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Dog Training: Sled Dogs
( Originally Published 1943 )
Few things grip the imagination as does the sled dog of the far north, where the Arctic snows and silence might conquer man and keep him in caves and huts, were it not for his dogs. Thru hail and storm, over hill and valley, scorning crevice and ice floe, the dogs run tireless and spirited,with steady step, as tho they dared the fury of the storm to challenge their prowess.
Teams are used for carrying mail, messages and parcels. The United States Army uses dog teams for carrying Alaskan mail. In some parts of New England such teams are used also. The Hudson Bay Company uses dozens of teams. Missionaries, mounted police, and trappers need them constantly. In the winter of 1934, a Connecticut village was snowbound and only by dog sled could supplies of food be brot in.
The Indian, before the white man's coming, used the sled dog. Both in northern America, northern Europe and northern Asia, the sled dog is a necessary and valuable means of transportation.
The breeds and types of dogs used show no uniformity. Much misinformation prevails regarding sled dogs and their breeding. Few purebreeds or pedigreed dogs are used. The eskimo proper, a breed recognized as purebred, and the Siberian huskie, the samoyede and the Alaska malamute, all purebreds, are typical sled dogs.
The terms huskie, malamute, Mackenzie hound, siwash and eskimo have been used variously. Some have sought to particularize the names but facts do not support the effort. The same dog in one section is called a malamute and in another, a huskie.
Practically every sled team represent a gathering of mixed bloods. Few teams carry even one purebred. Most teams are a canine League of Nations.
The Indians had their dogs but of no pure breeding. The safest statement to make is that a husky represents a dog crossed with a wolf. Usually the offspring is bred to a dog so that the wolfbIood will be minor.
Many breeds have been crossed with the native northern dogs and with the wolf occasionally, among them danes, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, airedaIes, shepherds (German), greyhounds, borzois, and collies. Good crosses for stamina and speed have been with airedale, collie and German shepherd.
From a letter written R. B. Lawrence, Canton, New York, who also sends us a picture of his team of five danes pulling a sled, we garner the following:
Web harness is preferred. The sled is a duplicate of the one used by Mr. Lawrence in Alaska. The only metal in the sled is a total of six brass screws: rawhide is used exclusively for binding and bracing.
1,200 pounds is about the limit these five dogs can pull. Recently they pulled a Ford car out of a ditch. In speed they made 120 miles last winter in three days, pulling a camping outfit weighing 565 pounds. Even after a hard day in the harness, they are ready to play when the harness is removed.
Who says that danes need heated quarters? Mr. L. when camping in the winter, has blankets for them and a tent, which is heated with a stove. He says: "This is the only disadvantage; if they were huskies, you would tie them to a tree and forget about them until morning." The dogs are driven daily 15 to 20 miles to keep in condition. They are always eager to get into the harness and to pull.
The average huskie mixed dog is characteristic of the dog of the north--woIfgrey color, tail curled over the back (to keep out of snow and traces), heavy wide skull, stub muzzle, deep chest, upraised ears, and heavy outer coat with close undercoat (a double waterproof, cold-proof coat).
An average huskie should weigh eighty to one hundred pounds. He howls rather than barks.
A team of dogs may consist of any number from one to twelve. Five is an average number. The tandem style of hitching,---one dog directly ahead of another, is used on account of the narrow trails. The Alaskan hitch consisting of two pairs (two dogs abreast), and a fifth or lead dog ahead, is used for racing. The fan shape of hitching is employed mostly in Greenland.
Dogs running abreast are inclined to quarrel. Leader and followers best Ets in with the dog's psychology. In every group of dogs, one soon establishes himself as leader and dictator.
Sled dogs have not good tempers. They are kicked and starved and they treat one another like their masters treat them. A frozen fish, or cornmeal mixed with tallow is an appetizing meal for them once a day at the end of the day.
In the summer the dogs range the wilds for themselves. They can bear any amount of cold. The most biting wind does not affect them. In weather below zero, they sleep outside upon the snow. The thick undercoat is their chief protection; the paw also is especially tough and thick. The lead dog is the important dog. The usual starting command is "mush" (moosh---IikeIy from the French "marchel"), altho the Eskimos shout "whit." A whip of rawhide, perhaps thirty feet long, is used by the driver for urging on the dogs with its stinging tassel.
The usual commands in addition to "mush" are-to turn to right, "gee:" "yew," or "ouk," or "owka;" to turn left, "chaughh," "haw," "euh," "ra;" to go faster, "kurri;" to gather the dogs, "howh, howh;" to stop, "hah," or "ho." In short, as one can see, there is little uniformity in commands; the sound depends upon one's nationality and to what the dogs are accustomed.
The spike leader in a sled dog team is a single lead dog hitched ahead of two other leaders. Gee and haw leaders are the two leaders, hitched at the head of a team; gee leader on the right, haw leader on the left.
