Weekend Update by Arleigh Jorgenson
What’s New? Well, we are receiving some snow accumulation tonight as I write this!! That’s pretty good news. And, single digit temperatures are forecast for tomorrow night. Many calls are coming in for trips, trails are being readied, and the dogs are running. Dates are largely open at this time, but I would encourage interested parties to make their reservations soon as dates are beginning to fill up.
“How Mohawk learned what being a lead dog is all about”
I remember the day very well. I was leading a fairly long trip in the Boundary Waters. I think we had been out about six days, and I was leading just one client. He and I were becoming pretty good friends and I felt free to express my frustrations with him. I had been leading across an open lake to a familiar portage. Wyoming was my leader. Wyoming was a tremendous working and racing dog. He may be the last to get up after a rest, but when he leaned into the harness, he pulled as hard as he could until we came to the next stop. Then, he was the first to lie down for a rest. He couldn’t care less about affection or approval. They just didn’t interest him. Furthermore, he really didn’t care one way or the other about what I thought about anything. I loved him dearly, but maybe admired is a better word for it. Other words for Wyoming would be stubborn and independent. As we approached the portage, which was very familiar to Wyoming, he led me defiantly to the shore just 20 or 30 feet to the left of the opening to the portage. I was furious with him, but also very frustrated.
It was time for a break, so I declared it was lunchtime! I sat down and shared my frustration with my client. I had come up with the “Nurturing Their Instincts” training philosophy by this time in my career, but at that time, it was mainly a methodology for training puppies. As I talked, I began to realize that I needed to take the philosophy one step farther and apply it to training lead dogs. I began to formulate a plan.
Mohawk was a young leader who was just beginning to run by himself in single lead. I decided that the next time out, when I would have this green, new lead dog in front, I would bring him to the edge of Caribou Lake, which easily becomes windblown, and simply ask him to go. I would hope that there would be no trail at all. And, that is exactly what I did - one week later we arrived at the end of a portage leading onto Caribou Lake and there was no trail. So, I simply said, “Let’s go.” He looked back at me over one shoulder and I repeated myself, “Let’s go”, he looked over the other shoulder and I repeated myself again. I had decided that I would accept any decision Mohawk would make about where we would go, as long as we went somewhere. The lesson I was trying to help him realize was this, that when he is in lead, HE is in charge. Mohawk is at the front of the team. Where he decides to go is where we will go. All I will ever be able to do is direct him in the direction I would like him to go. If we are going to be successful in getting where I want to go, Mohawk will have to decide for himself to go there. The first thing he must realize, therefore, is that to be a leader, he will be making decisions. So, let’s force him to make a few.
It was amazing. After looking over each shoulder at me, he looked out onto the lake and took off. I said nothing except, “Let’s go”. He spotted a small little island that we usually go around before we turn to the left and run down the southwestern side of the lake to our intended portage. There was no trail, but the dogs all knew where they were and where we were supposed to be going. Well, Mohawk ran right up onto the island and stopped. He was really enjoying having his head so far. I encouraged him further by simply insisting that we keep going. “Let’s go, Mohawk.” He looked around and turned sharply to the right and headed for the northern shore. This was a new direction, the team had never gone this way before and they all picked up on it. It was kind of rebellious, or at least mischievous, and they picked up speed, following their new leader who was enjoying his newly discovered power to the fullest. Now I hit the brake. I slowed the team a little, but their power was too much for my brake on the ice. First, I called out a “Haw”. That is the universal command to turn left. Mohawk was not hearing anything I was saying. HE was in charge. I tried “Gee”, the right-turn command. Same lack of response. I had taught Mohawk well. He was certainly making his decisions and he was enjoying every bit of it!
