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

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