Have you ever wondered how our lead dogs are trained?
All our sled dogs start off excited about running. But not all of them have the skill or the training to lead the team right off the bat. Being a “lead dog” means being at the front of the pack when pulling a sled or ATV, and mushers rely on their lead dogs to keep the entire dog team in line. Often comprised of a “lead pair” (two dogs at the front who work in tandem), these dogs are not only hard pullers but are also smart enough to follow verbal commands. Their job is to keep the gangline tight at all times. The gangline is a length of cable that connects dogs via their harnesses and collars to the sled or ATV they are pulling. Having a tight gangline is important because it keeps the team pulling in the correct direction, it prevents pile ups and fights, and it prevents dogs from getting caught in the moving hardware components.
Dogs that are being trained in to a lead position are taught through positive reinforcement. We praise with our voice, petting, and food to let them know they are doing a good job when they “tighten out” or extend their tug line (the polycord connecting their harness to the gangline) to its full length. This in turn tightens the whole gangline behind them, signaling to the rest of the team that they should pull.
During training, it’s important to introduce distractions to see how a new lead will react to unusual circumstances. On trail, a musher will rarely be standing at the front of the team making sure the leads stay tight and everyone is behaving. New leads need to learn early that staying focused is part of the job–regardless if the sled behind them is stopped, if they see wildlife off to the side of the trail, or if a dog behind them is getting extra attention. For now though, we are able to reinforce good behavior and build confidence as new leads learn in the yard. Although unsure at first, their confidence is built through repetitive practice. Eventually new leads will be able to follow the verbal command of “tighten out” without a human standing next to them or directly rewarding them.
It’s important to end each training session with an equal amount of time giving attention and love, so each dog learns that training (which requires a lot of focus and can be stressful at first) is fun and rewarding.