We’ve received a lot of questions recently regarding fall training: what is it, how do we do it, and why. Well, Fall Training is an integral part of what we do here at Turning Heads Kennel. During fall training, the dogs transition from doing light running during our summer tours to building up muscles and conditioning themselves in preparation for the longer runs required for racing 200 & 300 mile events as well as the Iditarod. So without further adieu, here is our Fall Training 101 Q&A.
In the fall, we train dogs on an ATV. Generally, we hook up between 10-16 sled dogs. We enjoy training on the ATV: we have loads of control and besides being just a vehicle to train the dogs with, the ATV can actually act as a training mechanism. We can put the ATV into gear. When we put the ATV into first gear, the dogs have to work against the engine of the machine making for a tougher pull. It also slows the dogs down. Generally, we don’t run the dogs in first gear a whole lot. It’s bad for the machines and we believe that they don’t need to be working quite that hard. More often than not we’re in 3rd or 4th gear or in neutral, but it’s a fine balance. We like our dogs to run at a steady trot. Generallly, in 3rd or 4th gear to keep the dogs from going to fast light braking may need to be applied.
The benefit of running the ATV in gear is you can use the gas of the machine as positive reinforcement if you are working with new leaders. For example, you come to a 3 way intersection and you say “Gee” (the command to go right) if the dog begins to go right, you can give the machine a little gas and the dog a “good dog!” reaffirming that the dog made a good decision. If the dog however went to the left, you apply the brake of the machine. As soon as the lead dog begins to look toward the right/gives an inclination that he thinks going to the right is a good idea, you give a little gas. In that way, all we are doing is taking the dogs own desire to run and go forward, and channeling it. Running becomes the positive reinforcement, stopping the negative.
What are the benefits of fall training?
The greatest benefit of fall training is the control using an ATV gives you for training sled dogs. You can set the pace of the team. We like to use fall training as the time to teach our dogs to travel. We want them to learn that trotting is the most efficient way for them to move down the trail and that we want them trotting from the beginning of a run.
What are your trails like during the fall?
Unfortunately, here in Seward we are severely limited by the number of trails we have. The recent flood destroyed most of our trails and we are currently running a small section of dirt road by our house and the trails we use for our summer dog sled ride.
You run sled dogs on dirt roads?
Yes. Dirt roads are great to run on. We’d obviously prefer trails. Dirt or silt is ideal — it doesn’t hurt the dogs feet and they can run for quite awhile on it without wearing their pads down, but we are limited by what is available to us.
Do you have to watch out for cars or people?
Unfortunately there are many hazards associated with running our dogs on dirt roads, traffic being one of them. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about our dogs. They have learned that they are supposed to run on the right side of the road, even when taking corners — something hard for them to do as they generally like to cut the corners. We don’t worry about our dogs passing vehicles or that sort of thing,they are very accustomed to it. What we do worry about is inattentive drivers or impaired drivers, but that’s something everyone worries about. We run a lot at night, when it’s cooler. It also makes it easier to see cars coming.
We actually pass lots of bikers, walkers, and other dogs. They are never an issue. The biggest problem we have is rabbits. We have a few lead dogs who enjoy chasing them and for whatever reason our neighborhood is plagued by an overabundance of them.
How far do you run your sled dogs in the fall?
You have to strike a fine balance in the fall between running enough and not running too much. The main concern about running this time of year is the dogs’ feet. Running on the dirt roads tears them up. We want to be conditioning the dogs but we don’t want to hurt their feet either. Generally, we find a balance that works. Once the snow comes, we don’t worry. Even 2 inches would protect the dogs feet sufficiently; we would still train on the ATV as that’s not enough to safely stop a dog team on a sled. That’s sort of where we are at right now, waiting for the snow so we can run a little further.
Is there any way to protect the sled dogs’ feet?
Yes. We use dog booties. Sort of like little socks for their feet. Unfortunately, they wear through very quickly in the fall time and it isn’t the most cost-effective means for training. Generally, we put a fleece bootie on to cushion the dogs pad and then put another “normal” bootie over top.
If you have any more questions about fall training please email us at Info@TurningHeadsKennel.com Next week we will do a Q&A with Travis about his Iditarod Training. Please email any questions you’d like answered then!