I am one of the mushers/winter instructors at Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) and the last two falls I have been hired to train our sled dogs to prepare them (and myself!) for the winter dog sledding season. What is dog training, you might ask. Dog Training is many things. It is possible to discuss dog training using jargon such as “classical or operant conditioning”, “correction of behavior”, “positive and negative reinforcement”, among many other terms. And absolutely one who is embarking on the task of training sled dogs or any animal, for that matter, should familiarize themselves with those concepts and their meanings. However, that is the human intellectual aspect of dog training. As I said, dog training is many things.
Dog training is waking up at 5:30 am to feed dogs kibble, mixed with water to “bait” or trick them into hydrating themselves—water is just as plain, boring, and unappetizing to a dog as it is to any Outward Bound student. After feeding, the trainers scoop the yard. By that, I mean clean the yard of all fecal matter and dump it into a compost system designed to minimize waste and smell. After a few days of scooping poop, you begin to notice that certain dogs poop in certain spots. Some like to do it as far away from their bedding as possible. Rio will poop right next to his sister, Lucy, so that it is in between the two of them. Sue will poop and then immediately go to eat it. This is what we want to avoid. So we scoop the yard. Scooping the yard is dog care. Dog care is dog training.
Dog training is eating a big breakfast, often consisting of eggs, bacon, toast, a fruit smoothie, and coffee as viscous and black as used motor oil—and just as combustible. After breakfast it is running dogs. Running dogs is creating dog teams, hooking them up to a gangline (line that attaches a “gang” of dogs to a vehicle, such as sled or ATV, so that the dogs can then pull the vehicle), and then jumping on the vehicle and going for a “run”. On a run you are getting the dogs in shape by running them a bunch of miles and also running them on varied terrain so that they have to build muscles, dexterity, and resilience in tough situations.
Like I said, in order to run dogs, you must have dog teams. Running dogs is creating dog teams of 5, 6, 8, 10 or even sometimes 12 dogs. Creating a team is simple, but can be intimidating. First you pick your lead dogs. Lead dogs are the smarter ones—or just the well-behaved ones. They are the dogs that are always facing forward and pulling the gangline taut. They have their ears back and are listening, waiting, patiently, for you, the musher, to give them the command to go or whoa (stop) or gee (right turn) or haw (left). After the lead dogs, you choose your “team” dogs. These are typically less reliable dogs than the leaders or dogs that can potentially lead but are still learning the ropes. Dogs are paired boy-girl. Two girls or two boys will often fight, as they are biologically designed to compete with one another. Pirate and Mumbles are two boys who are both so mild mannered that they will never get frustrated with each other. In order to know how to pair dogs based on sex, personality, it is based on knowing the dogs. In order to know the dogs you must spend ample amounts of time with them. Dog trainers are known to work beyond twelve hour days working with the dogs. Dog training is getting to know and knowing all the dogs in the dog yard.
At the end of the day, dog training is about one thing: the dogs. It is about memorizing where each dog poops. It is about memorizing that Steppes gets three cups of feed in the evening, like her sister Loma, because they are both so skinny. It is about going to bed at the end of a long day sore from running alongside dogs for miles without stopping to teach them not to pee while running. It is about a feeling that you get when you walk away from the yard after feeding and scooping and loving those dogs and listening to their uniform release of sixty six deep bellied howls that seem to say “Thanks, goodbye, and we’ll miss you.” And then the soft tickling in the belly when you hear a single high pitched bark immediately afterwards and know that Jasper is back to playing with Otter before he curls up in the straw in his house to go soundly to sleep.