BEGINNER BASICS: DOGS FOR THE BEGINNING MUSHER
Beagle was a perfectly good dog. Although a little smaller than most of our old-time freight Alaskan huskies, his long-distance race background meant he’d be a little faster, have more endurance, and recover more quickly. He was good eater, and had decent feet and an above average work ethic. Over all, he was better than most of our dogs, but when we tried him out, he could not keep up with our big, leggy bush-raised dogs as they floated over grassy tussocks, brush, half-frozen bogs, open creeks, boulders and similar run-of-the-mill trapline trail conditions. He could not grasp that stopping three times a mile was part of the trapline job, and his work ethic drove him to the point of collapse. A good dog, yes, but not for what we needed.If you are planning on getting a dog team, know what you want to do before collecting a bunch of dogs. They need to be compatible with what you want to do, with each other, and with yourself. If you want to run a long distance race, Beagle would have helped get you to the finish line. But if you want to run competitively, he would not have helped because he was past his prime, and not even top-notch feed and training can change that. He did not have the speed required of a sprint dog, nor the patience and nimble feet required of a working bush dog.Familiarize yourself with the types of dogs out there. Maybe you want one of the purebreds so you can show them as well as run them. Learn about the hereditary and temperament problems that each breed (even each strain of any type of dog) can have. Alaska huskies, although not purebreds, are also not the “mutts” some people call them, and make an excellent choice for beginners. Unlike the pure breeds, their entire history revolves around sledding, resulting in a superior work ethic (translation: they want to pull). Hounds and hound crosses can make great recreational dogs but they do have special needs, including insulated houses in cold weather. Whether you plan on short weekend recreational runs or to race competitively, try to find people who do similar types of mushing, at races, symposia, internet sled dog groups, or other mushing get-togethers. If they don’t have any suitable dogs for sale, they might know who does. You can often find postings of dogs for sale at feed stores, on the internet, and in classified ads. Even if they don’t pan out, these contacts might know other people with your type of dogs for sale. Big racing kennels, large-operation tour guide mushers and others who keep large numbers of dogs often have some for sale.Be cautious when taking dogs from unknown mushers. Ask if they’ll take the dog back if he doesn’t work out for you. (We took Beagle on a trial basis, and he returned to his original owner.) Glance around the yard---is it cleaned daily? Are the dogs in good weight and healthy? Do you see any obvious injuries or illness? Are they on a good diet? Does the musher make an effort to match you with the right dog, or push a dog on you because he doesn’t want it?Remember too that unless someone is selling out his entire team, he is not getting rid of his best dog; often he’s getting rid of his worst. Always ask “Why are you selling this dog?” Answers a beginner might like include “He’s just a bit too slow for my unlimited team” and “He’s too quiet for me.” Bad answers include references to fighting, not pulling, medical issues, destructive behavior, and other specific problems that you may not be experienced to handle. You might be willing to deal with some problems (two-pills-a-day low thyroid dog, or a naturally-skinny dog than needs more food).One of our first sled dogs came from an Iditarod musher in 1977, who told us, “He gets bad feet if he runs seventy miles a day for more than three days in a row.” Well-trained and already middle-aged, Tok proved to be one of our best dogs. His feet were never an issue because we never ran him more than forty or fifty miles. Be cautious when considering dogs from the pound or rescue groups until you’ve gained some experience. Some are there because of a significant problem such as fighting, attacking other teams, or other behavioral issues. Try to find out why the dog was given up and be realistic about whether you can deal with the problem, and decide in advance what you will do with the dog if it turns out you can’t deal with it. Fosters who run and train their rescued dogs can give you details on its abilities, and you might adopt good dogs this way.Fighting is one trait beginner mushers should avoid. Serious aggression can cause significant injuries, vet bills and even death, and can result in dog bites in people. (Scars and nicks on a dog’s face are often caused by fighting.) Aggressiveness toward people is also big red flag, especially when children are involved. As we have said before, a beginning musher needs to start with trained dogs. Training a bunch of uninitiated dogs to work as a team with you as the leader is time-consuming and often frustrating. Put those same dogs into a trained team and within a few minutes most of the good ones will act as if they’ve done it all their lives. Even worse is starting with a litter of pups and trying to make them into a team when you hardly know what you’re doing yourself. Youngsters have so much energy they can create problems faster than you can deal with them. They “run backwards.” They chew, they get tangled, they go the wrong way. Make a mistake with one---go too far or too fast, or get mad at him, and he may be ruined for life. Far better to start at the other end of a dog’s life. “Used” dogs retiring from race teams or well-trained work or recreational dog teams often make the best teachers. You’ll be amazed at what a good leader can do and how smoothly a polished team can travel. You might be able to buy a small intact team that is aging out of their old line