2006 Snow Flake Days Race Results
The Rainbow Bridge
Frequently asked questions
Glossary of frequently used terms
"Teaching Your Dog To Pull"
A Primer on Working the Alaskan Malamute
Equipment and Supplies
Recommended books (with ISBN numbers)
Tips for prospective owners
Comparison Between the Malamute and the Siberian
How Old Is Your Dog?
Flystrike! A Serious Warm Weather Hazard
An expanded look at hip dysplasia
Chondrodysplasia: A Closer Look"
A Pictorial Case History of Coat Funk
Early sterilization of puppies
How a Dog Show Works
Just for Fun
"How the Malamutes Saved Christmas
This article was originally written in 1996. The author was preparing for a trip to England as a guest of the Alaskan Malamute Club of the U.K. As part of the trip, she conducted a seminar for Alaskan Malamute owners on the topic of training Malamutes for sled work. This article was written for that trip. The information came from extensive interviews with Scott and Terry Miller and Jan and Sandy Hagan.
by Linda Dowdy
Let’s face it. Working a team of Malamutes is a challenge. They are smart, and they are manipulative. However it can be done. The price is a great deal of work and large amounts of patience, but the results are well worth the effort. And the reward comes when you see that team strung out ahead of you, you see the straight gangline and the tight tuglines, you feel the snow hitting your face as it is kicked up by their feet, they don’t stop, and best of all -- they listen to you!
First Introduction -- Dog Meets Harness
Puppies should be introduced to the concept of pulling at three to four months of age. One method of doing this is to harness the puppy and attach the tugline to a light weight, such as a small log or small tire. Place a light choke chain on the puppy. The puppy is then given the command to "pull" and simultaneously pulled forward using the choke chain. Some puppies will do it right away, while others will throw virtual temper tantrums, screaming and hurling themselves on their backs. One way or the other, either on its feet or on its back, the puppy is moved forward a very short distance and then given a great deal of praise for its accomplishment. This is repeated, always with praise for pulling, until the puppy gets the idea to pull on command.
Adults may also be introduced to pulling by this same method. A heavier weight must be used however. The weight must be heavy enough so that the dog, or puppy, knows there is something there and they must work to pull it, but not so heavy that they can’t pull it.
On the surface this may appear to be too hard on a puppy. But think back to some of the antics you have seen puppies go through when they are leash-broken. More than one puppy has taken its first steps on a leash quite involuntarily and often not on its feet.
Harnessing Up -- Holding the Line Out
The method used to teach a dog to pull is also used to teach a lead dog to hold the line out. A choke chain is put on the dog. The dog is harnessed and put into position at the end of the gangline and given the command of either "up front" or "stay". The command is given and the dog is pulled forward enough to tighten the gangline. Don’t forget to praise the dog for moving forward to tighten up the gangline (whether it was his idea or not!). This exercise must be repeated an innumerable number of times until the dog reliably responds to the command of "up front" or "stay". You will find yourself constantly returning to the dog to correct them, put them back into position, and praise them. With enough patience and time on your part however, the lesson will be learned, and you will have a lead dog that will reliably hold the gangline out straight and tight while the remainder of the dogs are harnessed.
During the harnessing process, the sled, or training cart, is secured by means of a quick release line. The anchored sled or cart and the lead dog holding the line out provide a tight, stable gangline for hooking up the remainder of the dogs.
The same process is followed, but in reverse order, at the end of a run. The lead dog(s) again hold the line out while the remainder of the team is unharnessed. The lead dog is the last one to be unharnessed. While still in harness and hooked up, they are watered, and each dog is given praise for its work. Additionally sometimes a small treat is also given. Unless the lead dog is watered first, it may turn around and forget to hold the line out.
After they have been watered, the musher will often drive them again, a very short distance. This is to prevent the team from becoming used to the idea that once they reach the truck, their work is done and they don’t have to do anything else.
Equipment No Malamute Driver Should Be Without
Three important points need to be made with regard to the use of a jingler.
Lead Dog Training
Training a dog to lead can be most effectively accomplished by use of what is known as a "belly band". Use of this device allows the trainer to keep the dog up front, ahead of the trainer. Basically it consists of a band which goes around the dog’s belly, with an attachment that goes to the dog’s harness. This band serves a dual purpose; first, it prevents the dog from backing out of the harness, and second, it allows the trainer to "throw" the dog ahead of him. This is done by placing one hand on the collar, the other on the tug loop of the harness, and then giving the dog a hearty heave-ho forwards. The attached leash on the collar can also be pulled to one side or the other to teach the "gee" and "haw" commands.
An alternate method of training a lead dog can be accomplished by placing two choke chains on the dog. One is placed so the "pull" is out to one side, and other is placed so the "pull" is to the opposite side. Attach two leashes, one to each side, somewhat like reins on a horse. Then the commands are given and the appropriate leash is pulled to move the dog in the desired direction.
