I pulled the sled out of the garage and fumbled with the lines. The person I bought the sled from used three dogs and had a three dog gang line set up: two wheel dogs and a leader. I have only two dogs to use for sledding, so after some adjustments, tying, knotting and hooking I managed to bring the lines together in a way to use either one or two dogs. Note to self: order proper gang lines.
I harnessed Conan and hooked him to the sled. In my mind's eye, I saw this trial run going as perfectly as when I've helped with a team of seasoned sled dogs. I had every reason to believe this was going to work out beautifully. After all, both Conan and Portia had taken a pull training class with Linda Newman at Points Unknown (www.points-unknown.com), where we all learned the proper commands and the dogs had opportunity to pull me on a two-wheeled scooter and pull a four-wheeled cart with an 8 dog team (which included a collie mix, a standard poodle and border collie along side the requisite Siberian and Alaskan huskies). Conan and I frequently went canicross hiking in the warmer months and he seemed to have his directional cues down solidly: GEE (right), HAW (left), WHOA! And then there was last year’s skijoring adventure on the Gunflint Trail. If I could have stayed upright on my skis it would have gone better, but Conan pulled like a pro. So here in our own backyard, things should go easily, right?
Well, no. Conan has never done any pulling in the snow near our home. And the truth is Conan doesn’t take life too seriously. He can pull like a freight train, but actually working is not his forte. Conan thinks his role in life is that of a clown, he is one goofy boy who usually makes me smile, unless I’m trying to get him to do a little work!
Hooked up to the sled, I gave the command – “Conan, LINE OUT!” (sometimes cued as Tighten Up, meaning hold the line tight and wait for the next command). Well, it was a cold day so it’s understandable the Conan’s brain was frozen up. He would pull the line tight on my command, but as I walked around to the back of the sled, he followed me! My inner trainer was laughing… truth is, I’d never actually trained him for THIS… THIS being: pulling a sled in the backyard.
I always tell clients that you have to work with your dog in different circumstances, in different environments to proof them to be sure they will behave according to their training. Ah, but me being an impatient human, I wanted Conan to behave the way I thought he should and not the way he (wasn’t actually) trained to! I took Conan back to the front of the sled, “LINE OUT!” and again he followed me back to the rear of the sled. We were both experiencing a little stress and this was not going as well as I had anticipated. Well, needless to say he was not going to pull the sled except in a circle.
Well, if one dog won’t do it, it’s logical to add a second dog untrained to this situation to the mix, right? Probably not, but that’s what I did. I harnessed Portia, and hooked her up next to Conan, attaching them together with a neckline. Portia is a hard working dog. She is excellent at Schutzhund, a great obedience dog, she’s a thinker, and Linda pointed out during pulling class that she looked like an excellent lead dog for my German sled-dog team. So, surely she could help Conan get on track.
It took a little time but I finally got them to pull while I ran behind the sled. They took off into the field and angled toward a neighbor’s house. Josephine, the Avon Terrier, was barking like crazy at us. Certainly this was the most dog excitement she’s seen since the Yorkie-poo moved in when the eldest child returned home on college break with new pup in tow.
“GEE!” I yelled! “GEE!” Conan and Portia continued to run straight in Josephine’s direction.
“WHOA!” I tried. No luck.
Fortunately, my dogs are as out of shape as I am, and pulling a sled in 6+ inches of powder is a lot of work. I stepped on the runners and we slowed to a silent halt. Josephine was still secure behind her Invisible Fence, still barking.
I walked around the front of the sled and guided ‘The Team’ to the right, and we were off again: Conan and Portia pulling and me running behind. Another straight line, another “GEE!” command ignored. Again, I walked to the front of the sled, took my place as lead dog and guided the German sled-dog team toward home, they took off running and I caught the sled as it went by. This time they were pulling fast down a slight decline toward the house, I was even able to put one foot on the runner and kick back with the other. It was a brief 50 yard ride to the back door of the house, but it was totally worth it!
Sadly, today the temperature rose to 36 F and much of the snow melted. But rumor has it we’re supposed to get a few good winter storms in a row. I can’t wait to try dog sledding with my team again. The more we practice, the more fun it will be for all of us.