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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Gee Over"

White Feather does an excellent example of a "gee over".

After posting this photo of White Feather on Facebook, I've had a few requests for some tips on how we train the "gee over" command. For those non sled dog people, "gee over" means move to the right side of the trail. Voice commands are the most common way to provide direction to the dogs while in harness. Incorporated in how we train those commands, and sometimes in addition to verbal praise or verbal correction, is the pressure or lack of pressure on the brakes. Each dog is so different and it's been a fun challenge for us to try to figure out how each dog learns best.

The method we try first on each dog is verbal praise for doing the "right" thing. We also use this on puppies for just about everything. If I'm putting a new dog up in front for the first few times, I try not to focus on anything else but that they're pulling and moving forward. Pick your battles, as they say. They may or may not have even heard the commands before so the words are meaningless, at this point. Whenever the dog moves to the right side of the trail on their own, I say their name and then add "good gee over", in a high pitched voice. Ideally, this is a good time to put your parking brake on and walk up quickly to praise even more, giving them a lot of positive physical attention. The dog may spend the majority of the time on the left side of the trail but if only once, they go to the right, the biggest deal is made of that one time.

Now, let's say I've got a natural lefty who is just not going to the right side and therefore I'm not able to praise the behavior. Here is where the other dogs come in. I try, when I can, to let the other dogs teach a new dog the commands. If I have a natural righty and/or a really good "gee over" dog, I'll put them up in front with the new dog and will place them on the right side and put a neck line between the two. Most of my dogs are more comfortable with pulling another dog over than pushing them but you can also use a "pushy" dog to your advantage in this situation and place them on the left. So now, I've got a dog who knows what they're doing up in lead. I give the "gee over" command, in a low voice and the second I do, the seasoned dog moves to the right, which triggers a quick jerk on the neckline to the right which indicates to the new dog to go to the right. Right! Once the new dog moves to the right, I praise like crazy. I always include their name and the command, "Good Arrow! Good Gee Over!"

A good thing to remember is that dogs hear inflection and tone and not always WHAT you say. Make sure that if it is a command, you are using a serious, lower voice. If it is praise, use a more exciting, higher pitched voice. And most of all, be consistent.

Another method, if there isn't another good "gee over" dog available, is to have one person driving the rig and another walking along BEHIND and to the side of, the leaders. I stay as far back as I can because I don't want them to use me as a crutch. I also don't want them to be able to anticipate what I will do next. I also use the word "walk" because training is better done slowly, especially if you're also trying to teach your dogs to pull. For this method, find a long, thin stick or twig with leaves on the end. You'll use this to prompt the dogs to move to the right by lightly brushing it up against their left side. We use the left back legs. The Hedlund Huskies have extremely good boundaries and will move very quickly away from a stick lightly brushing against their legs so this method works well with our dogs. Apply the same command and praise steps from the other methods. The musher tells the dogs to "gee over". If there is no movement the second the command is given, then the person walking well behind the leaders walks quickly up so they are in reach with the narrow stick, and gently brushes it against the left side of the dog. At the same time the musher should be giving the command one more time. When the dogs move, everyone involved goes crazy with praise, remembering to give the dog's name and then the command again - "Good Arrow! Good Gee Over!"

One last method that comes to mind, that has worked specifically with two of our dogs, involves using the brake on the rig. Both Phoenix and Oken should know their commands by now but do tend to wander to the left naturally. For these boys, when I see them wander across the center line, I say "Oken or Phoenix, Gee Over". If there is no movement, I apply the brake, making it more difficult for them to run unless they move to the right side of the trail. When they move, I release the brake and say "Good Oken or Phoenix! Good Gee Over!". Pretty soon, I don't even say the command and apply the brake, they instantly move to the right and I praise. 

You may not get them to do any of this on the first try and, actually, it could take you more tries than you dare to count and more training sessions than you had hoped, but they will get it. The point is, be consistent. Don't let the dogs set bad habits by your lack of consistency. Anything they do "wrong" in our eyes, after all, is entirely the your fault, not the dog's fault.

One big thing to add is to make sure you are in the mood to train and have the patience to train. An entire training session can be ruined by a trainer having a bad day or not enough patience. If you begin feeling this way in the middle of a run, pack it up, head home and try it again the next day. I speak from lots of experience on the topic of patience, or should I say, the lack thereof. Also, keep in mind, it should be fun or why do it?

1 comment:

  1. Linda, you are one fantastic educator!

    This is so helpful, and I thank you for sharing what can be some really hard-won lessons.

    My team last year was so well-trained by their veteran musher-owner that I didn't encounter many problems that needed correcting - until much later in the season, when my main leader decided to test me. It was SO frustrating and I really did need the kind of patience you describe.

    In the end, as you noted, it was the other dogs that finally turned the tide. And would you believe, it was my little rookie Ginsberg who "led from behind" in wheel after having had enough of the lead dog's refusal to "gee" at all and, thus, sitting in one place for what felt like hours.

    After the 10th or so "gee" command, he just pulled to the right, and his running mate did, too, and then two in the middle, and the co-leader up front, and finally my main leader relented and "gee'd" and that was the end of the power struggle!

    I know i could learn SO much from you!