Archive for November, 2009

The Dog Doctor Radio Show

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Sled Dog Psychology: The Slump

Sled Dog Psychology: The Slump

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 train@denverdogworks.com and be sure to check out our new website at http://www.teamineka.com

 The Slump

 “Has your team slumped yet?” is a common question in January. After heavy training in November and December, the whole team can go into a slump.  In a way, the slump is good, because the dogs learn that they must work whether they enjoy it or not.  The trick is to pull them out of it before the Big Event.

Mushers should first recognize the problem.  Are the dogs eager on the chain or in the kneel, but lack spirit on the trail?  Do you climb a hill and there is no power?  Do they not have any rhythm or unity?  Tugs go slack and enthusiasm wanes.  They bicker, goof off, and look for excuses to mess up.

Next, a musher must determine the cause of the problem.  Are the dogs fatigued, dehydrated, on a poor diet, suffering from infections or bad feet?  Or are they simply bored?  Only in the last case is the problem psychological and this usually goes together with general fatigue.

The musher should rest the dogs for a few days, then run them on new trails, even if you have to truck them somewhere.  Surprise them—head out the twenty-mile trail but turn back after three miles.  Time off is the best bet.  The dogs will bounce back eager and responsive, without backsliding much physically.  This is called peaking the team.

Pep talks along the trail can work wonders.  Most mushers will walk among the dogs, telling them how fantastic they are, even if you have to sometimes lie.  This works well after a bad run.  Maybe the dogs were pushed too hard on a hot day, or maybe the dogs had a fight, and they are now shooting dirty looks at each other.  After correcting the problem and the dogs are going reasonably well, the musher should stop and walk among the dogs.  They will not feel so bad.  On a long, tough pull, frequent stops keep the dogs motivated.  They will not worry that the musher will never stop, so they slack off less. A musher should be careful not stop too often or it will break their rhythm and annoy the dogs.

If the dogs rebel during a slump, a musher should not demand too much; but should not let them take advantage of you either. The musher should just cut the run short.  A good musher will keep the trip home upbeat, because the dogs go to sleep remembering the last thing that they learned during the day, not the first.  If the musher must run them the next day, they should go on a different trail or they will almost certainly have a repeat disaster.

A veteran musher’s advice is to make certain the dogs think you are holding them back, even when they are tired. The question is how? The answer is by using reverse psychology.  When the dogs are tired, they are glad to stop, but after a few minutes, they are usually ready to go again.  This time lapse is called the recovery time.  If the musher asks the dogs to go before they recover, they will have no enthusiasm. If the musher asks the dogs to go afterward, they need no second bidding; this is reverse psychology. 

Many mushers feel that like children, the dogs are trying to get the better of them.  If they think that you want to go, they want to stay, and vice-versa.  The turning point in their mood comes after they have recovered, when they feel like going again.  Standing up, shaking off, harness-banging, braking, and looking back are signs that the dogs have recovered.  It is important to note at this time that most behaviorists believe that dogs are not out to spite their owners, or “get the better of them”.  Whichever view an individual may hold it is important to ask, “What is really happing here, and what is the dog trying to communicate?”

By stopping when the dogs are not ready to stop and by resting longer than they feel is necessary, the musher is using reverse psychology to make them want to go.  It keeps them willing to go on a tough trail.  If the musher knows his dogs well, they will know when their dogs have recovered, even if they do not stand up together.  Shaking the handle-bow, whistling, or clucking brings the dogs to their feet readily.  The recovery period varies considerably, but half a minute to five minutes is usually all it takes.

Lead dogs require special attention because their attitude can hold together a ragged team.  Depressed leaders often turn a deaf ear to commands.  They must be replaced to avoid a worsening problem.  Just moving them back in the team can work miracles; or ask the dogs to go slower so that they are not pushing the front end so hard.

