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Swanny 
Posted: 10-Oct-2005, 11:37 PM
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Many dog sled drivers are starting their training routine up here in Alaska, and I've been asked to help as a handler by three different mushers, but only have free time to be of any real service to two of them. Until we get decent snow on the trails we hitch the dogs to four-wheelers (ATVs), so we can control them on the trails.

Edie Forrest is a sprint musher, and I really enjoy her little "hot rod" dogs. Sprint dog sled races are generally about 10 miles for six dog teams, 12 miles for 8-dog teams, and 15 to 20 miles for open class teams. Sprint sled dogs aren't very big (most are between 25 to 35 lb) but they are quick like lightning and go like the wind. I've even know of sprint mushers who run shelties or shelty mixes in their teams. Spring dogs seem to be the most intelligent and most enthusiastic of the various sled dogs. The hardest part I've found driving Edie's sprint teams with a four wheeler is that I it's really hard to watch everything that has to be watched while running. One has to watch the trail, each individual dog, each dog's tug lines, the gang lines, and pay attention to the machine as well. With these little guys everything happens SO fast that it's easy to loose track.

A typical early season training run for Edies "guys" is two and half to three miles, which they do three days per week, with rest days in between.

While training Friday, my team encountered another guy's dogs training in the opposite direction, so had to make a head-on pass. Edie's leaders didn't even hesitate. In fact, her leaders are so quick to respond to commands that if "gee haw leading" was part of an obedience comp they'd be in the running for grand champion.

I'm also helping Mike Green, who runs middle distance dogs. Middle distance races can be anything from a 50 mile to a 300 mile event. Middle distance dogs are larger than sprint dogs, but run at a more sedate pace, usually at a trot though some mushers prefer dogs that lope along. Although Mike is just getting them started for the season by December a typical training run will be twenty to 25 miles over hilly terrain, which they'll do in between two and three hours. For now they are just getting short runs (about 5 miles), but we run two teams and set them up so they have to pass each other frequently, to train them to pass other teams smoothly and teach the leaders to respond to their commands.

Anyhow, if you love dogs and you love Alaska's back country, handling for a racing musher is the most fun you can have while wearing clothing. You get to work with the mutts, learn lots about effective training techniques, and all the while someone else is paying for the dogfood. It's darned hard to beat that.

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CelticCoalition 
Posted: 11-Oct-2005, 08:53 PM
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I think sled dogs are the best. I love watching sled dog movies and just love Huskys. I'd love to own one, but don't have enough for them to do to keep them happy. Do they televise these races at all?


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stevenpd 
Posted: 11-Oct-2005, 09:48 PM
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I too, love the husky. Sounds like a forum is being created. Keep us informed with updates will ya?

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Swanny 
Posted: 12-Oct-2005, 11:22 AM
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CC, some races are televised locally, and the Iditarod used to get real good TV coverage nationally, about a decade ago or so. The Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race has been the focus of a couple of documentaries in recent years, one in Korea, one or two in France and one in Germany that I know of. The Korean one was shot just last year.

Many of the big long distance races have well-maintained web-sites that are updated almost minute by minute. If you like I'll post the URLs for the Yukon Quest (in February) and the Iditarod (in March) so you can follow those races.

The long-distance races are the most well known, but certainly not the only game in town.
Sled Dog Central dot Com has a ton of information and usually maintains a very complete schedule of dog sled races around the U.S. and the world, so you may be able to find a race near where you live to check it out.

Yesterday was the very first run of the season for Mike Green's middle-distance dogs. WHEW!!!!! What a run we had, too. After their summer vacation some of these guys have forgotten their manners. That's not a big deal though, merely canine exuberance. We hitched six dogs each to our four-wheelers and headed out on Mike's training trails.

I learned within the first couple of hundred yards that the leaders on my team, Gizzy and Lucky, don't like to get their feet wet. There are several big puddles (aka Mudholes) on Mikes training trail, and they balked at every one of them. Most of the time that's not a big deal, just stop and give whatever command is needed to get them through it. For example, if they run off the trail to the right give them their command to go left (haw) and vice versa. Once they figure out you aren't going to cut them any slack they toss you a dirty look (they really do) and then go on through.

