comfort of your dog. Use a wide skijoring belt (at least 3 inches wide across the back) and a releasable skijoring line at least 7 ft long. Longer lines (up to about 15 or 20 ft) work well for recreational skijoring and hilly terrain. Shorter lines give better control and are favored for racing. Be sure the line is long enough to prevent the tips of your skis from hitting the dog. A line with a shock (bungee) cord incorporated into it will absorb the stress of sudden starts and stops, a benefit to both you and your dog. Use a properly fitted, standard X-back or H-back mushing harness. Weight pulling harnesses are not recommended.
A wide variety of dog breeds have been used successfully for skijoring. If you skijor with a non--Northern breed, watch carefully for foot problems. Some breeds of dogs, especially those with silky coats, are particularly prone to ice balls. Booties may be necessary in some cases. Also, a shorthaired dog may need a dog coat and/or a sleeping pad in very cold weather or when camping out.
A weight pull dog should be strong, sound, in good health and have a desire to please. Before a dog is entered in a weight pull competition, it should have at least basic training and be in good physical shape. A dog that is in poor condition might pull beyond its physical abilities simply because it wants to please or because of the excitement of the activity. Avoid heavy pulling until your dog is in top shape.
Conditioning can be accomplished in various ways: running in a team, running alongside a bicycle, skijoring, or pulling a tire. Perhaps the best method is for your dog to pull a tire with increasingly heavy loads. Be very careful to increase the loads gradually. This is important for mental as well as physical conditioning. A dog must know that when it is commanded to pull, the load will move. Many factors influence the ease with which a dog can pull: weight of the load, snow depth and conditions, and temperature. As you train, adjust the load downward if your dog has difficulty starting the load. It is important to condition the cardiovascular system as well as the building muscle. This is done by alternating days of pulling heavy and light loads.
You can't begin too early to train your dog to pull. Even a young puppy can have fun wearing a harness and pulling an empty box around. Use this time to teach some basic commands, such as those to pull, whoa, and perhaps gee and haw, as well as to sit, lie down, and stay. Be careful not to let the box bump into the dog or let the dragging noise frighten it. Gradually increase the weight the dog pulls and progress from a piece of firewood to a 12 inch tire, for instance. Give the command to pull, let the dog pull a short distance and lavish it with praise. Make it fun. Your dog will pull for sheer enjoyment and because it pleases you. Be sure to let your dog know that you appreciate its effort.
Dogs should not be entered into competition until they are at least a year old; large breeds should wait until a year and a half. This gives them time to reach skeletal maturity. When the time comes to enter a weight pull competition, your dog will know what is expected and will be ready to do it well.
Some mushers use their teams for traveling cross-country, doing fieldwork for their jobs, freighting supplies, running trap lines, and general winter transportation. Training these teams may focus on building endurance and strength and on mushing in severe weather conditions. It is critical that the dogs learn to whoa, wait in harness, and find old trails in drifts. They need to learn to follow along behind their musher when he or she is breaking trail on snowshoes, and they should learn to ignore animals caught in traps. These abilities come by working with small teams, day after day.
Mushers who depend on their dogs for winter transportation often have a very close relationship with their teams. The trust and appreciation that develops after many hours, many days, and many seasons together create a team that seems able to go anywhere and do anything. This is not magic. It is simply the result of clear communication, mutual respect and consistent, repetitive reinforcement.