Next Week: Problem Dogs

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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 http://www.denverdogworks.com

Training Leaders: An Overview

Training Leaders

By Robert Forto, PhD

I have been a professional musher with Team Ineka for the past fifteen years and I am just getting back into it full time after a hiatus of several years for what I like to call, life getting in the way. I have moved from northern Minnesota to Colorado and there just isn’t enough snow here so I will probably move back in the near future or maybe to Alaska where, as they say, the real mushers live. I cannot say if that is true or not but I am willing to find out.

Each week I bring you a short article about the sport of dog sledding. In the past few weeks I wrote about sled dog psychology and that was a lot of fun. Now we are going to get into training. There are many ways to train a dog team and the mushing greats will tell you it’s all about knowing yourself and knowing your dogs. I have had the pleasure (and the pain) of literally living with a pack of sled dogs and what an experience that was. We will discuss that in later posts. But now, here is a brief overview of training leaders.

Training Leaders

A leader can make or break a team.  Many dogs can be trained to lead, but the best ones are born for it.  Ideally, a potential leader is responsive to praise.  This dog has a sense of responsibility and pays attention. He commands respect from other dogs and is intelligent enough to solve problems, but not a smart aleck. This dog is enthusiastic but able to handle pressure. He sets a fast pace, but one that the team can handle.

A musher can train a leader in two ways; one-on-one, or with another leader. One-on-one training develops a stronger rapport, especially if the training begins at puppyhood, but this method is very time consuming. The musher begins training a “green” dog by harness breaking him. The driver first teaches the dog to hold the tug tightly as the dog stands ahead of the musher. Then, commands are taught by associating “gee” and “haw” for right and left by the driver running behind him and pulling the dog in the correct direction as the command is given. Frequent, short sessions are much more effective than long, tedious ones. A puppy has an attention span of about fifteen minutes. This amount of time works well before burnout begins and the pup loses interest.

Once the dog knows “gee” and “haw” they should be taught to “come, gee” and “come, haw” and to go “straight ahead” past a fork in the trail and “on, by” another team or obstacle. When the dog performs consistently, he can be run with a couple of steady team dogs to build his confidence. At that time the musher can add more dogs, as the dog learns to handle them.

Another leader instead of a person trains most leaders. If a musher sees a dog with potential, this dog can be placed in swing (point) position right behind the leaders for several weeks to a year. The dog picks up commands by taking clues from the leaders. After the dog has learned the commands, he can be placed in a double lead beside a good leader. Until this dog has the ability and confidence to do it alone, many mushers run the trainee on a shorter tug so that the leader is slightly ahead and can easily shoulder aside his protégé.

Many mushers train their leaders with a three-dog team. The driver will first choose a dog with the drive to stay out front.  Then the musher will simply stop at each fork and either wait for the dog to guess the correct response to the command, or pull him in the correct direction while giving the command.  Whichever method the musher chooses it is vital to reinforce a correct response by the potential leader.  For many reasons skijoring is a great way to train a leader; the dog is not pressured by fire-breathing teammates, and the musher’s proximity is close enough that the dog pays more attention to him. A simple tug on the rope gets his attention and turns him right away.

When training a leader, the musher must have absolute control over the team so that he can correct mistakes immediately. To train a dog to always obey the commands; the dog must never be allowed to get away with disobedience. Forto’s leader Yak was spoiled because he was running a team of untrained dogs and none were formally trained. As a result, Yak got away with some things. This dog became too smart for his own good. He would go where he thought the team should go. With stricter discipline he would have likely turned out better. A dog like this needs retraining in a smaller, more controlled team.[i]

If a musher has to stop the team because of a missed turn, the driver must not just stand on the runners shouting. The team should be anchored and the leader should be dragged sternly around while reinforcing the command. This consistency shows that they cannot go where they want to go. The musher is the boss and the team must follow his commands.

Aside from teaching commands, the musher must encourage new leaders to bravely pass obstacles like water, ice, crowds, stray dogs and other teams. If the leader will not go forward, the team will also refuse.

