Fall Mushing: Dryland Training

During our Mock Race. Laurie Schneider always lightens the mood.

During our Mock Race. Laurie Schneider always lightens the mood.

Fall mushing training generally starts when the temperatures dip down into the low 40’s. On the eastern shore of Maryland that often doesn’t happen until late October. So this year, as in years past, in early October we headed up to Maine to take part in a training weekend put on by the Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club. Called Mushing Basics and Beyond, the weekend focuses on getting teams out on the trail and working on passing drills, leader training and confidence building. There are presentations by a variety of club members who share their expertise on everything from dog care, training, racing, and equipment. You name it and if it has to do with mushing, the topic generally gets covered. It’s a great way to start off the season to review skills or to work with young dogs or dogs new to the team. I personally love the camaraderie of the weekend not to mention the opportunity to work with my team alongside other like-minded people. It’s a great time to share info, stories and companionship. My husband Kevin has gotten into the habit of writing up Mushing Bulletins which he sends to our family and friends who are curious about our trips and adventures. He wrote up several about our weekend with The Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club and I’ve included one here.

Mushing Basics and Beyond: Confidence Runs by Kevin Powers

You might say that I’m a fixture on the Ocean Pines Golf Course Practice Range. I love hitting golf balls. I love practicing. I take great pleasure in hitting a golf ball and watching it soar against the blue sky. But what I particularly like is practicing a shot I’m not very good at and seeing myself improve. That’s my idea of practicing. Concentrating on the stuff you don’t do well.

My experience in watching people practice at the range is that they spend most of their time practicing things that they already do well. They hope that they’ll never have to hit the shots they don’t hit well and this, of course, is folly. The Golf Gods are watching and they’ll make sure that that troublesome shot you haven’t practiced surfaces at the most painful time (e.g., when your boss is your partner).

There’s a lady who walks her dog early every morning on the golf course behind our house. Her dog barks at the head Musher and me whenever we pass. She pulls her dog off the cart path into the woods and he strains at his leash barking away. This has been going on for over a year. She never changes. The dog never changes.

One day, as we and our five dogs passed her, she cried out “Your dogs are so well-behaved!”, as if this was some genetic miracle bestowed on owners of huskies. What she didn’t hear was the “On-by” that was uttered by the both of us as we approached her dog. Our dogs were simply heeding a command they had been trained to obey. She needs to stand on the edge of the cart path, give her dog a command to sit and stay, and take advantage of the training opportunity that we provide in passing by. Eventually her dog will get the idea, but not if she stays in the woods and hopes he’ll change.

So, some golfers and dog owners have this in common — somehow they think that, if they continue doing what they are doing, things will get better. Confidence runs are designed to teach mushers that the only way to fix a problem is to first realize that you have one and then, secondly, to confront it head on.

Here’s how that works.

First, all teams are assigned a bib with a number on it. When the training run starts the teams exit the yard in numerical order. The first team stops about 25 yards down the trail and the second team passes it on the left and stops just in front if it. All sixteen teams do this until the 16th team has passed every team and is now at the front of the line. Then, the team that is at the end of the line (i.e., team #1) starts the process all over again. Your do this for two or three miles.

This seems pretty straightforward and easy. Well it’s straightforward but here’s the catch: the trail is narrow, so passing teams are literally brushing up against each other and you are required to run your team as slowly as possible. If any dog has a problem minding his own business (i.e., passing without sniffing other dogs or, even worse, snapping at other dogs) you’ll find out. You give the dogs the maximum opportunity to get into trouble so that you can fix the problem. Do this for a few miles and the next time you see a video of two sixteen dogs teams in the Iditarod pass each other without one of the dogs even glancing at the other team you’ll realize the training involved.

Now, you might ask, how does the musher fix the problem when she is riding the cart? The answer is that the musher is not riding the cart. She is walking next to the team so that she can immediately correct the dog who misbehaves. (Note: A can of lemon spray is great for correcting behavior. It’s harmless and the dogs hate it. Spray them once or twice and they’ll shape up the minute they see the can of spray appear.)