Swing dogs are dogs hitched directly behind the leaders. Wheel dogs are dogs hitched next to the sled. Pointers are dogs hitched between the swing pair and the wheeldogs. A loose leader is a dog that runs ahead of the team, unhitched from the tow fine.
Mush is to go on. Hitting the tow line is pulling hard on it. Stretching leather is pulling hard. Throwing the buckskin is using a whip. Necking a sled is hauling a sled by a rope around the neck. Necking a team is said of a leader dog when he draws his team forward.
Tow line is the line to which all the dogs are hitched. Webbing it is going on snowshoes. Mukluk is an Eskimo boot with soles of walrus hide and tops of reindeer. Parka is a fur garment like a long skirt with a hood on it, worn instead of an overcoat.
How much can one dog haul? The amount depends upon the weather and trail. Fifty pounds per dog for fast travel is enuf. However for ordinary travel, eighty pounds per dog is an average. The usual team of five dogs will haul a total of four hundred pounds an average of twenty miles per day. A light load and a good trail will almost double the distance covered.
It is now customary to fit moccasin shoes on the dogs, with openings for the nails, when the trail is one of frozen ice.
In a soft or thawing snow or a very deep snow, the driver wearing snow shoes, breaks the trail. Here is an advantage also of the tandem or straigbtIine bitch as one dog makes the trail easier for the dog behind him.
A collar harness is used; the old breast strap is not satisfactory. Rings are attached to each side of the collar and these are fastened to the trace. A heavy flat strap joins the two rings across the brisket (front or breast) of the dog instead of a yoke or pole. BeIIyband and back straps annoy the dog and are not used.
There is one pair of traces for the entire team, running from the front dog back to the surcingle as on a horse wagon. Some teams carry bells and the sound across the snow is pleasing. Where the double hitch is used (dogs in pairs), there is only the single center trace and a hitch to it from one ring of the collar.
Sleds with runners are the common vehicle. The flat-bottomed toboggan sled is used occasionally. The usual length is eight feet on the bottom, a turned-up front of about two feet, and a width on the bottom, of about eighteen inches. The wood material is red oak, birch or hickory. 'Be sled has a brake. The driver, running along behind most of the time, also can retard the sled.
Homemade harness is most satisfactory. Duck or canvas cloth in five thicknesses may be used in the stead of leather.
Training a puppy for sled work is based upon the same principle which most other training is based upon-to cause the puppy to consider the training as play and by the time that he realizes it is work, be will be trained.
The second basic principle of course is represented by fish in the North, that is, the dog likes to be rewarded and in this case, a piece of frozen fish is his stomach's delight.
There is of course the sully dog who is obstinate and who will not willingly learn. He can be placed in the harness along with the other dogs and particularly be the last dog so that if he lags behind, the bump of the sleigh will remind him to hurry along.
When the cool nights come and winter will soon be on its way, make the harness for each individual pup; this harness is made to measure.
No commercial companies offer it. Let him wear the harness in play for an hour or so each day, increasing the length of time after a few days. Then place a trace to the harness and at the end of the trace a heavy block of wood, well rounded and smooth. Let the dog drag this along for a short period each day.
After he has towed this block around for almost a whole day, he has learned the feel of harness, not to be afraid of something behind him, and he knows how to pull. It is important that during this first training, the puppy go ahead of the trainer for sIedwork is abominable if the trainer must go ahead of the puppy.
Teach the young dog to stop by the usual sign "whoa" and to lie down by the usual command "down." Thus in the team the dogs lie flat upon the snow when resting and thereby are kept under control of the driver.
The command "up" gets the animals on their feet and their traces taut. "Mush" or "whip" gets the team on its way.
To teach the dogs to go right or left, that is, "gee" or "haw," a few rough shoves in the proper direction when the command is given, will in time teach the dog which is right and which is left. If he does not learn, he is too dumb to be a sled dog.
I must take issue with a tradition that has filled many books. The natural conditions and the struggle for food made the sled dog strong, aggressive and of fighting spirit. But the best teams and the winning teams in recent races have been those which openly showed affection for their master and gave the impression that they admired and worshipped him.
I mean to say that most of the vicious disposition of northern dogs is only a reflection of the cruelty of their masters in the past. Between the dogs of the sled teams, as they put every ounce of energy against the harness, and the driver should be a strong bond of friendship and loyalty. The dog of the North is no different from the dog of the South; a dog is a dog the world around and under the skin, all are brothers, and all have the same qualities of devotion, service and loyalty. In the frozen North there is no more reason for a vicious dog than anywhere else on the earth. The best dog teams are those which are trained properly, treated kindly and in turn, show their gratitude and love, by quick and willing obedience and speed and sureness of foot as the team rushes across the quiet snows of the North.