The musher must understand that dogs are not perfect. If the driver cannot perfect a dog, he should work around his limitations. These dogs should not be punished for being unable to exceed their potential.

Double leaders share the pressure and have more power over a bigger team. Often one is fast and the other is sharp, therefore, the strengths of one make up for the weakness of the other. In sprint teams, a young dog that leaves the chute quickly can be paired up with an older one that might start more slowly but come home quickly.

Single leaders do have some advantages. Some dogs perform better alone, plus there is only one dog to make mistakes. A single dog can break a trail more easily, and the musher can trade with his partner back in the team as he tires. Long ago dog punchers sometimes ran a loose leader. Because a single dog could plow a snowed-in trail without worrying about the dogs behind him. This is rarely done today.

If you would like to receive a copy of my dissertation, I sell in .pdf format for $9.10. Please give me a call at 303-578-9881 or train@denverdogworks.com. Please visit our website for our team training and school tours as well at http://www.teamineka.com

Next week: The Gee-Haw Problem


[i] Forto, R., Interview by James Myers 16 May 2005.  Interview 1. Burlington, Colorado

Dr. Robert Forto is the training director for Denver Dog Works and a professional musher at Team Ineka. Dr. Robert Forto hosts a weekly radio show, The Dog Doctor Radio Show, every Saturday. Dr. Forto can be reached through is website at http://www.denverdogworks.com

Training the Adult Team: A Brief Overview

Training the Adult Team: A Brief Overview

By Robert Forto, PhD

 I have been a professional musher with Team Ineka for the past fifteen years and I am just getting back into it full time after a hiatus of several years for what I like to call, life getting in the way. I have moved from northern Minnesota to Colorado and there just isn’t enough snow here so I will probably move back in the near future or maybe to Alaska where, as they say, the real mushers live. I cannot say if that is true or not but I am willing to find out.

Each week I bring you a short article about the sport of dog sledding. In the past few weeks I wrote about sled dog psychology and that was a lot of fun. Now we are going to get into training. There are many ways to train a dog team and the mushing greats will tell you it’s all about knowing yourself and knowing your dogs. I have had the pleasure (and the pain) of literally living with a pack of sled dogs and what an experience that was. We will discuss that in later posts. But now, here is a brief overview of training an adult team.

 Training the Adult Team

 The best teacher for an untrained dog is a trained sled dog. Dogs communicate in ways that humans cannot comprehend. This is done mostly by body language and slight gestures that only a dog can understand. They learn from each other. It is nature versus nurture. It is innate and ingrained as pack behavior.

For a musher to start with a number of untrained, inexperienced dogs and mold them into a united, obedient team, is an awesome task. By placing a “green” dog with a well-trained mate the driver’s job will usually be reduced from teacher to overseer. The dog sees his companions working eagerly and often catches on with very little prompting from the boss on the runners. Even a single good leader can work wonders with a scatterbrained bunch of trainees. The musher should introduce the untrained adult dog carefully into the team because it might be confused or panicked by the speed, power and a tight, unrelenting towline.

The musher should use a very small team until the dog catches on. The driver must be patient and reasonable. Some dogs do not have the drive to be sled dogs. Just because he is as Siberian Husky does not mean he can cut it in a team—any team.

These new additions to the team should be broken in gently. Even if the dog is a leader, he should be placed in the middle of the team to let him settle in before trying him up front. The training should start slowly, not very fast or far at first. A dog needs time to adjust to his new home, his comrades, to the pace of the team and to the musher’s commands and voice. Some dogs fit right in, but older dogs might take a year or more to adjust. Dependable leaders will teach the musher as well as his crew. Older leaders that have grown too old for racing make excellent trainers for yearlings and new adult dogs.

If you would like to read my complete doctorate dissertation, Chasing the Dream: A Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding (2005) please contact me through my website at Team Ineka. I offer the dissertation for sale in .pdf format for $9.10 plus shipping.

