Lessons Learned

Boomer graduating!

This is a list of lessons learned by a beginner dog driver in the Southern United States. Nothing more. Understand that most lessons are learned from bruises and scrapes and contusions — the drivers’. (Originally published in The Wolfer, 1997.)

  • No one says Mush! except movie stars.
  • Buy good stuff. Buy equipment built for the job. Harnesses from an outfitter. Buy one 4-dog set of ganglines and copy their knots if needed, but don’t guess. (Mush! has a section on building your own ganglines which I used, but with cheap rope. Bought the good rope and it worked great. Cheap rope frays and is hard on the hands both using and building it.)
  • Use padded, leather, fingerless bicycle gloves with mittens over in winter. This saves hands when grabbing lines and some warmth w/o sacrificing dexterity.
  • Dogs do not try to mess up.
  • Less than 50 degrees, run in fall, winter, spring, early mornings. Do obedience and ground work in 50-90 degrees. Don’t work at all over 90, obedience or anything else. Work indoors if needed. Give the dogs a vacation and they will come back with more enthusiasm.
  • Decide before you start that you are going to be a happy tolerant forgiving dog driver — otherwise, why bother?
  • Check feet every mile on gravel and pavement. Every two miles on leaves and dirt.
  • Feed good food. Higher energy. More nutrition without having to add supplements. Easier cleanup. Nicer coats. Make sure one of the top ingredients is fish meal if feeding Siberians or Malamutes.
  • Chew bones (cow legs don’t splinter as much as cow ribs. Deer carcasses carry fleas and tapeworms.) and milk bones are great treats and clean teeth and help dog breath.
  • Talk to your dogs. Say Good Morning, Good Evening, and Hello and Goodby to your dogs.
  • On a run, don’t be shocked when you quit because the dogs are tired and they slip their collars and run 3 hours and 10 miles through the community — head up, ears pricked, tail up with enthusiasm. They aren’t con artists, they just have more energy off leash than on.
  • Don’t run your dogs too much. Quit early instead of late.
  • Dogs pulling have the lines taught, heads down, ears back, tail down. Watch that your tuglines stay tight — encourage the dog by name if they aren’t tight.
  • If dog tangles give him a little bit of time to untangle. You don’t want them automatically stopping every time they step over the lines. But you also don’t want them running tangled as they can get hurt or rubbed raw.
  • If dog doesn’t want to work with a partner or position, change something. Wheel dog may want to be leader. Co-leader may want to run swing solo.
  • If a dog lies down and refuses to pull, don’t make him. Check for injury. But consider that he may not like that spot or that pull partner.
  • Let dogs learn to poop on the run. Ease up the pace but don’t stop.
  • Don’t allow sniffing when work is going on.
  • Enforce every command. A dog is always learning. he may be learning to ignore you, but he’s learning.
  • Get a child’s backpack and carry it with you on the sled, cart, truck. Put your dog first aid kit in the backpack (what good is it at the house?)and a sweater for you, thermal blanket. muzzle, dog boots, dry socks, $, pocket knife, spare necklines, spare snaps, foldup rain poncho, drinking water and a small cup to give water to the dogs, another to give water to you if you are picky
  • Don’t talk yourself to death while mushing. Tell the dogs they are doing a good job, by name, then shut up and let them run.
  • Correct as they err, or ignore it. Correct gently but firmly, never harshly — it spoils their enthusiasm and yours as well.
  • Read everything.
  • Ask questions.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t get it right the first time.
  • Don’t be too hard on your dogs when they don’t get it right the first time.
  • Start on the ground with 1 dog harnessed back to you or the drag cart and teach the dog: Hike! (means get up and go, say it high pitched and excitably) Woah (say it on a falling note, slow and deep) Gee (right turn) Haw (left turn) Stay (in a stand, leaning into the lines, repeat as needed) ‘on by’ or ‘leave it’ (go on by the turn, the stray dog, etc. ‘Leave it, dammit’ is a common variation
  • Later you can add: Gee Back (come back towards me right-hand co-leader) Haw Back (come back towards me left-hand co-leader) Gee Over (steer to the right-hand side of the trail, road, etc.) Haw Over (steer to the left-hand side of the trail, road, etc.) Trot (instead of lope) faster or hike! hike!
  • Add dogs slowly to your working team. Don’t start with 6, you’ll take out too many local mail boxes (true story).
  • Wear protective clothing — from the weather and falling. Too many mushers have scars. Get a bike helmet, padded gloves, elbow pads, knee pads, boots or hightop sneakers to protect ankles from road rash, and at least heavy denim jeans and long sleeves.
  • Put reflective tape on dog harnesses, sled, cart, and you.
  • Carry a flashlight and use it.
  • Teach dogs to pass and be passed by other teams or cars.
  • If dog starts to change gait, then stop. If he hops or limps or suddenly his gait bounces, check feet, hips, and put him in the basket or truck. It’s not worth the risk.
  • Carry water, give an ounce or two at breaks.
  • Frequent breaks. Praise dogs. Pet and rub.
  • Smile. Remember this is fun.
  • Start short runs, work up slowly, adding distance every week, not every day.
  • Hookups, starts, and stops are as important as the running — and once going, the running is easy. Add a short midweek run and the dogs are better for it.
  • End with enthusiasm — let the dogs think they just won your first novice race.
  • It’s better for the dogs to trot 2 miles than sprint 1/2 mile if you’re a Sunday musher, easier on dogs, muscles, and wind — unless you want to be a sprinter. But even human sprinters do a lot of distance runs for stamina.
  • If dogs start at a run (hard to prevent it) that’s ok, enthusiasm is good, but get them back down to a stead trot and keep them there.
  • If they fall into a walk, stop. Something is wrong, injury or weariness. Rest a while and restart when they are enthusiastic to go again.
    Smile. Remember this is fun.

Happy Trails!

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