How to Train Sleddogs (Continued)

Fall Training -- Getting Sleddogs into Condition

WE JUST SAID THIS but it's worth repeating: the objective in fall training is not to go fast, not to put together a big team, but to get sleddogs into hard, fit physical condition and to establish control over them. When you first hook up in the late summer or early fall, the dogs are likely to be out of condition. This means that they become fatigued or overheated quite easily, that their muscles and ligaments are at their most vulnerable state, easily injured. It is at this very same time that they are at their most eager and undisciplined.
     Under the set of conditions I've just described, it is just plain stupid to hook a big string of dogs, even if you hook them to a five-ton truck. Believe me, four dogs at a time is plenty when you are just starting out in the fall, six at most and that only if your rig is a very heavy one that four dogs just can't pull comfortably. If you don't have too many dogs, one-at-a-time bicycle runs will also do just fine. You want to have all the control you can manage, and you want to arrange things so that the dogs cannot run fast. Long distances are also out of consideration. Break your group of dogs up into small teams. That way, nobody gets away with bad behaviour, and more dogs get valuable experience at lead.
      Watch the temperatures! Don't train in direct sunshine; either train at dawn or wait till sundown. If the temperature is over 16 degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit), don't train at all, especially if the humidity is high. At these high temperatures the dogs are in considerable danger of overheating and dehydration. If you think a dog may have become too hot, don't waste any time, soak him down with cool water immediately. Watch their tongues; a hyperextended tongue that is brick-red in colour is a symptom of overheating.
      Start with very modest distances of half a mile to a mile or so, (one or two Km), less if you are training puppies. Don't overwork your dogs in the early season. Work them two days on and one day off, or every other day. Increase your distances only gradually as the temperatures get lower and the dogs gain condition. You really don't need to go more than five or six miles (eight or ten Km) in fall training, unless you are in an area with very late snow and you are aiming at early-season middle-distance races.

DON'T BE IN A BIG HURRY in fall training. Stop frequently to give the dogs a breather and to give them the idea that they are expected to stand quietly at stops. If you don't convince them during wheel training that stops during a run are a normal event and that good order is expected, you aren't likely to manage it on snow. Be quiet, confident and methodical in fall training. The dogs are likely to be noisy and rowdy, but don't let them get you rattled. If necessary, carry a handler on the rig with you; this will slow the dogs down a bit and give you someone to hold the brake while you slowly walk forward and sort out tangles or move dogs from one position to another. The more order and good discipline you can establish at this stage, the better for everybody. I'll repeat yet again: don't let them get going too fast, they'll only injure their wrists or shoulders. Watch for over-eager dogs that bite at their necklines or at the gangline; don't let them get away with it. It's not a bad idea to have light chain sections in the vulnerable parts of your wheel-rig training gangline, and in any case fall training ganglines need to be of durable construction using heavier materials than snow-season ganglines. Gangline sections can also be a bit shorter overall, since speed isn't an objective at this stage.
      Switch your dogs around a lot in fall training until you find out who works best in which position. Try out new lead prospects alongside an experienced leader. Now's the best time for experimentation, while you have a maximum of control and you are doing a lot of short-distance runs.
      Be very cautious about the surface you train on. You must not try to train sleddogs on pavement , as this will result in ruining either their feet, or their gait, or both! Soft earth is ideal. Gravel is possible, but watch their feet constantly and lay off or shorten distances at the first sign of even minor problems. Once the season is further advanced, watch out for hard-frozen ground! You cannot go pounding along at speed for long distances on frozen ground without damaging shoulders. It just isn't worth it. If you don't cut back the distance or speed, or lay off, you'll regret it -- why get caught nursing a stove-up team just when the snow starts to fly?

