Archive for October, 2009

Sled Dog Psychology: Communicating

Sled Dog Psychology: Communicating

By Robert Forto, PhD

This is a weekly series in which I explore a different topic relating to the sport of dog sledding and its impact on the social fabric of America and our canine companions.  I have been a professional musher for fifteen years and was given the privilege of writing my doctorate on the sport of dog sledding: Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005). In these weekly articles I will showcase the sport, the history, how a dog team prepares for racing, and many more topics. If you have a story you would like to share about dog sledding please send me an email anytime at and be sure to check out our new website at

Sled dog psychology is an interesting area of study. In order to be a great musher with an exceptional team you need to know everything you can about yourself, but more importantly your dogs. Any musher will tell you that you must become “one of the team” in order to be a successful dog driver. While this means different things to different people, I have found out over the years that “one of the team” has made me a better musher and a better person at that. I have literally lived with a pack of dogs for most of my adult life and that co-habitation has given me a different respect for my dogs (and them for me, I can only hope) but also made me one great dog trainer. You see, I understand how dogs think. I have literally spent thousands of hours observing them and working with them and in doing so it allowed me access into a world that few dog trainers can attain.

This week’s article is about communicating with your dogs. I hope you enjoy it and please feel free to leave any comments and feedback. If you have any questions about the sport of dog sledding or training in general please give Denver Dog Works a call at 303-578-9881 or email at


You can communicate with dogs in two ways—your way and their way.[i]  Dogs can learn a number of words, even the names of their close companions.  They also respond strongly to tone and inflection.  They pick out key words and let the rest of your sentences slide, as in “You want to go out?” or “Stay out!’ (This is why you should not say, “You cannot go out”—the dog will not understand.)  The natural human tendency to repeat short phrases helps dogs pick up words. We say, “Good boy, yes, what a good boy.”

If you also understand how dogs communicate, you have an extra edge in training them.  Body language and physical contact play a greater role here than the voice.  Drooling, panting, and shivering are natural processes, but they can also occur at other times, such as when a dog recognizes a friend that he admires (you).  A dog will also shake off a bad experience.  If you have just freed a dog from a choking tangle, and he does not shake off, suspect a possible problem, such as shock or depression.  But a musher must know the dog—not all dogs will reliably shake off even when they again feel great.

Tail wagging can indicate either friendliness or aggression, depending upon whether the tail is waived loosely like a flag or in a slow arc, taut as a wire.  Eye contact, or avoidance of it, shows full attention, dominance, subordinance, or confusion.  No musher likes a dog that constantly looks backward, but unless it has become a habit, the dog is trying to make eye contact for some reason.

Howling brings dogs together and appears to relieve stress.  Most mushers like to make their dogs howl (by intimidating a howl) during long trips; it revitalizes the teams and keeps the dogs happy and secure. Vocalizations are often the sign of a dog’s mood as well.

Physical communication on the musher’s part includes petting for a reward, or putting a dog to the ground, as punishment, or to establish your authority.  Pinning down a rebellious dog proves your authority by sheer physical control.  A dog understands this—you are talking its language.  Some experienced mushers bite a dog’s ear to punish him, and they feel that it is a natural form of communication.  While it is effective, most mushers would hesitate to inflict sudden pain with their face so close to a dog’s jaws.

When you resort to your own language, you can only expect the dogs to obey what they know.  Teaching them a few extra words helps you communicate with them better.  For example, on a long trip many dogs learn the words, “We are going to camp now.”  They will leave the trail to struggle through deep snow to the campsite if they know the reason for it.

Most lead dogs learn that “Trail!” means a broken path to follow.  If they lose the trail and we spot it, most mushers say “Gee, trail!” and the dogs watch for it on the right.  With just a trace of the trail in drifted snow or ice, the dogs may wander away, but a sharp “Trail!” command wakes them up and gets them back in line.  When breaking trail across an untrammeled field, most dogs cross animal tracks without a glance, but if the track is going the way of the team, the command “Trail!” makes the dogs stay on it.

