This is probably the most controversial question out there, at what age do you start training your dog to pull, how much and for how long?
To tackle this issue, I first want to break down the subject in to two halves, mental and physical. The mental aspect is the learning and understanding of what is required that a dog learns over its lifetime in the sport and the physical aspect is the conditioning that the dog develops over time in the sport. For me the mental aspect is by far the most important in the early days and starts from the moment you start working with your dog. It is intrinsically linked to all other behaviours you seek to teach and train into your dog. The physical aspects, while important, are a natural progression as the dog develops and should not be rushed, especially in young dogs. People often ask at what age can a dog start? To me there is no hard and fast rule. I often hear the age of 1 year bandied about which makes no sense to me, as development is gradual there is no set time a dog physically matures so leaving a dog doing nothing then suddenly deciding on its first birthday that it is ready to run a race to me is as crazy as pushing a puppy to try to get it flying round the trail as fast as an older dogs as soon as it reaches a year old.
I start my training of puppies from the moment they are old enough to be out and about with mum. I have just bred my first ever litter of puppies and from about 4 weeks old they started learning about travel, as part of their life will be involved in travelling to events which can sometimes involve days of travel if we are planning a trip to say the North of Sweden. I will load the pups with mum into the van and take them to the forest where we train and let them get used to the feel of travelling in a secure crate with mum and adjust to the motion. Obviously at this age they are too young to be out on the ground as they are unvaccinated, but adjusting to travel and watching the older dogs train from the safety of the van helps them adjust from the very start. I am great believer in starting as you mean to go on in training and allowing the pups to experience as much as is safely possible from as early as possible. Once the pups are old enough I will let them out to mill around the stake out area and go on short walks after the older dogs have run, the whole experience of going to the forest to train should be a fun and happy one, setting the scene for later life.
When I started out, I read lots of articles suggesting putting puppies in harnesses and tying empty plastic bottles with stones in to the end to get them used to noises behind them etc or tie twigs and small branches to their harness, however I have never found any of this particularly useful and if anything, done badly could end up with a puppy being scared for life with a bad experience imprinted at a particularly vulnerable brain development stage. I always take my puppies to puppy training classes as all the general training and socialising every dog should receive is just as important for future sleddogs, these help to create a well adjusted balanced dog that can take the unexpected in their stride without creating fear or panic. Teaching a puppy when to pull and when not to pull can also be invaluable, I’ve heard it said by some that they never teach their dog not to pull on a lead as they don’t want to inhibit that drive in any way but often those same dogs can end up wasting so much energy in getting to the start line and waiting to go at a race that it surely must impair their performance.
Once the pups are old enough to be out doing short walks I will start using the general commands I want the to be familiar with on the trail. Most traditional Sleddog commands actually derive from cattle and wagon driving taken to Alaska in the gold rush era by prospectors and adapted to use for dogs (along with the standard team hitch formations favoured by most mushers not in the high arctic). ‘Haw’ (pronounced Haaa) is generally used to indicate a left turn, ‘Gee’ (pronounced G ee) is to turn right, ‘On By’ is to pass something, ‘Steady’ to slow down, ‘Hike’ to go and ‘Woah’ to stop. There are further adaptations used such as ‘Over’ followed by ‘Gee’ or ‘Haw’ to indicate you want the team on a particular side of the trail, which can be used too with further training. While you can teach your dog whatever words you like to indicate what you require, its often handy later on if your dogs are familiar with the more usual terms used as if another musher runs your dogs or they run with another team then there is far less confusion. I’ve found it hard work at times when I’m running other peoples dogs when some know one set of commands and others require another, this is particularly noticeable with people who maybe started out in mono sport activities with no intention of theirs dogs originally being part of a team.
The next few months for the pups is all about enjoying life and training is about shaping the future well adjusted dog you want, taking them out and teaching them about livestock and horses, other dogs and generally making them as bomb proof as possible as you never know what you may come across. I remember at my first international race in Holland the dogs were absolutely flying along when they spotted a Llama in a field next to the trail and I spent the next 1 minute 37 seconds trying to get my lead dog back on the trail as he was determined to get over the to the field where he saw the Llama. When I eventually did get them going again all momentum was lost and we finished 3rd overall, who knows where we could have finished had the dogs been able to pass better.
Depending on where you train and safety, it may be possible to let young dogs run loose with older dogs. I will typically let my dogs run loose following the team on short runs of a couple of miles from 5-6 months. Generally they will want to stay close to the older dogs as the pack instinct at this age is very strong and they will want to be part of what is happening, often running shoulder to shoulder with the dogs in harness. This is of course dependant on the puppy training and recall work you have already put in and to an extent on knowing your dogs. If you have a very independently minded dog that is likely to bolt after deer then this may not be possible to do safely. It is always going to be down to you to use your common sense and know your own dogs.
I can’t emphasise enough how helpful it is when starting out to find good mentors to train with if at all possible, not only will you learn so much but the dogs will learn so much too from seeing other dogs complete tasks so if at all possible try and train with other people, especially when starting out.
As the pups get a bit older the next step for me is to stop the team a couple of 100 metres out from the finish and then hook the pups up into the team and have a nice controlled run in when the older dogs are not too fresh and keep the pace to one everyone is comfortable at. This of course is followed with lots of praise, making sure all the dogs feel like they have all just won gold! it doesn’t matter even if there was a massive tangle and all the dogs turned round, its vital, especially in the first few runs, that every experience is positive for the pups, re-enforcing the fun and joy of the activity.
Once the pups hit about 8 months they should be comfortable running around 1 mile in harness. However, this is where real common sense and thought needs to be used. A young dog running a mile as part of a team is not pulling anywhere nearly as hard as a single dog trying to pull a full grown guy on a scooter. Be mindful that bones are still growing joints are not fully formed and you can do lasting damage at this age pushing a dog hard. All this training is still far more based on the mental learning rather than physical conditioning. Keep the physical work easy, never let the dog tire, finishing with the dog fresh and still wanting to go hell for leather is critical in cementing that positive mental ‘can do’ attitude. You never want your dogs to learn to fail, so set up every run for them to succeed. If you need to, run on a slight decline to help them, if you’re on a bike pedal to assist or scoot on a scooter. Remember keep it short, keep it positive, make it fun.
Once a dog reaches a year generally you can start to do more, they will be old enough to participate at local level races and can move on to the next chapter in their development, but its important to remain patient as the dog is still very young and only just starting on their Sleddog journey. Protect and nurture that youthful enthusiasm, you need to be the calm head and protect them from doing too much too soon. If you capture that spirit you will have many many fun filled years together running on the trails.
By Matt Hodgson