Picking New Lead Dogs: How We Select Which Dogs Will Begin Lead Dog Training

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We have the unique opportunity with our summer dog sled tours to begin working with and developing new leaders all summer long. Unlike other dog sled tours that simply run a set loop, our sled dogs go out each tour time not knowing where they will go. Our trail system for our tour is a series of interconnected loops that allow us the opportunity to work on training commands.

Unlike many sled dog tour operations which simply focus on giving dog sled rides, often in a loop format, we focus on giving dog sled training demonstrations. Our dog sled tours are really just tag-along training sessions for our guests and are a great excuse for us to work with our dogs all summer. For the first part of the summer, we inevitably work with our youngest sled dogs dogs teaching them our expectations of them in the team.

We don’t begin training new lead dogs until our younger sled dogs are able to move seamlessly in the team, knowing how to untangle themselves and how to run on their side of the line. We do this because when we put a new, young dog up front we want that dog to have our complete attention. We don’t want to be talking to a sled dog in the team telling it to untangle itself when we need to be focused on praising and training a new lead dog running up front.

So how do we select a new lead dog and what does the process look like? Honestly, each time is a little different. We do, however, try to identify potential lead dog candidates every few weeks as our sled dogs begin to mature. Generally females start learning lead earlier than males in our kennel simply because they mature more quickly and are (at least in our kennel) more focused on pleasing their musher. This, in some ways, makes them easier to train than young males who (especially during summer) seem to have just one thing on their mind!

Our dog sled tours have proven a great way to identify future lead dogs. During the summer we routinely run our dogs 2-3 times a day, giving us a good look at our kennel each and every day. We are therefore able to consistently track the progress of our sled dogs. One thing we identify quickly is which puppies learn to respond to their name when we talk to them in the dog team.

We generally talk to our puppies when they get tangled. During their first few runs in the team we will stop our dogs and help untangle our puppies but slowly, over time, we teach them that dealing with tangles it is their responsibility. Our first look at who may be a good lead dog comes in identifying who is quick to learn how to untangle themselves. This may be as simple as returning to their side of the gangline so that one dog is on the left side of the gangline and one running on the right side. It may, however, also be more complex. Occasionally sled dogs may get their feet tangled in a neckline. In a controlled setting where we can easily stop the team, it is important that our sled dogs learn to fix themselves. There may come a time during training or race where, for one reason or another, I cannot stop to help them and they need to be nimble on their feet. While this is something small, it shows us who can learn quickly and who is actively listening to us while out training.

We also look at the overall attitude of our dogs. Each of our summer sled dog tours is between 1.5 and 2 miles in length depending on the weather; on rainy days we typically run slighty further as the cooler, damper weather allows it. During each run we stop 2 or 3 times to allow the dogs time to cool off. It is important we stop so that they can pant and get rid of any excess heat. We use this as an opportunity to talk with our guests about mushing and to evaluate which sled dogs don’t want to stop pulling. Future lead dogs are generally the first dogs to start trying to pull again. They may leap in the air or silently pull at the line, trying to get our cart to budge. Much to their dismay, however, it does not budge until we let them!

Attitude accounts for a lot of the success of a dog team; having very excitable dogs who want to run and who lead the team can help the team overcome obstacles such as a blown in trail, strong winds, or tough storms. Sled dogs with good attitudes see obstacles as challenges to overcome and they thrive in adversity. Great lead dogs do not back down when the going gets tough, rather that is when they shine the most!

Fidget running single lead during Iditarod 2015

Fidget running single lead during Iditarod 2015

Once we identify a dog as a potential leader, we will work on hooking that dog up towards the front of the team. Most puppies in our kennel start off running in the middle or the back of the team, so we slowly migrate our potential leaders closer and closer to the front. By slowly working them up to the front of the dog team, they get used to the idea of more and more dogs being behind them. They learn that they are part of a “team” and that the dogs behind them are not trying to chase them.

Eventually, we promote our future lead dog to running in the “swing dog” position. Swing dogs are the pair of dogs located directly behind the lead dogs. It’s an excellent place for a future leader to run. Swing is a great way to teach a dog without actually having to teach the dog. They learn through example. When we give the commands “gee” for right and “haw” for left, the swing dogs are seeing and reacting just a step behind the lead dogs. It’s a great way to start associating our commands with the direction we want our lead dogs to take. By the time we put them in lead, they don’t even think twice about being up front: they simply just run.

When our lead dog trainees are finally ready to move out of the swing position and into lead, we almost always pair them with experienced leaders who already know the ropes. Our experienced sled dogs really are the best teachers. In our kennel our go to lead dog trainers are Zema, Tamere, Madori, Boston, Jane, and Piper. These dogs are great Gee/Haw leaders and are also very patient with our younger dogs. We do run after run with our new trainee up front while paired with a “mentor.” After a number of runs — generally anywhere from about 4 to 10 — up front, we let our new trainee go at it alone so we can see what they’ve mastered.

Running in single lead is tough but it is important that each of our leaders understand that when they are up front they are responsible for responding to commands. If we always ran our lead dogs in pairs, they would not learn this valuable lesson. We will do a few runs to make sure our trainees have mastered the commands.

Training for a lead dog, however, never stops. We will continue to work with our leaders even after they have mastered the basic commands of “gee” and “haw” — teaching them how to forge ahead and go through whatever obstacle comes there way.

We certainly have fun watching our dogs progress and have learned over the past few years that we have some of the best Gee-Haw leaders in the sport. We also have some of the most dedicated and hardworking leaders. We greatly contribute our summer dog sled tours and the training they allow us to do is a huge reason for our successful lead dog training program.

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