The last mudhole we came up to was a real bad one though. It's the bottom of a really steep hill and as soon as they reached it, Gizzy and Lucky tried to turn around. To do that, they tried jumping over the backs of my team dogs. Meanwhile I was jammed on the brakes big-time to not hit my own dogs, and nearly flipped the machine. The result was a huge tangle of dogs and lines, all in knee deep mud.

I had never before had to sort out such a mess and Mike was so far ahead of me that he didn't have a clue it was even happening, so I had no choice but to figure it out for myself. It took a while, but I finally got everyone lined out again, didn't loose any dogs (thank Goodness) and made it back to the yard none the worse for wear.

Mike looked at me, covered in muck from head to toe, got that manure-eating grin of his, and said "have a little trouble?". LOL But, we had no fights and no breedings, so Mike counted it as an unusually successful first run. In reality, although fights do happen once in a while, they are very rare. Today's mushers are very careful to thoroughly socialize their dogs to both other dogs and to humans. If you visit a dog musher's yard you will almost certainly be asked to go out and visit the dogs, as part of their socialization process.

It looks like this thread may keep going for a while, so I'll share some basic information for those who aren't familiar with sled dogs can understand some of the jargon I'll likely use as I post my adventures on the trails.

The most intelligent and highly trained dogs on a sled dog team are your lead dogs, or "leaders". Your only control of the entire team is based on their response to verbal commands.

Basic commands are a "start" command (historically the word "mush", a bastardization of the French "Marche", but today we use "hike" or "go" or a shrill whistle). "Haw" to turn left, "Gee" to turn right, "easy" to slow down and "whoa" to stop. Most leaders are also trained to pass by distractions with the phrase "on by", though Edie prefers to use "straight ahead".

Many leaders are trained to respond to some variations. For example, when meeting another trail user you may need the dogs to move over to one side of the trail or the other, so the commands "gee over" (most common) or "haw over" are used. In Alaska "rules of the trail", like "rules of the road" have us running on the right side of the trail when meeting another trail user.

I'm fortunate that both Mike and Edie have several really well trained leaders. Most racing mushers try to keep several leaders in their teams and rotate them through the lead dog position. That way if a leader gets sick or is injured and can't run there are one or two more who can run the position. Of course it also makes it possible for a musher to run smaller teams for training.

Most mushers today use the "Alaskan Hitch", in which dogs are run two X two, on either side of a single line, called the gang line ('cause the whole gang is hooked up to it). The dogs up front are the lead dogs, and those closest to the sled are the "wheel dogs". Everyone else is referred to as "team dogs", though some mushers refer to the pair just ahead of the wheel dogs as their "swing dogs".

Wheel dogs are usually the largest, brawniest dogs in the team, because on a turn they are the ones who have to turn the sled.

Each dog is hooked to the gang line with its individual "tug line", and a "neck line" goes from the dog's every-day neck collar to the gang line to help keep them running in line.

From time to time I've been asked how many dogs reside in a typical mushing kennel. There is no set answer, because every musher has different priorities, different needs, and of course different pocket-books. Edie and her nephew Randy keep 14 dogs in their kennel, and both race 6 dog sprint races. On race day it almost always happens that one or the other of them has to work at their "day jobs", so only one racing team gets to go out.

Mike also has 14 dogs in his yard, but in the past has had as many as 30. Mike isn't as active a racer as he used to be (like me, he's gotten a bit older), but he also trains dogs for other mushers, so the size of his kennel varies a lot.

Aliy Zirkle and her husband, Allan Moore, keep between 40 and 50 dogs in their yard. Aily races long distance (Yukon Quest champion and now Iditarod contender) and Allan runs middle distance (he won the Copper Basin 300 last year), and those races are run with very large teams, so they need to keep a lot of trained dogs on hand. They also have quite a few "retired" sled dogs in their yard and house.

Which brings up another issue important to many people. What happens to 'unwanted' sled dogs?

