Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
I’m fairly sure that if you looked up ‘Training a Dog team for races’, this is what would come up.
Camping trips, or ‘Checkpoint Training’, will prepare us for checkpoints at the Race to the Sky, and the Junior Iditarod, as well as future races. The dogs on my team that have not done mid-distance races before will get a chance to get use to the routine, before it is expected of them in a race. I am also a rookie at camping, so the same goes for preparing myself as well!
During a race, there will be lots of activity going on. Other teams moving in and out of the checkpoint, Mushers feeding their dogs, volunteers and an army of vets moving about, and a dog needs to be able to sleep while all of this is going on, so that they can be as happy and healthy as possible going into the next stage of a race.
We decided to do a mock camping trip last week, to give me a chance to test out equipment and skills with the safety net of still being able to go get something If I needed to, as well as learning what should be on my packing list, that isn’t!
We started the day by completing a 19 mile run with lots of climbing and going a bit faster than we have been. We pulled back in front of the house and I took booties off and checked everyone’s feet to make sure they all looked good, applying healing cream to make sure everyone was happy. ‘If you don’t have feet, you don’t have a dog’ was one of the first things I learned!
All the dogs got a massage and I bed them down for the next 3 1/2 hours. Each dog gets straw in their spot on the line to use as a bed, and insulation from the snow.
They had time for a short nap and to settle down before I brought food out in the form of hot chicken broth and kibble. Everyone chowed down and eventually the dogs settled in and went back to resting.
At just under four hours I went out and woke them up, massaging each dog, and taking them for a short walk to stretch and get their muscles moving again.
By the time I was done and began hooking their harnesses back into the tug line, they were screaming and yelling like they hadn’t just run four hours earlier. Their recovery time is truly incredible! We then began the second leg of the run. The woods were beautiful in the dark and the snow was amazing. The dogs sped through the run and came in looking happy!
Can we talk about the first few fall hook ups? In fact, let’s just talk about the first fifteen.
Take a moment and picture dogs that are bred to run and have endless amounts of energy and endurance. Then picture them sitting all summer until it gets cool enough to run again. Of course, if you read my last blog post, you know that they don’t actually just sit, and that I’m using it as an expression.
Now imagine these dogs finally being hooked up for the first time that fall when the temperature drops low enough.
They are usually a bit stunned, (at least my dogs), and they don’t quite know what they should be thinking. Hook up goes fairly smooth, and the run generally goes well enough, and you pull back into the yard amazed at how well they did. But deep down you know it won’t stay that way. But you can still hope.
By the second run they are usually quite a bit more crazy. By the third, they’re NUTS.
It’s absolute insanity, which I… fondly, refer to as Hellhound month, (or months, depending on how long it takes them to figure it out.). Last season, I switched my old mainline out for cable covered with rope so that it isn’t chewed through quite as easily. This decision was made after one of my yearlings chewed through my mainline and almost sent the rest of my team down the trail without me.
Even my wisest most experienced dog, Freckles, who is also one of my leaders, starts attempting to go through Necklines at the beginning of the season.
I can only assume that they are so excited to finally run again that anything that holds them back must be destroyed. They become, in the best sense of the word, Hellhounds.
This involves chewing lines, screaming like banshees, and just general chaos.
I remember one morning this fall having the most circus like hook up. It was the morning after I wiped out running two dogs with the scooter, and I had almost all eight dogs hooked to the front of the quad. The dogs were screaming per their usual Fall Hellhound attitude, and hookup seemed to be going normal for how Fall hook ups usually go. Until the brakes on the quad failed. Luckily it took eight insane in the brain Sled Dogs a few seconds to figure out that they were indeed moving forward, and my mother, who was at the back of the crew hooking Sunny into the team, was able to leap and grab the brake.
Sunny, who is sometimes pretty much scared of life, saw the quad rolling and my mom jump, decided that might be the scariest thing that could happen and, with no neckline on, backed out of her harness. She proceeded to run the front of the team to say hello to the other dogs, and then ran out into the gravel road. Sunny is very pack and ‘Christina’ oriented, so I wasn’t worried about her running off. I walked to the front of the team and called her, at which she promptly turned around, ran towards me, and took a flying leap into my arms. Of course, she didn’t think that would impress me enough, so she really truly tried to make it onto my head.
