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.
A Primer on Working the Alaskan Malamute by Linda Dowdy
You have always wanted to try working your dogs in harness, but you are unsure on just how to get started. Or maybe you have made previous attempts at it, but they have either ended in total disaster or have been frustrating and dissatisfying. You have dreams of seeing your dogs strung out ahead of you, gangline straight, tuglines tight, and heads down as they concentrate on transporting you through a snowy landscape. But in reality the gangline is down and the tuglines are not tight, their heads are up and they see every distraction along the trail, they stop without warning and far too often, they are deaf to your commands, fights break out, and the list goes on and on.
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
Some Malamutes are natural pullers; others are not. But natural or not, they all must be taught that pulling is not something to be done at their convenience, if the mood strikes them. They must learn the command to pull and obey it just as reliably as a good obedience dog is taught to reliably jump or retrieve the dumbbell.
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
When a team of dogs is harnessed, the first dog to take its place on the gangline is the lead dog. It is the responsibility of the lead dog, or dogs, to hold the gangline tight while the other dogs are harnessed. This is known as "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 donâ€™t have to do anything else.
Equipment No Malamute Driver Should Be Without
Most sled dog drivers have one or more "jinglers". A jingler is anything that makes a jingling noise. The most commonly used jinglers consist of a ring with several metal washers on it. When the ring is shaken, the washers make a jingling noise. Jinglers are not used during the time a dog is learning a command. Once the command has been reliably learned, then failure to obey the command while in the team results in a correction that is accompanied by the sound made by the jingler. Corrections are made by tapping the dog with either a piece of doweling, a piece of garden hose, a piece of thick braided hemp rope, or a slapstick -- with the jingler attached to it. The intent is to teach the dog to associate the correction with the sound of the jingler. Eventually it will evolve to the point where the sound of the jingler itself is sufficient to correct a dog.
Three important points need to be made with regard to the use of a jingler.
The jingler must never be allowed to make noise except when it is being used for correction.
When the issue is one of growling, looking around at the scenery, etc., only the offenders are corrected.
When the issue is one of failing to pull, all of the dogs on the team are corrected, not just the ones that are the most flagrant offenders. The dogs that are pulling are corrected very lightly, while the culprits receive a slightly harder correction.
Lead Dog Training
Almost any dog can be trained to lead a team, but some of them are a lot better at it than others. Either one or two dogs may be used in the lead position. Being in the lead position is stressful for most dogs, and sometimes two dogs, known as a "double lead", will work better at lead than a single dog. Two dogs tend to bolster each other's confidence -- a trait that is a definite "must" at the lead position.
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.
Give the command to gee or haw, and tap the dog on the opposite side with the slapstick/jingler
Give the command to gee or haw, and go to that side and call them
Open field training is very stressful on the dogs, so you don't want to overdo it. Open field training can be gradually introduced by initially following the perimeter of the field and then start cutting the corners. This gives the lead dog a visual target, and gradually the amount of corner cutting can be increased.
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
The underlying secret of training a Malamute team lies in always keeping their minds on what they are doing. In other words, forcing them to think about pulling. This is done by always making them pull against resistance or drag. If they arenâ€™t pulling against resistance, they arenâ€™t thinking about what theyâ€™re doing. Then they get creative, and creativity does not belong on a Malamute team. If youâ€™re working on a wheeled cart, you may create resistance by dragging a tire behind the cart. If you donâ€™t have a tire, then the last resort is to ride the brake. On a sled, resistance is created by dragging an auxiliary brake. This auxiliary brake is generally a section of snowmobile track which the musher can stand on in order to create as much drag as is needed. In particular, coming out the chute, or just starting out, they must be slowed down. Another favorite method of forcing the dogs to concentrate on what they are doing is to train on four-wheelers -- the popular ATVâ€™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
Throughout all your training, never forget to take time for praise. When they have done well, let them know about it. After training, stop them and give them all a hug. Let them know they have done well. In obedience training, the saying is "cover a correction with praise". In other words, when you do correct them, and that will be often, then praise them for doing the right thing. Praise at the right time is just as important as a correction at the right time.
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)
Come Gee -- make a U-turn to the right
Come Haw -- make a U-turn to the left
Easy -- slow down
Gee -- go to the right
Gee Over -- move over to the right side of the trail
Good (alternately Thatâ€™s Good) -- praise for the right actions
Haw -- go to the left
Haw Over -- move over to the left side of the trail
Hike -- let's go
Mush -- used only by Hollywood
On By (alternately On By Dammit) -- go past a distraction without stopping or slowing down
Pick It Up -- increase the speed
Pull -- buckle down to work and pull (quit gazing around at the landscape)
Ready -- let's go
Right There -- telling the lead dog the correct trail has been selected or standing in the right spot
Straight On -- don't turn, keep going straight
Up Front -- keep the gangline stretched out tight, stay "up front"
Whoa -- stop
Fighting -- What Causes It and How to Stop It
Fighting is the single most difficult obstacle to overcome in working a Malamute team. Malamutes, as a breed, hold fighting to be one of their First Amendment rights and if given the chance will happily morph from a working team into a ten-dog furball. To put it in a nutshell, fighting will not be tolerated at all, under any circumstances.
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
Inevitably you are going to encounter other dogs, whether it be another team or loose dogs. The Malamutes must be taught to ignore these inviting distractions. Again, focus on pulling is the key. If they are concentrating on their work, they do not become interested in the other dogs. At first you may find it necessary to run beside them in order to correct any tendency to swerve towards the other team or loose dogs. Keep the dogs focused on their work by grabbing an offender's tugline and pulling backwards, along with the command to "pull" in order to redirect their attention to the job at hand. Soon they will reach the point where no attention is paid to other teams, loose dogs, or even terribly inviting distractions like horses running in a pasture.
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
An elastic, stretchable loop, called a shock absorber, is used to attach the gangline to the sled or cart or four-wheeler. The purpose of the shock absorber is to lessen the impact on the dogs if the sled or cart should hit a tree, for example, and come to an instantaneous stop. In addition to the shock absorber, a safety line is also used between the gangline and the cart or sled. The purpose of the safety line is to keep the gangline from pulling free and releasing the dogs in the event the shock absorber should break.
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
The dogs are moderately hydrated at least one hour prior to running. Then they are put on a picket line in order to attend to those indelicate necessities. During the run itself, no "bio breaks" are allowed. In other words, if they have to eliminate or urinate, they must learn to do so on the run. If a dog suddenly stops in order to eliminate, it throws the entire team into chaos. Therefore when this happens, it is imperative that the culprit immediately receives a correction and the team must keep going. 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
Patience -- infinite amounts of it
Consistency -- consistency in corrections and expectations
Praise -- always praise them for doing well, cover your corrections with praise
Focus -- keep their minds on pulling
Drag -- always keep them pulling against resistance
Slow -- keep them working slowly, never allow them run "pell mell" like gangbusters (for ½ mile)
No fighting -- fighting is not an option, swift and painful corrections for all participants
Rewards -- reward them for doing well, stop and give them all a hug and a treat
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.
Banner: "Istari Team." Owned by John and Helen Schultz.