As the winter season draws to a close, I am finding a strong need to get some more training miles on last years puppies. They have had a few sporadic runs over the winter, but with training for the Quest 300 being the main goal, there has been little time for the yearlings.
Opinions vary from musher to musher on when the appropriate time to start training puppies is. Some say not before one year old at all, some say start lightly at 6 months etc etc. My routine has typically been to have them pulling a log or other object around by about 6 months to get the idea of what a harness and load feel like, but not much beyond that. There are a few key things I try to keep in mind:
1: Puppies, like humans, are all individual and will develop at different rates. Fiona and Casper are a good example. Casper seemed to take to the harness at one year old as if he had been born with it on and did not ever let his line go slack, providing I did not ask him to do something beyond his physical capabilities. His sibling Fiona, on the other hand, would pull like crazy for the first 4-5 miles and then have her head up, tail up and a slack line. Gut feeling told me that for some reason, Fiona was not mentally ready to do what I was asking. I decided to leave her out of the team for a while, only occasionally trying her, till one day, she decided that being a sled dog was actually something she wanted to do. This decision took two full seasons for her to make. She now is one of the hardest working dogs on the team. I believe that by not trying to run her till she was ready, I retained her trust and did not frustrate her or myself. I also believe that it did not give her the same oppurtunity to develop bad habits, which are much harder to correct than to prevent in the first place.
2: Keeping in mind that it is work, I do everything to make pulling a sled as fun and enjoyable as possible for the pups. I occasionally stop the team when all is going well to give them all a pat and some congratulations that they are doing a good job. In this way, I hope they get the message that when all goes well there is a positive reward in store. Part of this aspect is to be sure that they are not asked to run beyond their ability both physically and mentally. I have found that puppies have various attention spans for doing this kind of work, from very short to seemingly endless. Matching teams by attention span and attitude seems an elusive art at times. I also have to continually remind myself that they have good days and bad days too and not get too worried when a dog that normally pulls well seems off.
3: Keeping my expectations within reason is one of the hardest things for me to do. We all want a "race ready team" the first time they have a harness on, reality is quite different! Dogs seem to learn from each other, continuous (consistent) repetition, and positive reinforcement. Firm immediate correction of problems is probably one of the hardest aspects of puppy training to master. I do not advocate physical punishment when training as I believe it has a negative effect on the dog. I find the biggest thing to remember in trying to tie all of these aspects together is to remain patient and calm as the dogs will pick up on my mood and respond accordingly.
4: The biggest factor in successfully training young sled dogs in my opinion is to keep my temper and frustration level at bay when things don't go well. I had one of the biggest "ahaaa's" in this regard this past winter with Sarah and Bria. Being relatively new at leading this winter, they did remarkably well, but at times tried my patience greatly. On the way home from a two stage 70 mile training run, they consistently refused to take a new left hand turn which would have lead us up a 4 mile climb and then home. Instead they kept choosing to go back to the more familiar, flatter, shorter route home along the Alaska Highway road allowance. After leading them back around the corner four times, only to get back to the sled to find they had turned back to "their" trail, I lost my temper and let them know with a raised voice that this was not acceptable while dragging them back to where I wanted them to go. It instantly occurred to me when I looked into their eyes that they were now scared and furthermore would always have a negative association with turning this way if I kept up my behaviour. I changed my tactic and encouraged them to go the way I wanted patiently and with praise when they stayed where I wanted longer and longer till finally we got under way, going home the way I wanted to.
A famous Musher, George Attla, once said " if you want to get mad, go to the bar. Don't get mad at your dogs!"
Sound advice (the latter part anyway) I believe.
More on puppy training progress later.