Thankfully I caught her and set her down, walking her by the collar towards the quad, (where her harness is still hooked up to the gangline post escape. Of course, in that moment, Sunny decided that the quad with its glowing orange eyes was most definitely a demon and she better get away as fast as she possibly can, and proceeded to attempt to back out of her collar.
Having previous experience with Sunny and her irrational fears, I immediately stopped fighting her and slacked tension, preventing her from backing out.
Meanwhile the rest of the dogs are still screaming to go, so this is all happening under a roar of noise in which neither me nor my mother can talk to each other, while she is clutching the brake for dear life as seven fully charged sled dogs attempt to pull her down the trail.
I made a snap decision to let Sunny go knowing she wouldn’t leave, and walked back to get her harness, walked back to where she had been, called her, put her harness on, picked her up, carried her back to her spot, and hooked her to the line.
Exactly three cars drove by while this whole fiasco was going on. I can only pray they weren’t paying to close attention, but I think that might be false hope, as they all slowed down quite a bit.
Eventually, after some time, hard work, and about fifty gallons of patience, the team starts to even out and training becomes more rhythmic.
During the summer months, the most common question that I get asked is ‘What do you do with them in the summer?’
First off, I typically don’t train the team unless it’s below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, with a few exceptions concerning the weather (i.e. Wind, humidity, clouds, rain, etc.), which means the dogs typically don’t run from late April to the beginning of September. So what on earth do we do with them?
Sled Dogs are still dogs and just like any other dog, they (mainly) need 3 things (other than, food, water, and sleep) to stay happy.
• Mental Stimulation
• and Attention
And if you’re Steampunk, you also need hugs.
Now count in the fact that these are dogs specifically born, bred and trained to run and love it.
Luckily, these hooligans are mellowed out by the fact that the sun in eastern Washington shines from 9-5 and they don’t like the heat, so they mostly sleep during the day. If that were not the case, I can assure you they would be getting into all kinds of trouble. Which they do anyways.
One common assumption is that Sled Dogs, being working dogs, don’t like toys. Well, I can tell you right off the bat that some of my guys would adamantly disagree. The reality is, or seems to be from my perspective, that sled dogs are not bred to ‘fetch’. They are not Labrador Retrievers, or Golden Retrievers, so it is not intentionally in their genetic nature.
However, they most certainly do have prey drive, and most, (though not all) of my dogs love to chase a toy.
I find that Kong brand toys stand up fairly well against sled dog jaws, so they partake in various keep-away games with each other, as well as chasing it and bringing it back, which I do in short intervals so they don’t get too hot.
The crew is also trained to do something called free running, where they all run loose and socialize with each other while exploring the world around them.
All my dogs have recall training, which means they know how to come when called. Some are better at listening than others, I’ll admit, but I trust them all reasonably well depending on the situation.
Swimming is another great exercise, but not all the dogs like the water. However the few that do, have great fun wading in their horse trough in hot weather, and I’ve even taken a few dogs up to Black Pine Lake to see how they handled actually swimming. My lead dog promptly panicked and leapt off the dock to ‘save me’ because she thought I couldn’t swim.
We try to get the dogs away from the kennel as much as possible by taking a dog for a car ride, wether it’s to go socialize in town, or get out on a hike.
Socialization is really important for Sled Dogs, and that’s one of the main things on our mind during the summer months.
In the grand scale of things, with the amount of time they spend sleeping, and the amount of time they spend playing, we try to minimize the time they are bored to as little as we can, but by the end of Summer, we all start to get antsy for what we know is around the corner.
The team and I ran in the Conconully Snow Dog Super Mush as our final snow race of the season. We finished 7th with a day one time of 1:35:44 and a day two time of 1:36:11. In a field of mostly sprint style teams I’m very happy with how we did. I decide to not go to the American Dog Derby or the Flathead Classic, and instead focused more on the training of the team.
We also have a new teammate!
Nellie comes from Night Runner Kennel, and is my lead dog Freckles’ niece. She is going to be a wonderful addition to the team and you’re sure to see her at the front of the team with her aunt very soon.
I’m excited to say that yesterday I made the official decision to run in the 2018 Jr. Iditarod! A 150 mile race for mushers 14-17 in Alaska. Next year is going to be a tough season both mentally and physically, and I’m not shy about saying that I am most definitely nervous, but I know that we can do it.
It’s time to turn our heads toward next season,