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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Training Challenges; Leaders and New Puppies

Zala and Phoenix before Zala was demoted for goofing off. Little stinker.

Ari and Journey make a good wheel dog pair.

Phoenix in single lead

Lowering the training cart out of the back of the cube van with a winch.

Illy getting some of her special attention at harnessing time.

Zodiak is ready to roll!

Illy with Grandma Tuloon

Ilo and Sweet Pea in wheel

Wimzi and Aise

I was concerned that Klaus would be adversely affected by not being in lead so far this season. He is so easy-going and doesn't seem to mind. he does pull to one side of the leaders, however so in essence, he's leading. He takes any of the commands that the newbies fail to address immediately.

White Feather and Oken after a successful training run

Each time we head out onto the trail, be it on a training run or a winter excursion, we always have a training objective in mind. We've learned over the years not to have too many all at once and to pick our battles.

We always have general behavior expectations that get immediate attention such as line biting and maintaining general good manners at hook up and while in the team. Our specific training this week has been focusing on leaders and new puppies. Aise and Illy are 11 months old and its their first season in the team. Despite Aise's rocky start during our canicross hikes, she is doing wonderfully in with the team! Illy did an excellent job one on one for our canicross hikes and found it difficult to focus and maintain her confidence in her first run with the team, to the point of it being dangerous when her tug line was so slack, it just dragged on the ground behind her. The fear is that she could get her leg caught and tangled. Our next run would focus on Illy.

The first thing Illy needed was to get her confidence back up. While harnessing the team, we took extra time to spend with Illy, allowing her to jump up on our laps for comfort and attention. We slowed the pace down at hook up and made sure to praise her every chance we got. She was hooked up in point position, behind the leaders, next to Tuloon. Tuloon would not be as hard on her if she made a mistake like some of the other dogs would so she was a good, neutral choice. Off we went down the trail and Illy pulled her little heart out! Our training method worked.

Our next training challenge was with Phoenix on the "gee over" command which means to move to the far right side of the trail. Our initial method did not work. It's a method I was taught years ago and have used for years with success and it's fairly simple. The command of "gee over" is given and if the dog doesn't go to the right, you secure the cart, run up, crowd them over to the right while saying the command again, then when they are in the spot you like, praise by saying "Good, Gee Over!".  I did this with Phoenix AT LEAST a dozen times with no luck. He didn't appear to even be listening to me as I gave the commands and didn't look back to check when I was speaking. This isn't like Phoenix. He's very eager-to-please. This, to me, means that he isn't understanding what he's supposed to do or he can't hear me. I was speaking loudly enough to be heard so then we're back to his not understanding. This is the frustrating part because I don't understand why he doesn't understand but if I want him to work well for me, then I had better try to understand where he's coming from or there is just more added frustration and nothing gets accomplished. Rule #1 - it's usually always the musher's fault.

I made a couple last attempts at the method that wasn't working until there was a slight glimmer of light. He moved to the right, ever so slightly. When he did that, I immediately praised him then I completely shut my mouth. No more commands and only praise. When he gravitated to the center of the trail AGAIN, I didn't say a word. I just continued putting pressure on the brake with every inch to the left he was traveling until he began to move to the right. With every inch to the right, I slowly removed pressure from the brake until he was where I wanted him then, I not only let up on the brake but also kicked off (pushed) and said, "Good, Gee Over!".  I used this method for the next several minutes and it appeared to be sinking in to the point where, although he wasn't exactly where I wanted him on the far right, he was consistently a lot further right than before so I said good enough for today and called it a good training day.  Now let's see where this puts us on our next training run.

Today's run brought two different leaders and two different sets of training challenges. Aise has been known to be a line biter. This has got to stop. It is one of the MAJOR offenses in my rule book because she can release the dogs in front of her or, if she bites in the wrong place, she will not only release them but asphyxiate herself. I prefer, at this time, to train out the behavior than to use cables within my line as many mushers do.

The second training challenge would be more "gee over" lessons for leaders, Oken and White Feather.

Aise bit the line twice. The first time, I ran up and placed my hands over her muzzle and pressing tightly, I gave her full and close eye contact and said "NO!" in a very low and growling tone. The second time, all I had to do was growl from the cart and she released. This is ongoing training but hopefully, she'll be better on her next run.

We began the run with Oken on the left and White Feather on the right, up in lead. White Feather was on the far Gee side of the road. Wonderful! I love it when the dog naturally pulls to the right because it means less training in the area. Then there is Oken, who was running more down the middle of the trail than anywhere else. The first thing I've learned to do is set the dogs up for success and reinforce good behavior. White Feather is a natural righty so I put Oken on the right and White Feather on the left. She then naturally hedged him to the right and that's where he mostly stayed. This was after I used an extension of my hand to remind her of the proper position on the trail. This hand extension is a long flat "paddle" of sorts that is just used to tap the dog on the hind end or shoulder as my hand might do if I want them to move one way or another. With this "paddle" there is no need to constantly bend over. It looks and sounds far worse than it really is. Just like a "choke collar" can either be truly a choke collar or, if used properly, can be valuable training tool.

After the reminder, whenever I saw White Feather intentionally push him to the right as he drifted to the left, they each got praised with the words "Good, Gee Over, White Feather!" and "Good "Gee Over, Oken!".  Very little else needed to be done for their training on this run and they caught on quickly so that meant that I got less exercise, running back and forth from the leaders to the cart.

I'm very happy with our runs so far this week.  I think we all have learned quite a bit. Thank you to Lisa and Kristen for coming along and lending a hand!  Lisa had to miss today's run. She learned something very important on our last run; it's a good thing to hang on to your dog if they try to get away from you but it sure does hurt! Lisa successfully held on to Zodiak as he pulled her down the hill on her face. She did hurt her shoulder in the meantime but didn't lose the dog! See you on Friday! Sure hope your shoulder heals quickly.

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