In spite of the propaganda perpetuated by some animal rights groups, it's very rare for sled dogs to be euthanized, or for that matter to actually be "unwanted". When most mushers retire or leave the sport, they are able to quickly sell their dogs to another dog driver (usually a competitor who is tired of loosing to that team). Many just give their teams to a newcomer to the sport.

Many racing mushers give dogs away to recreational mushers and some rec mushers in this region have some truly phenominal blood lines in their teams from such gifts. Aliy Zirkle's retirees usually go to rec mushers or to homes as pet dogs, depending on the dog's health and temperament. If she has a dog that can't be placed in that manner, she keeps them and cares for them their entire lives.

Today may be very busy for me, because both Edie and Mike want to run dogs this afternoon. I'll be running with Edie's sprint dogs at about noon, and as soon as we are finished I'll have to beat feet over to Mikes place to take out his guys. I suspect that I will be the tired puppy at the end of the day.

Swanny


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gwenlee 
Posted: 12-Oct-2005, 01:20 PM
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I use to live in Anchorage, AK. My brother was born up there and we left in the early 70's. I enjoyed watching sledding. My dad use to race in Michigan, and Maine. My daughter tried it once and placed 13th out of 40 in the 6 dog competition. She was 17 at the time and was a cross country runner. Which was a good combination. She did her training in the south which was hard because you couldn't do much training until late fall. People thought we were crazy. My dad had 14 dogs. He kept everyone of them until they died or until a good home would take them. I still have my sled, it is hanging from the rafters in my basement.

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Highland Lassie 
Posted: 12-Oct-2005, 08:30 PM
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Wow that sounds like alot of fun and alot of work. I would love to watch. Is it ever on tv? I hook my dog hunter (canadian king Lab) to a sled and he pulls my brother around during the winter months. He's pretty fast (when he wants to be) and a strong dog.


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Swanny 
Posted: 12-Oct-2005, 08:57 PM
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QUOTE (Highland Lassie @ 12-Oct-2005, 04:30 PM)
Wow that sounds like alot of fun and alot of work. I would love to watch. Is it ever on tv? I hook my dog hunter (canadian king Lab) to a sled and he pulls my brother around during the winter months. He's pretty fast (when he wants to be) and a strong dog.


Hi Vicky. Some races are televised locally, and the Iditarod used to get real good TV coverage nationally, about a decade ago or so. The Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race has been the focus of a couple of documentaries in recent years, one in Korea, one or two in France and one in Germany that I know of. The Korean one was shot just last year.

Many of the big long distance races have well-maintained web-sites that are updated almost minute by minute. If you like I'll post the URLs for the Yukon Quest (in February) and the Iditarod (in March) so you can follow those races.

Quite a few racing mushers up here have added some sporting-breed blood to their lines, especially Labrador Retriever. Labs LOVE to run and they are very responsive to their handlers, which makes them easier to train than many breeds. It sounds lke your dog could make a great sled dog.

Gwenlee, it sounds like your Dad was a very responsible musher, and 13th out of 40 in a six-dog class is VERY good indeed.

Mike cancelled our training run this evening as he's having some car trouble he has to focus on. Edie and I ran 3 teams today, though. Since we had two four-wheelers set up with lines we set up a head-on passing situation for the two of the teams. Greta and Maui were my leaders, and they did the pass perfectly. I was less impressed when they tried to stop and visit the nice lady walking her two pet dogs on the trail, and even less impressed when they tried chasing a squirrel up a tree (sigh). We still have more work to do, I see.

BUT, I was right about one thing. I am one tired puppy tonight.

