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Working Your Alaskan Malamute

Getting started: Working your Alaskan Malamute



Harness and Pack

the Alaskan Malamute, part of the AKC Working Group, is primarily a draft and packing animal. To these ends many owners wish to "work" their dogs in as close an environment as we can in this day and age. Working your Malamute is one of the best ways to give your pet a job they enjoy, providing an accomplishment based and positive reinforcement training environment, and connecting with your dog on a very personal level.

This article was originally written in 1996. The author was preparing for a trip to England as a guest of the Alaskan Malamute Club of the U.K. As part of the trip, she conducted a seminar for Alaskan Malamute owners on the topic of training Malamutes for sled work. This article was written for that trip. The information came from extensive interviews with Scott and Terry Miller and Jan and Sandy Hagan. 


Hiking or Backpacking with Your Dog (© rei.com)

Whenever I get out my hiking or backpacking gear, it’s my dog who is the most excited about the trip. he loves coming along, but it’s important for any dog owner who is planning on heading out into the wilderness with a furry companion to keep him or her safe and to be knowledgeable of your pet’s physical boundaries. 

The dog and I have been on an outdoor adventure nearly every weekend for the past 4 years, ranging from backpacking most of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails in stretches to canoe-camping for a week in the Cascades of Washington state. Here’s what we’ve learned.
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Planning Your Trip 

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  Trail Regulations and Etiquette. 

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Always check on the dog regulations for the areas where you’ll be backpacking. Most U.S. national parks, for example, do not allow dogs to share the trail.

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Maintain control of your dog at all times. Dogs are required to be on-leash at most maintained public trails. Most require a leash to be 6 feet or less in length, so I advise ditching your extendable leash. It may be great for everyday romps around the neighborhood to give your dog more freedom, but it’s rarely sturdy enough to live up to trail conditions.

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Having your dog on a leash isn’t enough. You should also be sure to keep him or her calm as other people and pooches pass by. Be aware of what situations will upset or aggravate your furry friend. If he or she is still getting used to other dogs, you might want to hold off on hiking for now.

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When I was helping Kiwi learn her trail manners, I was careful to pick trails that didn’t have a lot of traffic or I would go off-season. Although some trails don’t require leashes, I usually make the choice to keep Kiwi on hers, especially when hiking trails are shared with mountain bikers. Although Kiwi is a great hiking companion, she often can’t help but want to run up to dogs and children when she sees them, so I play it safe. Doing the research on the area you’ll be visiting is the most important thing you can do to make sure you’re knowledgeable and don’t put your dog in danger.

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  Is Your Dog Physically Ready?

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Ease your dog into the routine of hiking. If you want your pet to carry some of the load, start off by having him or her wear a pack around the house, then on short walks, then longer walks.

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You should also start with lighter loads. It’s safe to work to up to one-third of your dog’s weight if your dog is in healthy physical condition. For dogs who are older or in poor physical condition, consider leaving them at home with friends, They’ll be much happier… and safer, too.

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  First-Aid Preparedness

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Be prepared. Sites such as peteducation.com have a lot of great info about dogs, including many articles about first aid. Petco and the Red Cross offer first-aid classes, which I recommend highly, to offer you hands-on help. In addition, REI.com offers a selection of books that can help. One that I read from time to time is the Field Guide to Dog First Aid by Randy Acker, DVM.

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Once Kiwi got quite a gash from a coyote she ran into. I was lucky enough to have a friend who was a vet on the trip, but quickly learned how important it is to make sure one is ready to take care of their dog no matter what circumstances arise. I carry an AGS Pet First Aid Kit, which also comes with a great book to help you with what to do on the trail.

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Packing for Your Dog

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You’ve done your research, and your pooch is ready to go. Let’s start packing!

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  Food and Water

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Hydration is crucial for an active dog. Dog packs such as the Ruff Wear Palisades feature a nifty built-in hydration system for watering dogs. You can also consider collapsible food and water dishes. Kiwi is so hungry by the time we stop that I’ll usually just pour her food on a rock to cut a bit of weight when packing.

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Depending on size, your dog should usually be able to carry his or her own food and water. Do your research to make sure there’s going to be plenty of water to filter where you’ll be backpacking. Be sure to pack enough for both of you if there’s nowhere to get more. Dogs are susceptible to giardia protozoa much like humans, so be sure to filter and/or treat their water just as you would if you were going to consume it.