And just who is riding the cart? Moi, that’s who. The One-Man Pit Crew who is also known in this context as “The Handler”. I have a special colored bib to identify me so they can assign blame when I screw up. I prefer to think of myself as that famous British monarch, Elthelred the Unready who is sometimes called Elthelred the Ill-Advised. That seems like an appropriate moniker.

The cart I’ll be riding has three wheels, hand brakes for the left and right rear wheels, and a digger brake (think of it as an emergency brake) to secure the cart when stopped. Here’s a view from the cart as we wait our turn. Kodiak is in his “resting” mode.

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Before I know it, it’s our turn to exit the yard. I release the digger brake with my right hand while holding the left hand brake. All five dogs bolt at the sound of the digger brake releasing and the sled jerks forward nearly tossing me off the back. The left hand brake doesn’t seem to hold very well but I’ve got bigger problems relating to an ornamental tree the lower branch of which is threatening to separate me from my favorite Red Sox hat. I hear the Head Musher yell “Slow down!”, like I’m trying to go fast.
Well, things are going swimmingly so far i.e., I’ve not gone thirty yards, nearly fallen off the cart, nearly lost my Red Sox hat and gotten yelled at for going too fast. My goal of being named MVP of handlers may already be in jeopardy.
Here’s what it looks like out on the trail. It’s crowded and there’s a good deal of correcting going on.

Leigh Hunteman working with her pups

Leigh Hunteman working with her pups

Here’s the Powers Pack negotiating one of our many passes. Note the width of the trail and Chinook on the right ignoring the dog on the left. Love that guy!

Passing Drills Jessica Marie

Here I am thinking that I have everything under control, just before both hand brakes fail.

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Yesssiree, I’m cruising along, passing other teams like Mario Andretti in his prime. The dogs are minding their own business. Life is good. Then, I notice that the right hand brake is like mush. I mention this to the Head Musher and think I hear something like “Operator error!” There’s too much chaos on the trail and we are separated by a cart and five sled dogs so it may have been a garble.

Five minutes later, just as we stop before making a sharp right hand turn, the left handbrake also turns to mush. I stomp on the digger brake (remember the digger brake?) and the cart screeches to a halt. We are exactly half way through the run.

I’m thinking that I’ll just ride the digger brake all the way back to the yard. Then I remember that there’s paved road between us and the yard. When the team hits the paved road and senses that the yard is up ahead, which somehow they have an uncanny knack of doing, they are going to run like hell and the only thing the digger brake will generate is sparks on the pavement.

It’s in situations such as these that you need to stay in the present. Don’t even entertain that visual image that is creeping around the periphery of your conscious mind. The one that has you zooming right past the yard and straight down Front Street past the United Methodist Church, under the railway trestle, onto the main road and into the parking lot of Pat’s Pizzaria. It’s the same one that has an alternate outcome involving your tipping over the cart to stop it and being visited in Urgent Care in a body cast by the entire Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club because they can’t believe you’re such an idiot. Nope, don’t even want to think of such things.

Well, it took two guys holding the sides of the cart and the Head Musher putting a leash on the lead dog and removing the tug lines from the two wheel dogs (the dogs closest to the cart) to negotiate the paved road and get us safely back into the yard. (The tug lines are the lines that hook the back of the dog’s harness to the main gangline and give them the most leverage to pull the cart.)

Then the repairs began. Here’s Gary Chapman, who thankfully had already fixed our digger brake the day we arrived, working on the hand brakes. This confirmed my suspicion that Gary can fix anything. I can fix about anything as long as I’m willing to pay somebody twice as much to fix it correctly after I’ve finished. The repairs got me through two more confidence runs and got the Head Musher through a mock race on the final day.

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I’ve got one more section of the Basics Course that I need to tell you about –Agility Training. The objective is to get the dogs to trust the musher by having them do things that they ordinarily would not want to do. The theory is that out on the trail the dogs have to trust you and there has to be some way of fostering that trust. More on that in the next bulletin.

The One-Man Pit Crew

  1. Hi Kevin,
    You mention using lemon spray to correct the dogs. Is this a store bought spray or something you made?

    • Hi George, this is a spray I buy online. It’s called Spray Shield by Petsafe

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