Most mushers also say, “Let’s eat!” at feeding time.  Even if we say it at an odd time, the dogs are up and yowling.  Mushers often use this, or a similar command, to lure in runaway dogs.  Some mushers will use this command to gauge how tired the dogs are.  If a musher stops to snack, and the dogs do not respond to the words “let’s eat!”, they know that the dogs have been pushed too hard.

By communicating with your dogs, you will build a stronger rapport with them.  They will also better understand what you want.  Dogs, especially young ones, sometimes disobey simply because they do not understand what you want.

Next Week: Attitude

[i] Collins, M., and J., Dog Driver. Loveland, CO: Alpine Publications, 1991. Pg. 46


Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher and is training for the Iditarod. Dr. Forto is also the training director of Denver Dog Works and The Ineka Project in Colorado. Dr. Forto is the host of a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show, every Saturday. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at

Training Sled Dogs to be Good Citizens

Dog Sledding 101: Training Sled Dogs to Be Good Citizens

By Robert Forto, PhD

 Dog Sledding 101 is a weekly series in which I explore a different topic relating to the sport of dog sledding and it’s impact on the social fabric of America and our canine companions.  I have been a professional musher for fifteen years and was given the privilege of writing my doctorate on the sport of dog sledding: Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005). In these weekly articles I will showcase the sport, the history, how a dog team prepares for racing, and many more topics. If you have a story you would like to share about dog sledding please send me an email anytime at and be sure to check out our new website at


Training Sled Dogs to be Good Citizens

This article is an excerpt from my doctorate dissertation.

Socialization is the key to making sled dogs safe for kids, adults and other dogs. Every dog is equipped physically and mentally to bite under the right circumstances. In fact, dog bites are the second leading public health hazard in the United States with over one million bites reported annually. Every year several children are killed by dogs, some even sled dogs, and several more are hospitalized with injuries.

Dogs raised in a group are naturally socialized with each other and learn through interaction what is acceptable behavior among dogs.  Sled dogs will be expected to interact successfully with many other dogs during their lives, so it is imperative that they learn how to behave in a group. Sled dogs need to learn manners around people as well. Ideally this is done during the first three months of life, when all experiences are new to a pup and a trainer can have maximum effect on a dogs personality and temperament. 

This researcher encourages trainers and sled dog enthusiasts to socialize their dogs. At minimum these dogs should be socialized at least to the point of accepting handling from strangers and at maximum training the dogs to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test offered by the American Kennel Club. The purpose of the Canine Good Citizen Program is to ensure that our favorite companion, the dog, can be a respectable member of the community because it has been trained to be well behaved in the home, in public places, and in the presence of other dogs.[i]

Can sled dogs be overly socialized? Many mushers prefer their dogs to remain slightly wild, fearing that too much socialization could make the dogs soft or less willing to work hard in harness. But taken to that extreme, these dogs can be unruly and downright dangerous to other teams and mushers. By contrast, four time Iditarod champion Martin Buser often lets his dogs loose as they come out of the dog truck and they stay right with him until they are hooked up.

To some extent the amount of socialization is a personal preference, but it is certainly time that sled dogs can be treated as pets and still be hard workers. As all mushers know, a dog’s life on the trail is relatively short. If these dogs could be socialized, they may even become A.K.C. Canine Good Citizens.

Further research should be conducted on the feasibility for sled dogs to become well-trained pets. This would save thousands of dogs from euthanasia, death by the musher, or worse.

My Dogs

I have been a professional musher for the better part of 15 years. I have been out of the race circuit for several years because, I say, life got in the way. I followed by wife, Michele, to Denver for her to pursue a paralegal career. She hated it and after five years she quit and is now working for Denver Dog Works full time and couldn’t be more happy.

