Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sin and Redemption

Early season training for the team continues, and I'll post my last two training run journal entries below. The big story of the day is Amazing Grace, her sins and redemption. Grace is a 45# Alaskan husky from spring racing lines who Lynn Orbison and I are training for a friend who lives out of state. She is an incredibly talented lead dog in training who happens to suffer from canine obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Grace is a very high-drive little girl, who has issues with waiting. She wants to be doing stuff RIGHT NOW, so when she must wait her behavior gets a bit out of control. On Monday I made the mistake of putting her into her harness and then leaving her to wait at the truck while I harnessed and hooked up some other dogs. During her wait she bit at her harness. When we brought her to the gangline we noticed the harness was damaged, but hoped it would hold up long enough for her to finish the run. It didn't, and as a result there were some minor issues during the run.

Yesterday she redeemed herself very nicely. Lynn and I decided it would be wise to spend much more time training Grace to wait patiently. That started when I arrived at Lynn's kennel. When I opened her compartment in the dog truck, Grace immediately leaped out without waiting for me to prepare to catch and handle her. To her vast surprise I caught her in my arms, spun around and stuffed her right back into her box. On the second attempt she was much calmer and easier to handle.

Grace had to wait behind while we took one team on a training run. She was running on the second team we trained and we decided it was an opportunity to help her "line out". Line out is a cue we use to ask the dog to lean forward in the harness, keeping the gang line tight as we hook up other dogs, take a short break on the trail, &c.

For this lesson, I put Grace in her harness and immediately led her to the lead position on the gangline. I asked her to "line out" and then knelt in front of her, talking to her and reinforcing the 'line out' behavior while Lynn harnessed and hooked up each of the other 9 dogs on that team. It took a while, probably 10 minutes or so, and Grace did marvelously well throughout the process.

During our run we took a route that is new to the team, following some trails the leaders haven't seen before. Grace did an excellent job alongside a veteran leader named Just, from Lynn's kennel. This was remarkable because we had a dog in swing (the position on the line just behind the leaders) who is a little nut-case.

Scooby Doo is another very high-drive sprint racing dog who has a bad habit of grabbing the gang line and yanking it backwards anytime the pace is too slow to suit him. With rough trail conditions, that was pretty frequently. It's a terrible distraction to the lead dogs and I'm sure it must be physically uncomfortable for them, as well as terribly distracting.

As we turned around to return to Lynn's place, Scooby's line yanking behavior was getting worse and Lynn was becoming frustrated by it. She said "I wonder what would happen if we put him in lead, where he doesn't have a line to yank on." I shrugged and replied "Let's try it. With two of us on the machine he can't mess up anything we can't fix." She agreed.

I have to admit I was pretty curious as well. Grace has run beside Scooby on the Sacco cart, and they make a very fun, fast team on the little wheeled rig. Fast enough that the pair won 2nd place in this year's Alaska Skijor and Pulk Association dryland race.

We moved Just back into the team and put Scooby Doo up front, and he performed very well beside our Amazing one. Although he hasn't been schooled in directional cues he followed Grace's movements really well, and with his drive he set a nice pace for the team. Lynn was elated at the result of our experiment, and I suspect Scooby will spending more of his time up front, where he can get into less trouble and be a more effecitive contributor to her sprint racing team.

Here are my journal entries from our last 2 training sessions:

Monday, 10/20/08: 6.2 miles on fourwheeler, same trail and conditions as before except we took the turnaround loop to the ‘haw’ rather than ‘gee’ side.. Temperature ~ 0 degrees.

Max speet 14 mph, average speed 10.2 mph.

Nels and Torus (L)
Seamus & Grace (S)
Beau and Rose (T)
Sheenjek and Gump (W)

Nels still turns to look back at the team and me when up in lead, which makes it easy for him to spin in his harness and get tangled. He did that at the start and during the only stop we made on this run. Once again Torus tried taking the ‘haw’ at Paw Print path, but recovered when I brought the show to a stop.

At some point between the time I harnessed Grace and put her on the gangline she chewed her harness partway through. Lynn pointed it out to me, but all the dogs were on the gangline and screaming to go, and I thought it might hold up long enough to get the run in. I was wrong. It snapped as we launched, so she was pulling against only one side of her harness, and of course it was the “wrong” side. She scotched at Seamus frequently and was running on his side of the gangline (in part due to the broken harness) for most of the run. She was quite a pain in the neck about it, actually.