of work, whether spring racing or hauling around tourists. Even trained dogs must be given a chance to get used to you and your voice. Many trained dogs have been worked by only one or two people. They may respond to certain cues including tone of voice as well as words, so even an obedient leader might not recognize that word you keep shouting at them. Also, some dogs do not respect people they don’t know. Until he comes to know and respect you, he won’t perform the way he did for his former owner. Why should he? You’re not the Boss…are you? Don’t let him get away with disobedience, but be understanding until you get him figured out---and he gets you figured out. It is helpful to learn some simple dominance techniques. (For instance, teach a problem dog a trick: sit, lie down, or even just “Up” onto his house, and then insist that he does it before you feed him.)Look for dogs with similar backgrounds. Avoid mixing top sprint dogs (those trained to run and run fast) with aging Yukon Quest dogs used to traveling at a brisk trot for ten or twelve hours a day, or either with four-wheel-drive, three mph work dogs. Dogs with similar sizes and shapes work together more efficiently. Ask what speed they prefer, how far they are used to going, and what sort of trails they are used to. The more you learn about them, the more smoothly they will integrate into your team.Look for a nice attitude. You don’t need crazy dogs, but sullen or overworked dogs aren’t any fun either. Good beginner dogs are happy, healthy, and responsive to you, as well as reliable, consistent workers. Relaxed dogs are easier to handle than hyper ones. They don’t have to be slow, but you don’t want a rodeo every time you try to squeeze one into a harness, and it’s always nice if they haven’t chewed the lines before you even finish hooking your team up.Top-notch speed, super endurance and perfect conformation are not as important to most beginning mushers as finding dogs that can work together at what you want them to do. Unless you plan to breed dogs, something we do not recommend for beginners, neutered/spayed animals are easier to deal with, require 10 to 50% less food, and will not turn into puppy-factories. If you plan to jump right into competitive racing you need to be more particular. The best way to do this is to buy or lease a well-used team trained for the kind of racing you aspire to. If you want to be competitive, this can get pricey. Another option is to take dogs retiring from faster races (unlimited, for instance) and run them in a slower class such as 4-dog or mid-distance. Monitoring race results can help you locate mushers doing what you want to do. If they don’t have available dogs, they probably know someone running the same bloodlines.Do not head right into unlimited class races without some serious mentoring and training---we’re talking about your training as well as the dogs’. If you can’t handle an eighteen-dog string or manage that lengthy gangline, you would put both your dogs and your competitors at risk. In fact, learning the ropes as a recreational musher not only takes the pressure off, but also means you only need three to five dogs to have fun with. Start small until you really know just how deep you want to go. It may not be as exciting, but it’s less stressful, easier for the dogs (and you as their trainer), and a whole lot cheaper. Try to look at a number of dogs instead of snapping up the first ones that seem to halfway fit your needs. Whether getting one dog or a whole team, whenever possible run them with the former owner to see what the dog normally does, learn how well he responds (or not) and get an idea of his ability and attitude. Problems that the owner failed to mention might pop up (harassing a team mate, incessantly grabbing the line, not pulling) that may make you think twice about whether you really want this dog. Maybe a little excitement suits you, but a dog that can’t stop lounging might drive you nuts.Finally, when looking for good dogs, remember you should like them and they should at least be open to your advances, not ignoring you or hiding in their houses when you approach. Training dogs that you genuinely like and enjoy is a pleasure even if they don’t always perform perfectly. Handling an imperfect dog that you don’t even care for or that is incapable of trusting or responding to you is not. Of course, if you already own dogs suitable for running in harness, your biggest problem will be teaching them what to do. Again, find one good leader even if you have to borrow one for a season. It will make all the difference in how quickly your team progresses through training and how much fun you all will have doing it.Don’t pass up an imperfect dog as long as you are satisfied he’s compatible with what you need. (We’ve been looking for the “perfect dog” for 30 years and haven’t found him yet.) But remember, you want to mush because you enjoy it. Starting with the wrong dogs can quickly drive someone from the sport. Finding the right ones for a starter team will go a long way toward making you a life-long addict.Miki and Julie Collins run an 80-mile trapline by dog team in Bush Alaska, and are authors of Dog and Driver: A Guide For The Serious Musher. Sidebar for Beginning Basics: Dogs for the Beginning MusherQuestions to ask:Why are you selling this dog?What has he been used for? What position does he run in? Does he work well (pull consistently, obedient, not easily distracted)?What speed/distance/trail conditions is he accustomed to?Medical history: Current vaccinations/worming? Any serious illnesses or injuries that might have lasting effects?What are his best traits? What are his worst? How do you handle his problems?Does he like people/kids/other dogs? Does he fight? Under what circumstances?How much do you feed him? What kind of food?If the dog doesn’t work out, will you take him back?