Well, we soon approached the edge of the lake. As the wind blows across an open lake, it usually piles into drifts along the shoreline and we ran right into deep and deeper snow. As Mohawk began to flounder and struggle in the deep snow, he went up under a cedar tree and lay down. Now it was my turn to show leadership. I was feeling kind of confident and a bit amused by the circumstance Mohawk had gotten himself into all by himself and I began to lecture him as I went up to him and led him out of the deep snow. I said to him, “Well, isn’t this just great. First I said let’s go haw, but no; you had a much better idea. Then I said gee and you didn’t listen to that either. Instead you decided that it would be much better to just run right up into this deep snow and then just quit underneath this cedar tree with no place at all to go. The only thing we can do is just turn around and go back. So, let’s go.” Mohawk had a sheepish kind of look about him. I did not punish him or even raise my voice with him. I just told him and showed him that I could have some input into his choices. We ran back to the island and I simply said “Gee”. He turned right out onto the section of the lake we needed to go out onto. When we got to the middle, I said “Haw”. He turned perfectly and ran right down the lake adjusting his direction at my command perfectly. And, he fairly strutted up onto the portage! “Nurture their instincts”. Mohawk was trained, completely. And, he was a happy, happy dog. He was having great fun making all these decisions, and quite proud of himself that he could make things turn out well. Well, incidentally, when Mohawk was a little puppy, he was temporarily named “lover-boy”. He has always been a very affectionate dog and LOVES to please.
I have noticed throughout Mohawk’s life that he is an almost arrogant dog. When I need to stop on the trail and go back to help a client with his or her team, Mohawk will lie down in the front of the team, but not until he moves a bit to the side so that he can watch everything I do. He doesn’t even look at the other dogs. He is their king, his primary partner is not any of them, and it is I. As he gets older now, he does not run with any great enthusiasm if we are going on a simple run around one of our familiar trails. He loves challenge. He likes lakes with no trails on them and new portages to cross. He will literally swim through deep snow, or make figure eights, if that is what is required to finally find our way. He loves it, because he feels like such a big shot. He is kind of like that annoying little kid in a childhood classroom who knows all the answers to all the questions. You know the kid, the one who raises his hand and clicks his fingers in such an irritating way. Mohawk wants to be in charge. Good leaders want to be in charge. Make that work for you, encourage it. Make sure they know they are in charge and then find a way to convince them that you will help them be even more dynamic in their leadership, or perhaps that the decisions will always be easy because you will help them, always.
Another instance convinced me even more of the value of this approach. We began a morning run after breaking camp in the barren lands of the Northwest Territories of Canada. Everything is big up there. Our goal was to head eight miles down Walmsley Lake toward a point, which was identifiable that distance away by a prominent big bluff. I headed Mohawk right for it. But, the team just had no spunk. We meandered almost reluctantly down the lake. Mohawk was not listening to me very well and he seemed disinterested in my thoughts. The dogs had had a very nice rest and should have been fresh and eager. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Then I tried to look at the situation through Mohawk’s eyes. I noticed that he was looking down onto the lake directly in front of him. He hadn’t even looked toward this large bluff, much less seen it, or found it to be a target. He was looking at the patterns of the windblown drifts that were out in front of him. Between them were stretches of nearly bare ice, where the going was really good. He was trying to find the easiest footing. When I realized that, I started to command him to the longest stretches of bare ice and across the shortest sections of drifts to get to them. He realized almost immediately that I was now working with him and he started following my commands perfectly and with enthusiasm and next thing you know we were just cooking down that lake heading in the direction of the bluff which only I was keeping an eye on.
I’d be curious if there are any questions or comments out there about training lead dogs. Maybe I’ll have an answer, or maybe I will be stumped. Either way, we might learn something from each other. Check out Weekend Update in a couple of weeks, maybe we’ll have more to say on this subject. Every dog is not like Mohawk. Next week, I will tell you a little about Sherlock and how his mind and body works. Sherlock is a high- strung dog with a racing mentality. All he wants to do is go, go, go, as fast as possible. Shutting down the adrenaline enough so that he CAN think is the problem. See you next week.
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