Our shared language with our sled dogs plays an important role in how our dog team performs. Having uniform commands across the sport of dog sledding allows dogs to fit more easily into a new team or training routine. Today’s mushing terminology is the same throughout the english speaking world.
A musher relies on the quality of her dog training to get her and her team safely down the trail. Unlike horse drivers, mushers do not have reins. Everything sled dogs do is by verbal command. Although dog sleds come fully equipped with brakes, if a dog team does not want to listen to the verbal cue to stop the team (“whoa”), the team, in all likelihood, will continue down the trail.
Because a musher’s only control of the team is verbally, the dogs responsible for interpreting these verbal commands play a vital role in the team’s success. The sled dog or, more often, pair of dogs at the very front of the dog team are in charge of listening to the mushers commands. These dogs are called lead dogs. The lead dogs not only have to correctly interpret the mushers commands but they are also responsible for keeping the team in a line formation in front of the sled. The lead dogs are taught to stay at the front because if they turn around massive tangles of the various lines used to connect the dogs to the sled can occur. Because of the importance holding the team out takes, teaching a lead dog how to stay is extremely important. After a lead dog has mastered stay, it’s time to work on the rest of the commands! It takes lots of time and patience to train new lead dogs.
Commands Every Sled Dog Knows
There are several commands that every dog on the team must know in order for the team to perform as a unit. These commands are relatively basic and refer to the stopping and starting of the dog team. In general, the dogs learn this during their first several runs when they mature out of puppyhood and begin running with the team. When our young dogs begin running for the first time they are hooked up along side some of our older dogs who can show them the ropes. They also help them learn these very basic commands. The commands every sled dog should know are “Ready,” “Alright,” and “Whoa.”
Ready & Alright
Ready is the command to tell the dogs to get ready to run. It is used any time the dogs have stopped and are about to resume running. This alerts the dogs to pay attention, detangle themselves if necessary, and prepare to head down the trail. Ready is shortly followed by “alright” which is the dogs signifier that it is time to run.
In our kennel we try to teach our sled dogs to be more or less quiet while we hook them up. They must contain themselves quietly because a team of dogs, quite frankly, can be deafening. “Ready” is our cue to the team that they are allowed to make noise before we run. Doing this allows us to maintain more control of our team during the hook up process.
Ready is also used if the team stops for a quick break on the trail — to eat a snack, drink water, or if the musher has to fix something. By telling the dogs ready, they know to alert themselves so that when the musher says “alright” a dog is not caught unaware and pulled by his teammates.
We teach the dogs ready and alright through sheer repetition. The dogs learn that “ready” means they are about to run and that “alright” is the signal to go. More often than not, a musher is actually holding their dogs back preventing them from running; saying alright is the command that says “I’m getting off the brake, you can run now!” though a well trained and well traveled team will not move until the command has officially been given.
Whoa is the command we use to stop the dogs and it seems like it’s the hardest command to get them to do sometimes. All season long we work with the dogs so that when we say “whoa,” they stop. Sixteen dogs is an unbelievable amount of power – we want to make sure they listen. This command, believe it or not, can take a lot more work for the dogs to obey because sled dogs want to run.
Selecting Lead Dog Training Candidates
Lead dogs are an essential component to a good dog team. Without lead dogs that are well trained, even a short training run is likely to end in disaster. Because good lead dogs are the foundation of a well disciplined team, a lot of consideration needs to go into selecting good candidate for training. Training a new lead dog is a continual process and requires a lot of commitment and patience from both the trainee and the musher.
We often look for the Three A’s in prospective lead dog candidates — these are: athleticism, attitude, and aptitude. Athleticism is important because the lead dog sets the pace of the team so naturally a dog that sets a quick pace is ideal. Attitude is essential because the attitude of the lead dogs is like an electric current — it travels down the team. Lead dogs are often like the captains of a team, providing the boost of confidence or surge of energy when the team needs it most. Finally, aptitude or a dog’s natural ability to lead and to learn to lead is important because it can cut down dramatically on training time. Believe it or not, we have found that when we breed two lead dogs together, the pups produced are also likely to be lead dogs.
Working with new lead dogs is a continual process in many kennels that happens throughout the year as mushers work with dogs and help them develop as athletes. Training lead dogs never really stops as there are always new experiences to work through, obstacles to overcome, and things we learn about each other.
Commands The Lead Dogs Should Know
In order to graduate from training and to be considered a lead dog, a sled dog must have successfully mastered their duties as a lead dog as well as several commands. Lead dogs must hold the line out whenever the team is being hooked up or unhooked and also when the team stops. This is the single most important thing a lead dog does. If a dog knows all the directional commands but cannot reliably stay up front and hold the team out then that dog is not a lead dog!