All of my dogs from teams in the past have retired and placed in new homes. Many of these dogs became ambassadors for Siberians everywhere. Many went into homes with families and children, while others continued to race. But I was always mindful of what my dogs were and what their role would be after a relatively short racing career, often about six to eight years. This is what prompted me to earn my certification as an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Evaluator. Many of my dogs passed this test over the years and in one case, we adopted and trained a dog-aggressive Siberian named Juneau. With the help of my kids and their hard work we rehabilitated Juneau and he passed the C.G.C. test! This is a testament to the breed and what a bit of hard work can do for an otherwise unwanted dog.

At Denver Dog Works we always use a Canine Good Citizen Test as a pre-cursor for any working dog that we place in a training program for service work, therapy dogs, our breeding program or any advanced obedience programs such as agility, tracking, rally or protection. While we don’t always do this to our sled dog at the beginning we do it afterwards so that they can be well behaved companions. We are conscientious of our role as training professionals and the handlers of exceptional canine athletes and this is why we strive to live up to our motto: We have the best and train the rest every day.

If you are interested in learning more about canine sports, mushing, working dogs or the C.G.C. test please contact us anytime at 303-578-9881 or contact us through our website at



[i] Volhard, J., and W., The Canine Good Citizen: Every Dog Can Be One. New York, NY: Howell Book House, 1994. Pg. 3


Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher racing under the Team Ineka name. Dr. Forto is training for his first Iditarod in 2013. Dr. Forto hosts a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show every Saturday. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at

Sport Racing

Dog Sledding: Sport Racing

By Robert Forto, PhD

 This is the first in a weekly series of articles on the sport of dog sledding. I have been a professional musher for fifteen years and was given the privilege of writing my doctorate on the sport of dog sledding: Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005). In these weekly articles I will showcase the sport, the history, how a dog team prepares for racing, and many more topics. If you have a story you would like to share about dog sledding please send me an email anytime at and be sure to check out our new website at

The Beginning

Dog racing began long before the invention of the sled.  It goes back to when men first began to use dogs to pull small burdens by a simple leather thong.  At that juncture in history a strange phenomenon began to unfold.  Man discovered that the dogs are fiercely competitive in the hunt, but are not naturally competitive in a race against time to reach a given point.  They will compete to catch a rabbit or other small game, but without incentive of the hunt they merely played at running.

However, once a dog is hitched to any burden with a man behind him, for some reason the dog acquires the competitive spirit to race.  When the dogs are harnessed to a sled, they become frantic if another team passes them on the trail—but only when a man is with them.

The annuals of history are replete with indications that primitive man raced dogs against each other—if only one dog against another, dragging burdens by leather thongs around their necks.  Every early record of encounters with Native Alaskans mentions dogs, and many allude to the racing of them.

The first race in continental North America was held at the St. Paul Winter Carnival in Minnesota in the early 1900’s. In this area, the fur trade was big business and dogs were used more extensively as the Native Americans began to be involved in commerce, and required transportation of more than just their supplies and their belonging. Then later on, the transportation route between St. Paul, Minnesota and Winnipeg, Canada eventually developed into a race event, the St. Paul Winter Carnival Race, that was made famous in the early 1990’s Disney movie, “Iron Will.”

In Alaska the gold rush brought a lot of people and a lot of international attention to the North. The books of Jack London and the poems of Robert Service made the gold rush in the Yukon, or on the Yukon River and in the Klondike famous. Dogs figured predominately in these literary works. The stories of Buck in The Call of the Wild and White Fang were read by hundreds of thousands of people at the time, and they are still best sellers in some areas.

When the gold rush moved on to Nome, Alaska, many miners and prospectors moved with it. One of those people was Scotty Allan, who had come originally from Scotland as a trainer and handler of horses. When he went to Canada and the Klondike, he got into mushing dogs for a living. When he later went to Nome, he got a job with a mercantile hardware company called The Darling. Darling was the owner’s name, and Allan transported supplies from Nome to the outlying camps using Darling’s sled dogs.

In the American West cities had begun to imagine that they needed to be doing something more, they needed to become cities where children could be raised and people were decent. In the West they would probably have an opera, build an opera house, and start to invite opera companies to come and perform. It was vastly different in Alaska.

