Good morning. I'm pleased to announce that I am awake, alert and oriented to person, place, time and circumstances. In other words, I'm conscious.
Yesterday was my first full day home for this R&R, and it seems to be taking me a bit to make the transition. The morning was pretty lazy as I did a little bit of laundry, got caught up on some mail, checked the oil and filled the fuel tank of the four-wheeler, noted the progress on the newest home improvement project (more on that once it's finished), and not much else.
The highlight of the day yesterday was running the dogs. Our cooler autumn weather is very welcome as it marks the beginning of serious fall training. These first few runs of the season are focused on behavior more than anything else, so I refer to them as "head runs". They give the dogs an opportunity to get their heads back into the game. The leaders need to remember their left from their right, everyone has to remember how to run past distractions, everyone has to remember how to prevent getting tangled up in their lines, and the musher has to remember pretty much everything a musher needs to know.
I have several young dogs who have shown they want to be leaders, and this year I need to work hard to bring them along. Cassie had an opportunity to run lead beside Just, who is the best sound leader I have in the kennel. That was a very easy training run, as Just is the best leader in the yard and Cassie is just a delightful student. It's amazing to me that the dog who is such a fun-loving scamp in the yard can take the job of leading the team so seriously.
In the second team I ran Denali beside Rose in lead, as an experiment. Rose is a very shy dog with humans, and though she's still a leader in training, she's coming right along for the most part. She is especially good in single-lead. Denali was a bit of an unknown.
As you'll recall, Denali came to me toward the very end of last winter, a gift from Yukon Quest Champion and Iditarod contender Sebastian Schnuelle. Sab retired from racing, and knowing my interest in Denali (Denali is Torus' grandson) he offered Denali to me. While we were discussing that, Sab wrote that Denali can run lead, but is not a dog that he (Sab) would consider a real leader.
Since Denali has rarely run lead at all, I wasn't surprised that he doesn't know his left from his right and that didn't worry me too much. When he and Rose were confused about a "gee" cue, Rose kind of surprised me a bit. She figured out what I was asking well before Denali, and then proved willing to assert herself by shouldering Denali into the turn. Here is a little video clip of that transaction.
The clip helps demonstrate some good training concepts, and also illustrates some training mistakes on my part that I will try to avoid repeating in the future.
The training opportunity came up very early in the run, while the dogs were still very fresh and therefore very motivated to run. For dogs with over 4,000 years of selective breeding for their jobs, running is an intrinsically rewarding behavior. The opportunity to run is such a strong motivator that it is a GREAT reward to reinforce the behavior you wish to train, just as food treats are a great reward for most dogs when training a static behavior.
Dogs learn best when given an opportunity to figure out what you are asking on their own. Rather than rushing up to pull the leaders into the turn I exercised some patience to give them a chance to interpret the cue and then respond. If you'll watch closely, Denali briefly turns his head in the correct direction, but doesn't quite make a move to go there. It wasn't until both leaders were facing the correct direction that I gave them a "marker cue" and hit the gas on the machine so they could resume running.
Nearly perfect timing is crucial to efficient training, but when training with either a sled or four-wheeler there is an inherent delay between the behavior and the reward. It takes a bit for me to respond to the behavior, get off the brake and onto the gas and for the machine to start moving. To buy a bit of time for all that to happen I give the dogs a "marker cue" that basically tells them that the true reward (reinforcer) is on the way. It's the same as using a clicker to mark a correct behavioral response to a cue. In this clip, the behavior I wanted to mark was Rose (on the left) shoving Denali into the turn, and the marker was 'Good girl, Rose'. You'll notice that when she heard the marker she persisted in the behavior to accomplish the goal.
I did one relatively important thing wrong in this clip. I repeated the "gee" cue over and over and over, without even realizing at the time I was doing so. Dogs have excellent hearing, and repeating the cue doesn't do anything to help them understand or respond to it. It is usually recommended that a cue only be repeated once. We wan't to teach the dog that the cue is "gee", not "gee, gee, gee, gee, gee....".
Should the dog be so uncertain that s/he stops trying to figure out the cue, then would be a good time to lock the brake, run up front, repeat the cue and guide the dogs into the turn. So long as they are trying to figure it out for themselves it will be more efficient to wait and reward the appropriate response once it is offered.
I probably won't run Denali in lead very often. I have no doubt he can do it and will do it as a competent trail leader when I need him, but the time needed to train him to respond to the various directional cues is more than I can afford to spend on an older dog. Besides, a team needs swing and team dogs just as much as it needs good leaders, and he's a great contributor. I especially appreciate his adaptability, he is quick to match the speed and work effort of his team mates. Maybe I'll start running him beside young Orion, to help him learn to pace himself a little better.
That's it for now. I need to do my morning kennel chores so we can go out and run some more a little later.