A team of Seppala Siberian Sleddogs at twilight in Canada's Yukon Territory
Seppala Siberian Sleddog team moving along at twilight in early winter

Training on Snow -- From Wheels to Runners

ONCE THE SNOW FLIES, you'd better hope for a lot of it as soon as possible. This can be the most difficult training season (and always is in the Yukon), when you've started to get snow but you don't have enough to switch over from wheel rigs to the dogsleds! Especially if you are using a bicycle, early snow can make wheel rig training downright treacherous. If your area has a long transitional season, the best plan may be to acquire a heavy-duty, indestructible "beater" sled for use in the transitional season -- and equip it with steel runner shoes! Runner plastic is expensive and there is no point in chewing up pair after pair of plastic shoes on gravelly patches of trail or exposed rocks. A few decades ago, mushers went the entire winter on steel runners. They are not necessarily obsolete, they can be just the thing for thin trail conditions.

     When you've got a reasonable snow base on your trails, you can almost immediately double the distance you were running on wheels. But be cautious about increasing your team size too quickly. Early winter snow trails seldom afford a solid purchase for your snow hook; it can be virtually impossible to hook down securely until you have quite an accumulation of hard-packed snow. Never drive more dogs than you can control. Experienced mushers have wound up paralysed for life -- or dead -- by ignoring this simple, logical rule. A former Yukon Quest winner died one November when seven green dogs headed for the middle of a newly-frozen lake over thin black ice; he couldn't stop the team, so dogs and driver all drowned. Another Quest musher broke his neck with a team too large for his training trail and conditions. How many dogs you can control can vary greatly with the season, the experience of the dogs, the trail conditions, the experience of the musher, and the physical state or condition of the driver. Don't take chances with your life, or the lives of your dogs either.
      When the transition to runners has been made, from there on it's a matter of sustained work, putting miles on your dogs. Just remember to vary things up occasionally to prevent them getting bored or 'sour'. If you always run the same trail, the same distance, the same way, pretty soon you are going to see a diminution of your dogs' enthusiasm and an increased incidence of misbehaviour. Give them something new to enjoy periodically; it keeps them working happily. Continue to increase your training distance gradually until you are going the target distance that you want to go. Then shorten the distance occasionally, and once in awhile take them further than their usual training distance. Give them a taste of heavy trail-breaking once in awhile. It's sad to see a dog team that has no idea what to do when confronted with anything but a smooth, highly-groomed level trail. Take them into the hill country now and then so they know about grunt work.

Muscle Work -- Hauling Freight or Passengers

SPEAKING OF GRUNT WORK, let's just take a quick look at the idea of carrying a substantial load in the sled. Seppalas are versatile sleddogs, not just racing speedsters, so we expect them to be able to shift into bull low and carry a load when the occasion demands. Naturally it isn't fair to subject them to a sudden extended passenger tour or a freight haul without any prior experience. Here's yet another reason for keeping things to small teams with substantial wheel rigs in the fall!
      It never hurts -- unless you never do anything but sprint racing on a level, groomed track -- to teach your sleddogs what hard pulling is all about. Like any other kind of training, start easy and build on early success. To begin with, throw a couple sacks of dogfood or a pair of green spruce logs into the basket of your toboggan sled, tie them down with rubber straps, and go out with a six-dog team for just a couple of miles. Increase the distance on subsequent runs as they get used to the weight. Rest them if they seem to need it. Once they are doing well with this plan, you can increase the weight until they are hauling around 100 pounds (45 Kg) per dog for their normal training distance. (Don't forget to add your own body weight to the freight weight, unless you never stand on the runners!) They can carry more than that for shorter distances if they are in good hard condition and accustomed to hauling a load, but much depends on the terrain!
      Like anything else in sleddog training, freight and passenger hauling requires that the driver use his common sense. If steep hills are involved, you'll have to lighten the burden. If snow conditions are sticky and heavy, again you must lighten the load. Don't expect three 35-pound dogs to haul you standing on the runners plus Aunt Sally (who weighs 300 pounds) in the basket! As a rule of thumb, don't ask your dogs to haul more than twice their body weight unless you have really trained them in a specialised way for freight or passenger work.
      If you do much freighting, invest in heavy-duty harnesses made for the job, with extra padding. Also you'll want to obtain a proper freighting sled; the one thing to make sure of here is that the runners have enough "rocker" to make the sled steerable when it's loaded. A heavily loaded sled with absolutely flat runners steers like a pig and will not turn readily. Seppala Siberian Sleddogs are pretty amazing as freighting or excursion dogs, given their small size. They will quite readily pull twice their body weight for long distances if they are well conditioned and properly fed.