Swanny
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Highland Lassie 
Posted: 12-Oct-2005, 09:11 PM
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That sounds like such fun. I would love to do something like that. My lab hunter knows some voice commands I taught him. Their actually horse commands , and I taught them to him when he was a puppy. To have him walk I do a "cluck" sounds more like "tick tick" , and to trot I do two cluck clucks , and If I want him to canter I do the "cluck Cluck" sound faster , and with about four or five "clucks." When I want him to slow I say "Easy." When I want him to stop I say "Whoa." I use all thease commands with horses as well. I guess I wanted a horse so badly that I decided to make hunter "My Horse." I also taught him to "Lunge" like a horse as well. He's such a cool dog , he's very smart and just loves everyone.
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Rindy 
Posted: 12-Oct-2005, 09:17 PM
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Howdy Swanny,
Is it that time of year again? We have had snow here 3x.. I am glad to see your still doing this.. I will be thinking of you-lots of work goes into these.. I think I will see it up in Lander Wy. this year..

Do you still have Seamus??? Get some rest- think how the dogs feel..LOL laugh.gif

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stoirmeil 
Posted: 13-Oct-2005, 10:50 AM
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I hope this doesn't sound like a dumb question . . . unsure.gif

I've had dogs and I love them, but never a dog that was more than in the "pet" category. Indoor/outdoor companion, country when possible, town or city on a lead more often. The usual soulful, easy-going, medium-sized collie-shep mix, which are the best friends in the world. I can't have one now (between dogs? smile.gif ) and the city isn't especially good for them, but I look forward to the time when I can again, and it will probably be another silky-eared black and tan mutt.

Now, these dogs you work with are something else, with a different and bigger range of activity or function. Once, when I was considering looking for a Border Collie, I was advised against it, because I was told they were really serious working dogs in the brain, and they would get very bored and grouchy if they did not have their herding work to do. What about these guys? I can see how very useful they would be as working dogs, especially in rescue work or transport where vehicles would be limited. What you are talking about here seems more like competitive sport (racing), and that's another special function.

So what are your dogs like? How do they think of themselves, do they hop back and forth between being sport/working dogs and something more like a personal companion or "pet"?
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Swanny 
Posted: 14-Oct-2005, 01:20 AM
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Rindy - Yep, I still have both Seamus and Chinook. We've been able to identify Seamus' breeding within 90% certainty as an Anatolian Shepherd Dog mix. He's doing wonderfully well considering some his early training was neglected during my wife's illness and death. He's socialized very well with other dogs because I board him in a active sled dog kennel, and he's also doing very well with humans. Both are crucial when dealing with Anatolians, as they are genetically inclined to be very fierce guardians. Mike and I are talking of trying him on the team, start him out easy as a team dog and then as he matures move him back to wheel. I'm still working with Chinook for weight pulling, and we might try him on Mike's "retiree" team (they run a bit slower) to see what he does on the team.

Stoirmeil, that it truly is an excellent question. Thanks for asking. It just happens that Janece Rollet and I discussed this when she was up to visit in August.

First, it's helpful to understand that Alaskan Huskies are not purebred, in fact if they weren't members of a working team they would be referred to as "mutts" by any casual observer. Mushers breed very carefully for desirable traits, but don't mind "borrowing" DNA from a variety of sources.

It's also important to remember that every dog is an individual, with its own personality, its own intelligence level, &c. So the answer is very general and can not apply to every sled dog.

Janece noted that the sprint dogs are truly mentally active, "thinking" dogs, while the dogs running on long distance teams are much less mentally acute. It may be something that the mushers, without fully realizing why perhaps, have bred for.

Sprint dogs run short distances as fast as possible. They have to negotiate trails with lots of intersections and respond instantly to commands. In fact, when driving sprint dogs the timing of giving the command is extremely important, just as important when using a clicker to mark behavior when using opperant conditioning techniques to train for obedience, agility, &c. Sprint dogs require more stimulation during the "off season" than do the long distance guys, or they can become easily bored and of course bored dogs tend to relieve their boredom through unwanted behaviors like digging, barking at nothing, or other things.

Middle and long-distance dogs, except for the leaders, don't require much brain power, and in fact really smart dogs don't necessarily do well on distance teams because they are easily bored. Again except for the leaders, distance dogs just run and run and run and run and run, without much change of scenary. We often joke that if you are not the lead dog the scenary never changes. So, good distance dogs need to be animals that don't require a lot of stimulation.