All Alaska Sweepstakes

In Nome, Alaska the idea was to develop a kennel club, and races for kids first of all were organized. After a while, they decided they needed a major event like the Kentucky Derby, which would be a social event as much as a sporting event. One of the attorneys in town was from Kentucky, and he and the people of Nome hit on the idea of having a long distance sled dog race, which became the Alaska Sweepstakes. For the first years of the race Scotty Allan was the winner and, if not the winner, he was one of the contenders. Later on there were a number of people who had heard about dogs in Siberia which were claimed to be faster or to have better endurance. Several expeditions brought dogs from Siberia over to Alaska. A lot of them were inbred with the native Alaskan dogs. Some of the people continued to race the dogs that were already there in Alaska, which were crosses between hunting dogs and whatever dogs the gold rush had brought. They did recognize, though, that those dogs from Siberia were a little bit different.

The Alaska Sweepstakes fast became a big media event. As the attention of the world was sometimes drawn to the gold rush in Nome, these races caught the imagination of the journalists, writers and the public who read the newspapers. As the news spread, some of these dogs made it south to California as early as 1914, and some of them were used in races started by the new mushing enthusiasts. Most likely, in 1914 or 1915, races were begun in The Pas, Manitoba and other places that had seasonal snow.

A lot of these races were related to using these dogs as working animals, and of the dogs spent most of their careers working in harness, hauling supplies and people around. Then for a short period every winter and spring, these dog drivers would participate in the races, which was their claim to fame; but racing was not the dogs’ full time profession.

Racing in The “Lower 48”

Then in 1925 came the diphtheria serum run. It brought a lot more attention to the dogs resulting in a statue in Central Park, New York of one of the leaders, Balto. Leonhard Seppala claimed it was Togo who deserved the credit though. But at the time dog mushing had spread across North America, and very soon, there were races in New England and in the western states—California, Idaho, and in The Pas, Manitoba. But racing in Alaska was still a big time event.

In the 1920’s, the famous were Leonhard Seppala and a French Canadian named Emile St. Godard. They had different types of dogs. Seppala had the dogs that would later become known as Siberians, although they were not called Siberians at the time, but he was not concerned with registering them. St. Godard had a cross of the native husky type dogs and long-legged coursing dogs like greyhounds and stagehounds. The mushers would load their dogs into box car trains in The Pas and the mushers in New England would load their dogs and travel to The Pas, and they would all go to race in Ashton, Idaho in a race that was to become the Great American Dog Derby.

At this point dog mushing was on a roll. There was an exhibition sled dog race at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932. There were major races with a lot of publicity throughout North America. Companies, or a company’s owner with a fair amount of money sponsored many of the teams of that day. A man from Chicago who would come up on vacation to The Pas area sponsored St. Godard. He used to tell St. Godard that he was in the meat packing business. Later on there were some people who claimed that he was actually in the Mafia, and describing his profession as a meat packer was one way of putting it.

Although mushing was popular, there were some in New England who felt there was just not enough activity. They thought it would be a lot simpler to award prizes to the dogs without having to race them, so they created two breeds, which they called the Siberian Husky and the Malamute. Rather than determining which dogs were the best because of their racing performance, they would just write down on a piece of paper a breed standard and award prizes because the dogs looked like they ought to be good. This was the foundation of the breed clubs for both dogs, and they continue to this day under the umbrella of the American Kennel Club.

There is at least one account of a breeder/musher named Eva “Short” Seeley who went through her kennel and picked out dogs and decided arbitrarily that this dog was going to be a Siberian Husky, and that dog is going to be a Malamute. Supposedly, some of the Siberians and Malamutes were in the same litter. Fortunately, in Alaska and other parts of the country where dogs were still being used for working, people did not pay any attention to that. Leonhard Seppala did not either for long. He went on for a while breeding white dogs, but then he decided on another type of dog. This had some consequences. In the next twenty years dog mushing did go into a decline. World War II had something to do with it. There were some uses for dogs during the war, but on a large scale, mushing activities in North America, even after the war ended.