After the turn onto Grange Hall Rd. Grace went half nuts, and I looked up and saw a loose St. Bernard up ahead of us. I called whoa and locked the brake, at that point the Saint started running toward us. I tried to bail off the machine to intercept him, but the team was dragging the machine on the slick ice of the road. I had no choice but to stick with the machine lest I lose the team. The Saint gave up his idea and dashed into his home driveway (I presume), so we continued our run.

One the way back the Saint was back, along with a Labrador Retriever buddy. I decided to try to run the team by them and deal with whatever might come up. As we neared them the two dogs took off for home. I called my team “on by” and they complied very nicely. I was very pleased with them for that. I hope those folks don’t make a habit of letting their dogs run loose.

The remainder of the run back to Lynn’s was pretty routine. Some of my team wanted to go visit Ric Swenson’s yard as we mushed by, but Torus and, to a lesser extent, Nels pulled them on by.

Torus worked well throughout the run. Gump was his typical on-again / off again self. I’m seriously thinking about having him pull a chain broom next go around.

1st team. 6.2 miles, same route as before. Fourwheeler on hardpacked, thin snow.
Max speed 12.2 mph
Moving average 8.8 mph

Torus & Rose
Nels & Seamus
Polar & Kirby
Beau & Sheenjek
Gump & Jethro

Rose still has trouble with “line out”, but she’s working on it. She did the full run in lead beside Torus in very nice fashion. Torus missed a “straight ahead” cue on Paw Print, but only for a second or two before he figured it out.

Nels and Seamus were both hard working dogs on this trip. Nary a bit of concern with either of them. Polar and Kirby were likewise good working dogs. Polar is very shy, but after the run he was happy to take his biscuits out of my hand, which rather surprised me. Kirby is just a very nice, young dog.

Beau and Sheenjek worked well together. Sheenjek snarfed at Beau for just half a second on hook up, but certainly no big deal. Although Lynn was worried about the mileage, Jethro worked hard the entire run. Gump had little choice as he was pulling a chain broom. He kept a tighter tug during the first couple of miles before reverting to his slack tug line behavior, but I think the chain broom is a good idea to help him get into condition and I plan to continue it.

2nd team – 6.4 miles. Lynn’s to Paw Print to River Rd to baseline, gee/haw work in Swenson’s fields, baseline to lollipop loop around gravel pit, back to Swenson’s field, past his yard to PV Road to diagonal “cut across” trail to CHSR trail to Lynn’s yard. Speed not tracked.

Team at start:

Grace & Just
Scooby Doo & Nelix
Lucky & Lola
Spruce & Truly
Minnie & Glad

I’ll focus on Grace, as all the other dogs are from Lynn’s team. Grace has been having problems with patience, or rather with lack of patience, lately, so today we focused on behaving nicely even when very, very excited. That’s very hard for this little girl. When she gets excited her brain starts running faster than she can keep up, and pretty soon she starts doing things just to dissipate some of the excitement. Some of those things are not so good, like chewing her harness yesterday.

Grace likes to bolt out of her compartment on the dog truck as soon as the door is opened, which can be a problem if the human isn’t ready to catch her. Today when she tried it I spun around in a circle and stuffed her right back in. That startled her some, and she was much better the next attempt.

Lynn and I came up with a plan today. We harnessed Grace first and I took her to the lead spot on the gang line and hooked her in. I then stayed with her the entire time that Lynn harnessed and hooked up all the other dogs in the team. I asked her to ‘line out’ and then calmly and quietly talked to her while Lynn did her thing. Although she tried to scotch at the loose dogs running about, overall I’d have to say she did remarkably well.

She did a great job running lead next to Just, hitting most of her cues dead on and only scotching at her faster companion once in a while. Meanwhile, Scooby was being a nut case every time we’d slow down, yanking backwards on the lines as he sometimes does. Lynn was pretty frustrated by this, and asked “I wonder what would happen if we put him in lead?” My response was to shrug and say “Who knows. Let’s try it.”

It worked out just fine. Scooby and Grace ran well together. Grace was willing and able to guide him through most of the cues turns without undue angst. She did miss a “gee” onto the crossover trail and a “straight ahead” where it crosses the power line trail, but overall she did marvelously, and redeemed herself after yesterday’s performance.

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