Dogs have a tendency to follow a trail. Training a dog to lead in an open field, where there is no trail, presents a much more difficult challenge. Two techniques can be used here.
If by now you think that you are going to be doing a lot of running, you are right! Training dogs, particularly lead dogs, requires a great deal of running back and forth. If you aren’t in shape when you start, you will be by the time you finish
The Principle of Drag -- Don't Be Without It
Another favorite method of forcing the dogs to concentrate on what they are doing is to train on four-wheelers -- the popular ATV’s (all terrain vehicles). The dogs are hooked up to the four-wheeler, and it is placed in either first, second, or third gear with the engine just idling. The dogs must pull hard enough to continuously turn the crankshaft of the idling engine.
When you wish the team to go faster, you can give the command to "pick it up" and simultaneously shift into a higher gear. This reduces the amount of drag the dogs are working against, and their speed will automatically increase.
All training is done at a very slow pace, with the dogs pulling and working hard. They are never allowed to run "pell mell". In particular, great care must be taken when going downhill to see that they do not pick up their pace and rush downhill. Keeping it slow going downhill is particularly crucial to prevent shoulder injuries.
Just Rewards -- Don't Forget the Praise
When you give a command, only give it one time; then correct if the dog doesn’t follow the command. The purpose of the correction is to show (or remind) the dog what needs to be done. As soon as the correction starts to take effect, i.e. the dog starts to do what is wanted, then cover the correction with praise.
After they have completed a particularly stressful portion of training, such as working in an open field with no trail to follow, stop the team and give each dog a hug and words of praise. It really pays off in the long run. Even when on the trail and continuing to move, let them know they are doing well.
Commands -- The Ones Most Commonly Used (Outside of Hollywood)
Fighting -- What Causes It and How to Stop It
Fights start when the dogs lose their concentration and don't focus on pulling. When a fight breaks out, it is imperative that it be stopped immediately. One of the effective methods of stopping a fight is to whack the aggressor across the muzzle, and to use a great deal of force in doing it. For this purpose, it may be necessary to use something as drastic as a length of ax handle or heavy broom handle, with a jingler attached to it. Always bear in mind that in the long run, it is far kinder to the dogs to break the fight up quickly (though the immediate result may be quite painful) than to let them inflict serious damage on each other. Ultimately, even though you may not believe it at first, fights will be eliminated.
During a fight, the dogs are in a heightened emotional state, and if you become hysterical or lose your temper, you are only adding fuel to the fire, so to speak. Even though you may be taking extreme physical actions against the aggressor(s), keep your voice quiet and calm! (Much easier said than done)
The Art of Passing -- Other Dogs, Not the Buck
At the "dog mushing camp", held by Jamie Nelson (defending champion of Minnesota’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Race), there would be as many as four teams of Malamutes working abreast, passing back and forth. When Jamie first told the participants about this exercise, they were all terrified at the prospect. But Jamie insisted they could do it successfully. Much to everyone’s surprise, they were able to do it, and no fighting or challenging occurred.
A Word About Equipment
A quick release line is used to attach the sled or cart to an anchoring object during the harnessing process. This line can be released with just a single pull. It allows the musher to release the line with one hand while hanging on to the cart or sled for dear life with the other hand.
If you are running the dogs on snow, a snow hook should be on your sled. This is a large hook which can be stamped down into the snow to provide an anchor should you need to get off the sled.
Harnesses are of the "over the back" type, where the pull comes from the back. They should fit snugly around the neck. The objective is to have them fit tight enough so they do not slide down over the dog’s shoulders, impeding the free and natural movement of the dog.
The dogs are fitted with a limited-slip collar. This collar is adjustable and is made out of heavy webbing. It will only tighten up a limited amount, so that no dog can inadvertently be choked
The lead dog has a short jerkline attached to its collar to facilitate moving or correcting the dog. If a double lead dog combination is used, they are not coupled to each other via necklines. This is to prevent one from dragging the other off in the wrong direction.
Indelicate Subjects -- Watering, Peeing and Pooping
It’s even worse when the lead dog comes to a sudden halt. If a lead dog persists in either unauthorized watering of trees or fertilizing of the trail, one solution is move the dog back into the team. Then an unauthorized halt will often result in the offender being dragged by the rest of the rest of the team. When the team is stopped for a rest break, of course they are allowed to relieve themselves as needed.
Putting It All Together -- The Keys to Success
Keep your expectations realistic. Yes, expect a lot out of them, for they can deliver. But don’t expect every run to be trouble-free. Most runs are not. But then when that special run does come along, when they are strung out in front of you and pulling hard, and you realize the power and strength of these dogs, you will know it was all worth it.
Copyright © 2006-2007 Linda Dowdy, last revision 061031