Then the races were restarted in Alaska, along with some in New England. They were restarted in The Pas in the early fifties after a delay related to the war. It was a slow period in the sport, and the hope of its revival, because of national and international publicity in the 1920’s and 30’s and the participation in the Winter Olympics, did not happen.

In the early seventies there was a feeling among some people that the big event or the big part of the sport that needed to be saved in order for the sport to survive was open class mushing. During that time a lot of people were saying that they had to have a lot more participation in the open class; they have got to have more people involved so that they can have more open teams. Many people did not get involved because they were not ready to make the kind of commitment it takes to have thirty or forty dogs in their yard. There were a lot of obstacles in those days, and if a musher was not willing to make the commitment, their efforts would often be fruitless. It was those mushers who did make the commitment, who dedicated themselves to dog mushing, who gave up other professions to be dog mushers even through it was not very profitable, may have sustained or saved the sport.

The Iditarod

Many mushers in the 1960’s big ambition was to win the North American or the Rendezvous, which were the biggest mushing events in the world. It was their thought that if they could become famous, they could make a career out of that. Most of these mushers failed to make ends meet. Then in 1973, the Iditarod started. Some of those same mushers scoffed at it and said that mushers would never make it to Nome. They said, the race was never going to be anything. But it immediately became an event, because in a sense, it was a throwback race. It inspired people like the early dog races did. It was more of what the general public imagined dog sledding should be—that is working together with the dogs for long periods of time. When the Iditarod came along it immediately went into the forefront of the sport, and it helped to publicize the sport and bring people back into it.

A Sled Dog in Every State and Europe

About the same time inflation hit an all time high in the United States, the price of gasoline skyrocketed and dog food prices went up. People could not afford to travel anymore. In the 1980’s some other races came on and expanded the sport. The John Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota and the Alpirod in Europe are just two. Again the naysayers had their reservations. Many were opposed to the idea of racing in Europe saying it was a lot of nonsense, that mushing originated in North America and was going to stay in North America, and nobody was going to claim our glory. What was true is that new ideas were being developed in Europe, and that is still true. If a person was to look through a European sled dog publication, they would see all kinds of crazy ideas, and equipment and things that which have not been developed here in North America.

The Alpirod, the first big stage race in a long time, was a European invention. Maybe North Americans were just a bit too inflexible. We in North America have not thought of ways to promote the sport, and that is still true today.

When the Alpirod ended, because some big political and economic problems in France, it really did not make a big impact. There were other races that started. People in Europe were training dogs races and continue to do so because that is the way they enjoy working with their dogs. People in the United States and Canada, who may have planned to run the Alpirod, had to redirect their efforts, and focused on some new races like the rejuvenated The Pas race and The Yukon Quest. The races in Alaska continued to grow as well.

Today there are many races held throughout the winter months in the United States, as long as there is enough snow. Some notable races are the Race to the Sky in Montana, The UP-200 in Michigan, the Triple Crown races in Colorado, The International Pedigree Stage Stop Race and Atta-Boy 300 stage races in Wyoming and Oregon. Sprint and middle distance races are held each year in Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Washington, Wisconsin and various other cold weather locales.

The future of the sport is very bright. A lot of people are running dogs, people are out having fun—recreational mushers who race small teams are the base of the sport today. Their common thread is they like the outdoors and they like to work with their dogs. Many a recreational mushers run dogs in winter carnivals and events put on by hundreds of breed and sled dog clubs throughout North America and Canada. Racing is being done in countries like Australia and Chilé, were they use three-wheeled carts instead of sleds. And as an added bonus the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports was formed with the sole purpose of getting the sport of dog sledding back into the Olympics. There is resurgence in making the Siberian a dual-purpose working dog, on the trail and in the show ring. These areas are where this researcher’s interest truly lie and is the purpose of this dissertation.