We have several directional commands that lead dogs must know: Gee, Haw, and Straight Ahead.
Gee means “Go Right.” This command can be used at a trail fork or on an open area of land to better direct the team. A lot of people are curious about the etymology of our commands. The first known uses of the word “gee” come from Scotland during the 1620s.
Go left. This command can be used at a trail fork or on an open area of land to better direct the team. Haw, as a command word, was first used in 1777 but its exact origins are unclear.
This means don’t deviate! Keep going straight! This command could be used at an intersection or while traveling down a river to get the leaders to stop zig-zagging. It can also be used as a way to say “hey don’t pay attention to that thing on the side of the trail, keep going!”
Training Mushing Commands
Once we have selected candidates, we generally begin incorporating lead dog trainees into the swing dog position, this position is directly behind the lead dogs. A swing dog can watch and learn as the lead dog responds to a command and, if they are sharp, will begin to pick up on what those commands are. After several successful runs in the swing position, we generally begin putting a lead dog trainee up front with a well trained tried-and-true lead dog. This pairing allows the trainee an easier transition and also tests our older lead dogs: will our older lead dogs help the young dog paired next to them learn the mushing commands or will they be led astray? If you have selected a good, confident, older leader than you should not have any problems hooking up a young rookie leader to a tried and true veteran leader.
We actually use our dog sled tours to help train lead dogs as we have found it is the perfect opportunity for a young dog to learn: they get to run up in front of the team but are not up there for too long. The trails we use for our summer dog sled tour are specifically designed to encourage our dogs to learn their directional commands. We love this approach as it creates a very interactive tour dynamic and allows us to show what we love — training dogs — instead of just taking people for a quick ride. Learning how to be a lead dog requires a lot of mental focus so utilizing shorter runs is less stressful on our dogs. It is also less stressful on the older dog who is teaching the younger dog how to behave.
We have found these short session are a wonderful training tool as we do not overwhelm our lead dogs. With several tours a day we have lots of opportunities to work with different lead dogs per day. Our trainees may have one or two training sessions per day, day after day. The brevity of our runs, under two miles, but the fact that they are done day after day, really helps our dogs learn. It is also very exciting for our guests to watch and be a part of a real training exercise. We enjoy running our tours far more because our dogs are not just moving, they are also learning.
Training is very simple; when the lead dogs get a command right we continue on down the trail. If the lead dogs do not get the command right then we stop. We do not use the “Whoa” command in this instance. Because our sled dogs love what they do, letting them do it is the positive reinforcement alongside our praise. When they are forced to stop running because of an error, that is actually a punishment. We do not need to use food to train our dogs; letting them do the work they were bred for is enough. Our job, in training, is simply to harness the desire to run and channel that love as our best training tool
When we transition out of our tour season, we begin fine tuning our lead dog training through the use of ATV training in the fall. The ATV is a wonderful training tool because when our lead dogs correctly interpret a command we can give the machine a little bit of gas, allowing the dogs to run faster, which is positive feedback to the dogs. If the dogs get the command wrong, we use the brake and work with the team until they figure it out.
Usually at this point in the season our lead dog trainees have done many runs with an older partner. We have watched the lead dog trainee develop and have watched their progression from being pulled by their partner to the correct side when a command is given to correctly interpreting the command on their own.
At this point in the season, it is time to let the lead dog trainee run on their own. This is exciting because we can truly see how much our dogs have learned over the summer. Sometimes without the older dog present to give them confidence, our young dogs may falter despite knowing their commands. This is why using something like the ATV is very helpful; we can give very quick feedback to our dogs.
If a lead dog struggles with understanding a command, for example when we say “Haw” but they are not going to the left, we may employ pointing if the lead dog looks back in confusion. Thousands of years of domestication and selective breeding have given dogs the unique ability to understand human gestures.
Finally, as a last resort we may have to stop the team, ensure our brakes are set, and physically move the dogs to the left/right depending on the command we have given them. This is not ideal but can be necessary during the first few times a dog is running in lead. It is always important to use lots of praise and repeat the command.
Lead Dogs Never Stop Learning
One of the greatest joys of mushing is working with our dogs from the day they are born. Watching an individual athlete’s progression is truly satisfying. As a musher, our job teaching our dogs never ends. Because our sled dogs are capable of error and learning bad habits, any time we hook them up is a training and teaching exercise — though more often than not, it seems, the learning is done by the musher. Whether we are out on a training run or leading a tour, it is always important that our dogs perform their job.
As a musher, our job is to bring out the best in our dogs and in return our dogs bring out the best in us.