The summer is about fun. We certainly are not training the dogs in the hot season to run great distances by pulling ATV’s or carts… What we mainly focus on is letting the dogs play and have fun. But possibly unknown to them, we look at each play session as an opportunity to train. Sure, the dogs run around like third graders at recess and sometimes they seem to run with so much excitement that it seems nearly impossible to control! This is where we as mushers separate from being dog owners. Being a musher is not someone who rides on the sled taking in the scenery of some of the planet’s most wild places nor is it someone who has a yard full of dogs in the woods. What defines a musher is our bond we create with our dogs. We know everything about them and because of this, we are able to get on the same page with each and every one of our dogs and guide them as a team. Even on free run walks where control seems unattainable! Now, I am not saying we are perfect dog trainers. We certainly make mistakes and misjudge our dogs at times. Here is a side story, I may or may not spent half an hour trying to convince Willie ‘Jeep’ Nelson to come to me the other day. He felt it would be in his better interest to run around biting at wildflowers in a horse pasture occupied by five horses. One of which is a rather large fella named Captain. This horse weighs in at 2,200 pounds! Willie might be a big dog, but in comparison he is a very smalllllllllllllll horse. Willie wanted to play with what he thought were some big dogs, but when he got close he realized pretty quick that playing slalom through towering horse legs was probably a bad idea. Now, I eventually got him back, but this was after I looked like a complete fool standing out in a horse pasture holding a leash calling my big boy to come to me! Willie taught me a lesson on this experience. He taught me that Willie needs a little bit more training! So, I as a musher will spend a considerable part of the summer working on recall training with my goofball of a dog!
My point is, summer is a time when we can work on this sort of training. We want our sled dogs to behave like perfect ladies and gentleman so when it comes time for racing our dogs they are true professionals. We spend time exposing them to crowds of people that in a way simulate checkpoints in a race. We also expose them to wildlife (or in this case, giant horses) as well as other situations. We want our dogs come September first to be fully prepared for fall training where we begin conditioning our amazing athletes for long distance racing.
After all of this, when the temperatures do drop, or during a cool rainy day over the summer, we take advantage of this as a chance to hook up the dogs as a team to the front of our ATV and take them out for short training runs. In my situation, one of my goals this season is to develop some leaders out of my Jeeps. Especially after seeing some amazing potential with Comanche, Cherokee, and Rubicon who all have amazing genetics from proven one thousand mile leaders. I feel I have a good crop of young ladies ready to take the helm. My two current ace’s up front, Abby and Okie are reaching their golden years in competitive dog sledding. Quite possibly in a year or two both may become fully retired from the race scene and spend the rest of their days being couch potatoes and guide dogs for outrageous puppy walks. So I need to get my young Jeeps ready to lead the way for the future. Abby and Okie have been doing a great job training my lovely young ladies to be the next generation up front. After all their miles last winter taking turns guiding one Lady Jeep at a time up at lead, we had a defining moment with team Tukaway a few days ago. Abby ran in team and Okie stayed home at the kennel and Rubicon and Comanche lead the team out of the kennel! Folks, these two ladies are almost a year and four months old! They left with true confidence on a 3 mile run while running on the right side of the trail and taking gee and haw commands almost like veterans!
As a musher, this is a proud moment. I remember when these two pups were born, it was the start day of Iditarod 2014. They were just little balls of white fur about the size of a hamster. Now, they are pounding at their harnesses saying, “LETS GO!” while leading the team. Now, they are not perfect lead dogs, but that is what the summer season is all about. Fine tuning our canine athletes into true professionals. By fall when we return to Alaska, I hope to be turning heads with my two lovely ladies up at lead as we have head on passes with all the other great teams of Two Rivers!
As for Willie, our main goal for the summer is not leader training quite yet. For him, it’s all about convincing this big boy that he is in fact not a horse!