Many mushers I know have retired sled dogs as pet dogs, and some are spoiled plumb rotten. Other mushers prefer other breeds as pet dogs. For example, 5 time Iditarod Champion Rick Swenson has a little Jack Russel Terrier that he adores and takes EVERYWHERE he goes. That JRT even sits in Rick's lap during his off-season work operating a 'dozer.

Of course the most important attribute of a working sled dog, regardless of specialty, is that they LOVE to run. They are SO excited about going out and if a dog is ill or injured and has to be left behind you can tell s/he is incredibly disappointed. Just as herding breeds are driven to herd something, and guardian breeds are driven to protect their herds or people, sled dogs are driven to pull and run.

Swanny





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stevenpd 
Posted: 29-Dec-2005, 12:26 PM
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Hey Swanny,

How goes the training? Any upcoming races?
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Swanny 
Posted: 29-Dec-2005, 03:25 PM
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I've been at work the past two weeks (I work at a remote industrial site on a two week on/two off rotating schedule), so haven't been out. We don't have nearly enough snow in the Interior, so the trails are in extremely poor condition, very icy with lots of roots, stumps and other snags showing through. There is no sign of relief in the near future, as the 10 day forecast is calling for more of the same, moderate temperatures and no precipitation.

Edie and Randy have been doing a lot of trail work and a little mushing. We're going to try to run tomorrow. Most of the long distance mushers in the area are still training on four-wheelers. Aily Zirkle and Allan Moore have made a couple of trips up into the White Mountains to try to get in some sled time. They are having some difficulties with injuries, including one of their primary leaders who sprained a leg very badly, and is only now starting to get back on the trail.

Thus far the Alaska Dog Mushers' Association has had to cancel all scheduled sprint races thus far due to lack of snow on their trails.

Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association ran the annual Two Rivers Tune Up, but it's looking pretty grim for future races. There are rumors that the Yukon Quest may either have to be re-routed or cancelled as portions of that trail are just too unsafe to take the risk.

South of the Alaska Range things are a little better. The Copper Basin 300 is coming up in just a few weeks and my friend Allan Moore hopes to repeat his first-place finish of last year. He'll have some stiff competition though, as several well known and highly regarded mushers are signed up. Aliy Zirkle will be running the Kuskokwim 300, which is run out of Bethel.

The best conditions at the moment seem to be in the upper midwest. The folks that run the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon are boasting that they have plenty of good snow, and have even increased the purse.

So, that's the news, and very little of it good from our perspective up here.

Swanny
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stevenpd 
Posted: 29-Dec-2005, 04:58 PM
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Sounds like a grim prognosis for the season. Let's hope things turn-around. Thanks for the update.
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Swanny 
Posted: 30-Dec-2005, 11:57 AM
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Have just a bit more news to share. Edie, Randy and I are going to try to run the dogs using snowmachine support tomorrow. Having an extra person along with the machine gives us a way to restrain a team if we have to clear a tangle or run into problems. It's pretty much become "modus operandi" for us this year.

Aliy Zirkle reports that she has had some "hard trail injuries" in her team. She's going to be traveling in search of snow over the next few days, heading into the White Mountains, and then maybe down south to Paxson. Her guys need the miles, but clearly it's become a balancing act for her training program, balancing the need to run against the risk of injuries. Aliy's "Skunk's Place Kennels" website is at http://www.aliyzirkle.com/ and is hosted by 'yours truly.'

The Copper Basin 300 is coming up right quick, and Allen Moore (Aliy's husband) faces some stiff competition. They are reporting that the trails are in and there is no indication of problems for that race. Info on the CB 300 can be found at http://www.cb300.com/

January 20th Aliy will be starting the Kuskokwim 300, from Bethel and Aniak and back. This is a coastal region very similar to the last leg of the Iditarod, and is a favorite of many Iditarod mushers as a sort of "tune up". This year's line up includes some very serious competitors so it should be an exciting race. Their website is at http://www.k300.org/ 7 of the 20 entrants are either Iditarod, Yukon Quest or previous Kusko champions, and several others are very well known middle and long distance mushers.

Swanny



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