In summary, mushing has been popular for many hundreds of years. Events like the Alaskan Sweepstakes, the Nome diphtheria epidemic and later the establishments of the Iditarod have all contributed to its lure. Mushing has also been aversely affected to some degree or another by such circumstances as were presented in World War II. In spite of setbacks, the sport of mushing has been able to rebound and flourish today and is in fact becoming a worldwide phenomenon.


Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher under Team Ineka, public speaker and the training director of Denver Dog Works. Dr. Forto hosts a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show.

Mushers Workout

Mushers Workout

By Robert Forto, PhD

If you don’t already know, my name is Dr. Robert Forto and I am the training director and owner of Denver Dog Works and The Ineka Project in Colorado. I am also a professional musher (dog sledding) and motivational speaker. I have been out of mushing for the past several years because, I like to say, life got in the way. I followed my wife, Michele, to Colorado for her to pursue a career as a paralegal, which she hated and now works with me at my dog training school, but I also retired because frankly there is no snow in Denver, despite what you see in those famous beer commercials. The closest place with considerable snow, at least enough to run a dog team, is two hours away in the mountains and if you plan on going up to run during ski season plan on tacking on at least two more hours on your trip home.

But despite those odds I have announced my intentions on running the Iditarod in 2013 but first things first, I need to get back into shape. The past few years I have had at least two surgeries, one on my groin and one on my wrist and being a small business owner I got lazy and ate on the run without any structure or plan.

Many people have asked about my mushers workout and I am here to share it with you. Use the parts that you like and hybridize it if you must. I can assure you it will get you in the best shape of your life, especially if you plan to run with a team of Siberian Huskies.

Mushers Workout

Day 1

10 minute Warm-Up – Cardio

4 Sets (10 reps) each of the following:

Squats – Lat Pulls – Dumbbell Rows – Standing Calf – Seated Calf – Leg Curl

20 minute Cool Down – Cardio

Day 2

10 minute Warm-Up – Cardio

4 Sets (10 reps) each of the following:

Bench Press – Overhead Dumbbell Extensions

3 Sets (15 Reps) each of the following

Incline Press – Seated Shoulder Press – Triceps Press Down

20 minute Cool Down – Cardio

Day 3

10 minute Warm-Up – Cardio

4 Sets (15 reps) each of the following:

Squats – Seated Row – Barbell Curls – Lateral Rows

3 Sets (25 Reps) Walking Lunges

20 minute Cool Down – Cardio

Day 4

Bike Cherry Creek Trail approximately 20 miles or swim 1 mile in pool


Continue to play indoor lacrosse and hike Colorado 14ers as a team building exercise for Denver Dog Works.

Diet: Starting June 4, 2009

Goal: weight loss and muscle gain. Loss 30 pounds before the snow starts this winter.

Starting weight: 214 pounds on May 27, 2009

A Sample Day

7 am

Breakfast: a bowl of instant oatmeal or one or two eggs

10:30 am

Snack: Fiber One bar

12:30 pm

Lunch: Lean Cuisine

3:00 pm

Snack: Orange, yogurt or pretzels

6:30 pm

Dinner: Lean protein less than a fist size, one green vegetable and/or salad and sometimes a potato or pasta

8:00 pm

Run, Bike, Swim or Mushers Workout

Diet Downfall:

I love coca-cola and I am on my way to totally quitting. I will enjoy water or low calorie juices.

I encourage all of you to follow me on my journey. I will post my progress on my blog and you can track my progress on f acebook, twitter, youtube and mywebsites. If you would like me to speak at your event or if you need a training session for your employees on team building, motivation, leadership and goal setting, give me a call at 303-522-1727.

My motto is: “Never Forget Your Dreams”, I will see you on the trail!


Robert Forto

Robert Forto, PhD

Denver Dog Works


Dr. Robert Forto is the training director of Denver Dog Works and The Ineka Project in Colorado. He is training for the Iditarod in 2013 and is available for speaking engagements and sponsorship requests. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at


October 2009

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