Stardancer Training and
"The mere presence of a true
leader is a known truth to the pack - not to be discussed. Some people,
though they discuss endlessly, will never be true leaders, so the pack
will never know their leadership." (Mitch
A good sled dog runs
and pulls. A GREAT sled dog runs, pulls, stops, turns, stands, and
performs many other behaviors when when asked to do so. Many dog
mushers are content to have a team of good sled dogs led by one or two
great leaders. I believe that through both physical and behavioral
training it is possible, and very desirable, to have a full team of
great sled dogs.
philosophy is simple. Make the desired behavior rewarding for the
dog. In practice it
becomes a bit more complicated. B.F. Skinner coined the term
"Operant Conditioning" to refer to his theory of how animals learn. In
the broadest sense, Skinner defined four ways to change behavior:
positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and
negative punishment. In the context of training the terms 'positive' and
'negative' mean the same as in mathematics. 'Positive' means you
add something, and 'negative' means you take something away.
practices rely primarily on positive reinforcement.
When a dog does something I like, I reward the dog with something he or
she likes. Most sled dogs like running and food, so those are the
most common rewards that I offer.
generally defined as things a dog will work to avoid and most aversives
fall into the catagory of "positive punishment" (adding something the
dog will work to avoid). I only rarely
intentionally introduce aversives into my training program because most
aversives are thing that frighten or even hurt the dog. I never want
the dog to associate me with either fear or pain. A mild aversive
that I may consider using would be to smear a bad tasting substance on a
piece of equipment to dissuade a dog from chewing on it or to stomp on
the brake to prevent a dog from chasing a small animal.
A much more thorough
explanation of operant conditioning can be found at
is a year round, full-time process in the Star Dancer kennel. I
train all of my dogs to respond to a variety of cues, even cues that
have nothing to do with mushing. I'm the only musher I know of in
my region who trains with clickers.
One of the
easiest cues to teach a new puppy is "sit". To train sit I merely
lure the puppy into the position with a food treat. The exact moment
it's butt hits I press the button on the clicker and give the puppy
something it really loves,
usually a food treat. Other cues I train all my dogs include the
classic "come", "saddle up" (get into the truck for a ride), "kennel up"
(get into your house, an airline crate or box in the dog truck), "hup"
(jump on top of your house, a table or other elevated structure), and
"settle" (relax in place until I ask something else). As soon as a
dog masters one cue I start training another. Once a dog has
learned how to learn, it can be trained to perform an unlimited number of
"Sled dog" training
has both behavioral and physical conditioning aspects. I introduce
puppies and/or new dogs to the harness and teach them the concept of
pulling by having them drag light weights around during walks about our
yard. During this early phase of training I can introduce the pup
to the behavioral cues of mushing, including "line out" (make the line
tight and get ready to go), "let's go" (the cue to start pulling), "gee"
(turn right), "haw" (turn left), "easy" (slow down), "on
by" (ignore a
distraction and keep pulling), and "whoa" (stop pulling). Since
the dog will be hearing these cues throughout his or her life, they are
When the pup has
figured out the basics I introduce the concept of working as a team
member by taking the pup out with a small team of experienced dogs.
During winter this is done on a sled, and the rest of the year they are
trained with a wheeled rig (picture below) or motorized ATV. If the pup is very young and it's bone structure not fully developed I
may have him pulling against a bungee cord rather than a "real" tug line
until it is physically ready to manage a heavier load and a truly
enthusiastic pup may end up running in only a neck line. At this
point training becomes a matter of both reinforcing the cues and
I try to take my
dogs for short runs with a cart or motorized four wheeler whenever the
weather is cool enough to safely do so (less than 50 degrees F. or 10
degrees C). During summer this may be
limited to only one or two short runs per week, and during the hottest
weather of summer dry-land training may have to be abandoned entirely.
As the weather cools in the fall dry-land training
kicks in in earnest, with the dogs running at least every other day to
build up their strength and stamina. Mileage is increased
incrementally as the dogs become more physically fit. As soon as
there is enough snow on the ground to control the team, I abandon the
four-wheeler and start training on the sled, increasing the mileage
dramatically and allowing the dogs to work at their most comfortable
I try to train my
dogs in a variety of trail, snow and terrain conditions to help
reinforce their response to directional cues, improve their physical
conditioning and become confident in every type of condition we might
encounter while afield. By mid to late winter we are usually ready
to go wherever we wish, whenever we wish, while having a great deal of
fun in the process.