To obtain the maximum thrill of skijoring with dogs, a team leader is, of course, a must...and you do not have to wait for snow to commence training. A wooden drag or even an old automobile tire can be used on bare ground.
First, you must teach the dog to PULL! This, in many instances, is surprisingly easy, especially with the sled dog breeds. The dog, after a little coaxing will heave into the harness and pay little attention to the drag. The drag itself should be heavy enough to make the dog feel its weight. A piece of plank or heavy board, sharpened to an inverted "V" at one end is ideal for a drag, as the point will permit the plank to slide by obstacles, such as brush or stones along a path chosen for the training. The situation described, assumes that you, the trainer, are either alongside the dog, using a short leash, or walking ahead of the dog, coaxing him to follow. Your aim, of course, is to train the dog to pull AHEAD of the load and the driver. This requires an entirely different approach, involving the use of the long line or leash to enable you to drive BEHIND the drag. In short, this is the first really crucial test of the dog's instinct for leading out, as he is now literally on his own. Few dogs will lead out in the very first try. Most will just sit and look back in reproach at you. Some will whine, or bark, or even lie down in protest at this outrage. And, if the driver is not patient, some will even fight the harness, and, in turing back toward you, will further complicate matters by becoming entangled in the harness and tow line. Whatever the situation, you MUST NOT give up at the dogs first show of disobedience or lack of understanding.
In a great percentage of cases, a dog will respond to training, (a) if he understands what is expected of him, (b) if he respects the trainer, and (c) if he is assured of some reward.
Understanding (a) can be accomplished through trial and error on the part of the trainer. Respect and/or love for the trainer, is 90%, at least, up to the trainer himself. Reward (c) may be a favorite tidbit, or an affectionate gesture by the trainer, after each show of progress.
It does help to start the lead dog training in familiar surroundings also. A path you and the dog have traveled together and where you trained the dog to pull a drag behind you, is a good spot to see whether the dog will lead out on his own. Dogs vary greatly in temperament. In the transition between romping and playing with a beloved master, to one of the serious business of pulling in harness, many dogs become confused, stubborn, and some incorrigible. For these reasons, lead dogs are, and always have been at a premium.
The final test of a good lead dog is one that will instantly respond to such basic commands as "Stay", "Lead Out" ("Hike" or whatever), "Gee" to move right, "Haw" to move left, and "Whoa" to stop. The use of a long leash, jerking on it to emphasize the "whoa" and pulling on the leash to the right for "Gee" and to the left for "Haw", is standard procedure in lead dog training.
Many fine lead dogs will follow a trail, or a course that other dogs have traveled ahead of them. For this reason, skijoring with dogs is possible in may circumstances without top lead dogs. We have merely cited the various phases of lead dog training to point out the possibilities for both amateur and advanced dog mushers.
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