Sunday, October 26, 2008

2 Canine Teachers

One of my favorite quotations was written by a dog musher by the name of Al Stead. Al wrote, "Dogs aren't just another species. They are spirits that can guide us to the truth. In order to be so guided it is necessary to be in the company of dogs, not just caring for them."

I believe that the right dogs comes to the right person at the right time, to teach the right lesson. As an example, I would point to my two most experienced lead dogs.

Darling Daisy came to me at 10 years of age (her paperwork claimed only 9) via the Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Control Shelter. I've been told that she was relinquished when her previous owner suffered a catastrophic medical problem that forced him to move into the city, where he was not permitted to keep his dogs. Born in the kennel of Denali National Park, and having spent her working career hauling freight in the back-country wilderness, Daisy was the most important animal that a brand new musher can acquire - a truly finished lead dog.

I have no idea who the musher was who had to relinquish such a precious animal, but not a day goes by that I don't thank him, and the Spirits, for her presence in my kennel. At 12 years old and very hard of hearing, she is basically retired. I take her on short, fun runs with other geriatric or slower dogs whenever I get a chance to do so. She still loves running and loves running in lead, but her failing hearing makes it difficult for her to discern directional cues. When confused at a turn she still offers every possible option until she gets it right, reinforced with an opportunity to run some more.

Today Torus is my "main man". From a combination of Susan Butcher and Attla/Champaigne lines and originally trained by middle-distance champion Eric Butcher, this 10 year is without question the best lead dog I can imagine driving. To describe him in a single word, I would use "professional". He has "been there and done that", and nothing seems to phase him. As a bonus, he's an incredible teacher. He is great about teaching his trade to my young LITs (leaders in training).

As I was thinking about these two veteran lead dogs this evening, this thought hit my brain like a sledge hammer. Darling Daisy taught me how to mush a team. Torus is teaching me how to TRAIN a team. They are both precious beyond measure to me.

Now, for today's training report:

10/26/08, Sunday: 8.2 miles. Packed and loosely packed trails on four-wheeler. Lynn O’s to PV Rd to gee @ Swenson’s, past Ric’s yard and around far end of field to baseline, to quarter the big field by next to Pheasant Farm Rd., to baseline, back past Swenson’s field to PV Rd extension to Lynn’s place.

Max speed 14.1 mph
Average speed 10.7 mph

Grace and Torus
Rose and Beau
Nels & Seamus
T-bone* & Fleckerl*
Sheenjek & Gump

Five of the front 6 dogs are leaders or leaders in training.
*T-bone and Fleckerl belong to Donna Thompson

I invited Donna Thompson to come train dogs with me, and she graciously agreed. T-bone apparently has issues when running beside her dog Minx, and she wanted to see if a change in running mate would result in a change in behavior. She also wanted her dogs to get in a good, long run as their behavior has been wild and wooley recently.

My dogs had yesterday off, because my lower back was giving me fits and I felt a day of rest and a long soak in the hot springs would do me well. I felt much better this morning, so my plan apparently worked out well enough. More importantly (it really is more important), the dogs were ready for a repeat of Friday’s awesome performance.

Grace scotched at Torus a bit at the start, as she frequently does. Torus was unusually firm in correcting her and her behavior the rest of the run was just fine. I let the dogs launch with the machine in neutral, but since the rear brakes get sticky when it’s as cold as today it was a huge amount of resistance. The dogs nonetheless kept it moving at a good working speed for the first quarter mile of our run before I shifted it into gear and let them pull against the compressing of the engine rather than dead weight.

Rather than repeating the same run we’ve done previously I called for a ‘gee’ to run past Ric Swenson’s place at the start of the run, rather than the return trip. They took the cue wonderfully and as we ran past Ric’s yard the dogs didn’t so much as turn their heads to look as his kennel. It was really quite impressive.

On baseline we had a head on pass with a pedestrian, who moved to the left side of the trail rather unexpectedly just before the team reached him. I cued the team “gee by” and they did a great job of passing. Even shy Rose stayed in line as we charged past.

When we quartered the field past Aliy and Allen’s place (about half way through the run) the dogs were more curious about the 5 horses today than Friday, even though the horses were further from the fence than before. Grace wanted to go visit but correctly quickly with a word from me reinforced with a jerk back into line by Torus.

Back on baseline another team was approaching the “T” intersection where we turn to quarter the field. Again my team charged past with little more than a few glances toward the other dogs. I imagine I sat a little taller in the saddle as they did that – sometimes it’s hard not to show more than a bit of pride in my well behaved team.

Just a bit before the intersection to Aliy and Allen’s place, Kaz was walking along the trail with baby Sam on her back. I doubt the dogs on my team have ever seen a “papoose” before, but their response was just a predictable as with the other pedestrian we encountered. Bill Greenslade was standing outside his house with another person as we charged by, and again the dogs did an tremendous job ignoring the distraction of his barking team and big, smiling wave.

The leaders wanted to turn to go back around Swenson’s field, but corrected nicely on the fly when I stressed the “straight ahead” cue. The took the “haw” onto the Pleasant Valley Road extension trail very nicely, and we had no problem at all getting a good sprint “home”.

When we arrived at Lynn’s yard, Randy Dunbar was just starting to hook up a team for his run. This required that Donna jump from the four-wheeler to help guide the team right past the very noses of his dogs. Although there was plenty of noise and confusion, there was no sign of trouble as we got our team well out of the way.

During this run we made only one stop, just long enough for me to don a mitten on my right hand. Otherwise the team did the entire run straight through without a break.

My God – it’s only October and these guys are running like a January team. I can hardly wait to see what the remainder of the season has in store for us.

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