Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs

Two Rivers, Alaska









Stardancer Training and Conditioning Methods

"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 Seavey) 

    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.

    My training 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.

    My training 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.  

    "Aversives" are 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

       Behavior training 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 cued behaviors. 

    "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 constantly reinforced. 

    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 physical conditioning.

    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 natural pace. 

    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.