Next Week: Training Leaders

________________

Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher and the training director for Dog Works Training Centers. Dr. Forto hosts a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show every Saturday. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at http://www.teamineka.com

Sled Dog Psychology: Attitude and Burnout

Sled Dog Psychology: Attitude and Burnout

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 train@denverdogworks.com and be sure to check out our new website at http://www.teamineka.com

This week’s article is about a dog team’s attitude and burnout. Many mushers will tell you that they try their best to keep stress down in a kennel. A stressed dog is a slow team and a slow team is no fun. I teach a course at Denver Dog Works on training people to become certified canine obedience instructors. In doing so we spend an entire session talking about stress and your dog and how important it is. There is a very close parallel to human stress and canine stress and you would be surprised how many people deal with it in a way that is detrimental to their dog’s well-being. Well, now take that and multiply that by 50 (the typical size of a professional racing kennel) and you have a big problem on your hands.

 

Attitude

Many mushers believe that attitude is critical to a strong team.  Others feel, that compared to physical potential and training, attitude is much less significant; that is, a dog cannot run on heart alone.[i]  Since every team takes on a unique character, often complementing the musher’s character, the importance of attitude probably varies among teams. 

At the same time, most mushers today run dogs primarily because they like dogs.  They want their dogs to be happy.  For the recreational musher, attitude is rarely a problem unless severe disciplinary or training problems arise.  Hard working dogs, however, can get so tired of the daily grind that they slip into a depression, provoked by fatigue.  The problem may affect a single dog, called burnout, or the whole team, most commonly referred to as slump.

Burnout

All mushers should learn to recognize depression before a major burnout, and rest their dogs before they have a chance to go sour.  Symptoms of a sour dog include a reluctance to be harnessed, irritability, anxiety, apathy, lack of appetite, decreased performance, rebellion, a refusal to take commands or a change in character.  Whereby a sober dog might act goofy—looking backward, leaning on his partner, or plunging off the trail and the hyper dog may turn sober, apathetic, and sluggish.  Again, mushers must know their dogs.

If the dog is just trying to avoid responsibility, he needs discipline, but if he is truly burned out, discipline will only depress him more.  A musher can not cure fatigue by whipping, kissing, or giving drugs.  Only rest can cure it.  After a tough race a dog needs time to recover.  It may take as much as three weeks for him to truly regain his vitality.  If the musher demands too much, or tries to bring him back to soon, he may never completely recover psychologically.

Sometimes a dog tries too hard in a team that is a little too fast for him.  Perhaps new dogs outclass him this year and he is burning his heart out to keep up.  Or maybe he is older and slowing down.  It is not fair to drive this dog. The musher should put him in a slower team before he burns out, or retire the dog altogether.

A dog that is simply bored is usually helped by time off.  The musher can also run this dog in a different position, behind other dog teams, on different trails, or even the same loop in reverse.  The musher should convey to the dog that he really does care.  Spending extra time with the dog, bringing him inside and making him feel good are excellent ways to remind the dog of this.

Some mushers will take a burned-out dog on a private walk.  After the dog entertains himself for awhile, the musher will call him with open arms, hug him and let him go.  Soon most of these dogs are flinging themselves into the musher’s arms, and wriggling with joy.  Afterward, when the musher cries “Let’s go!”,  that fatigued, depressed dog, is running in circles of insane joy.

Just playing with a dog on the picket line or in the kennel can help stimulate him.  When men are caught in survival situations, experts recommend play periods to relieve stress.  Dogs are the same way.  Play relieves their tension and helps to reestablish the musher’s rapport with the dogs.

Next Week: The Slump


[i] Pilón, A., The Universe of Sled Dogs. Montmagmy, Quebec, Canada: Edition Marquis LTD., 1999.

Pg. 63.

___________________________________

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 http://www.denverdogworks.com


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