Training for Sleddog Racing -- The Competitive Edge

I'M NOT A RACER (although I have run in the odd race many years ago), so I don't pretend to speak authoritatively on training for high levels of racing competition. On the other hand, though, I can tell you that training your dogs for entering local races is -- once again -- a matter of using your common sense. If you'll just do that, and train faithfully, I can just about guarantee you that you won't be the one bringing up the rear. Seppalas have plenty of speed, generally speaking. Some are faster than others (this is also true of Alaskan huskies!), but racing Seppalas have been clocked at 19.9 mph (32 kph) in 6-dog sprint competition.
     There are just a few tricks that will ensure your team is competitive in most races. First is to make sure that the dogs are in adequate condition. Teams that "crash and burn" during a race are almost invariably either inadequately conditioned or improperly fed, unless they have picked up a virus (which seems to be an ever-increasing risk at races these days). Second, make sure that you have trained your dogs regularly at similar distances over similar terrain to those of the race you intend to enter! (If the race is in the mountains and you always train on the flat, you are headed for humiliation!) And finally, train your leaders to overtake other teams and pull away from them! It's too easy to get stuck to a slow team on a race trail, simply because your dogs are so interested in the other team that they want to travel with it and will not leave it behind. Overtaking practice is the one thing that is indispensable if you want to place respectably in races.
     If you pay attention to just those three items, you are almost certain to place somewhere in the middle of the pack (at worst!) in most ordinary races. After that, it's a question of observing what winning racers do, reading a few books like Jim Welch's "Speed Mushing Manual", and practising things like 'interval training' to raise the level of your team's basic pace. Training for races can be as complicated as you want to make it. But if you manage to train and feed your Seppalas well enough to bring out their best possible speed capabilities, you are going to win some races and always be a respected competitor.
     One last trick that helps a lot to make sure your team performs at its potential is simply to think about how you can save time over the course of a race. Training your team to pull away rapidly from an overtaken team is such an item. Making sure your leaders are sharp on directional commands is another (so that you never lose time making turns). Conditioning yourself so that you are able to get off the runners and run when necessary also helps a lot. (Several keen competitors have been marathon runners in the summer.) Making certain that your equipment is trouble-free and appropriate to the conditions saves seconds. Keeping your dogs well hydrated is essential -- dehydrated animals aren't competitive. Making certain they have emptied their bowels before they go to the starting line saves time on the trail. Think about it, you'll find a lot of small things you can do that will save two seconds here, five there, twenty seconds somewhere else. At the 1998 Fairbanks Open North American Championship, Norwegian musher Egil Ellis was nudged out of 4th place by Amy Streeper, who beat him by just one-tenth of a second. Don't you just know he lay awake nights for weeks after that, thinking how he could have saved even one second -- half a second! -- over a twenty-mile race course?

IF YOU DO GET BITTEN by the racing bug, please don't let winning become an obsession to the detriment of your dogs. They run because they love doing it, and because they want to please you. They don't know whether they placed third or sixth, and chances are if they did they wouldn't much care. If you race, race because you enjoy going out with your dogs and running an unfamiliar trail in an exciting context. Don't become one of those unfortunate mushers who are always getting rid of their old dogs and acquiring new ones in the hope of winning. The love, trust and companionship of sleddogs who are your old friends and 'family' is worth more than any number of cheap and chintzy trophies. If your dogs become just interchangeable power units to you, you've missed the whole show...

Training Seppala Siberian Sleddogs and Siberian Huskies for recreational mushing.
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