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As for food, I feed Kiwi nearly double what I would on a daily basis if it’s a really strenuous trip. Check with your vet to ensure your dog will be getting the right amount of calories for the estimated energy that will be expended. Your vet is also a great resource to advise on the exercise level that is right for your dog.

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Tip: One vet told me that to prevent dehydration, you can mix some Pedialyte with your dog’s water. My dog is about 60 lbs, and I mix in about 20cc’s with a bowl of water. Be sure to check with your vet beforehand to see how much is safe for your friend.

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  Sleeping Gear

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This depends on what the weather is going to be like—or how extreme it might get—for the days you’ll be on the trail.

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I remember one very chilly night when Kiwi actually snuck her way into the bottom of my sleeping bag. Eventually, I surrendered the bag to her and opted to sleep in my down jacket. I thought bringing along a self-inflating sleeping pad for her would be enough, but as she has short hair I quickly (and painfully) learned that when temps drop below about 50 degrees I need to bring along a bag for her as well.

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I’ve opted for a kid’s bag, but some of my friends carry ultralight 2-person bags so that they can snuggle with their pooch when the temperature drops very low. It all depends on your pup, the breed and learning what they need to be comfortable. It’s better to overpack the first time and learn than bring too little to keep your pal cozy.

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Kiwi doesn’t just lie on top of the sleeping bag; she waits for me to open it and gratefully climbs right in. Sometimes I find it easier to unzip the bag, have her lie on top of it and then zip her in. When it’s raining I’ll usually have her rest under the rainfly on her mat until she dries off a bit. Sleeping is no fun when you’re a sopping wet dog, especially when it’s going to get really chilly.

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  Dog Clothing

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In addition to sleeping gear, give some thought to your dog’s attire. Indoor dogs and breeds with thin coats can benefit from an outer layer to preserve body temperature in cold, wet conditions.

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  Dog Vest and Coats

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Kiwi loves her Ruff Wear K-9 Overcoat Dog Coat when it’s chilly, but something I also learned is that she really benefits from having her underside covered when we’re going to be backpacking in the snow. A jacket such as the Ruff Wear Cloud Chaser really helps ensure her belly stays nice and warm, especially when the snow is deep.

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If you’re going to be hiking in a very hot environment, you might consider a dog vest such as the Ruff Wear Swamp Cooler. Simply soak it with water to dissipate heat as the water evaporates. On the other temperature extreme, consider a fleece bodysuit that covers your dog’s entire body and legs. This suit is overkill when your dog is working hard during the day, but I’m sure any dog would appreciate PJs when it’s chilly at night. In fact, some dogs do just fine with an extra layer and no sleeping bag at night.

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  Dog Boots

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One of Kiwi’s least favorite items is her boots. When I lived back in Michigan, I made her wear them nearly all winter because the salt used on the sidewalks was quite damaging to her paw pads. Now, I usually just bring them with me. If I see her paws are getting chilly I’ll slip them on.

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Likewise, once she got a small cut on rocky terrain, and she was very thankful for the extra protection. I will whip out her boots, much to Kiwi’s dismay, when there is any snow on the ground, when it’s raining and near freezing temperatures, when we’re scrambling up rocky areas or if we’re on rock and it’s above 70 and sunny. I carry along the REI Adventure Dog Boots. Their soles are made from recycled tire rubber, but there are many alternatives, even dog boot liners. It’s a matter of finding out what your pooch likes the best.

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It may take a few tries for you to find the right pair that don’t fall off your dog when tromping through snow. I recommend testing out your boots on short walks and hikes before any big trips. Kiwi looked a little ridiculous and confused the first time I adorned her in footwear, but now she’s thankful to have it when it’s necessary. 

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Fitting and Loading a Dog Pack

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   How Much Weight is OK?
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As mentioned above, your dog can help carry the load. In general, young and healthy dogs can carry up to 25% of their weight. Some breeds can carry 10% to 15% more, while other breeds aren’t cut out to carry much at all. The amount you should pack also changes with age. Once again, this is a good topic to discuss with your vet.

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   How to Fit a Pack

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Your first step is to measure the circumference of your dog’s chest. Most packs have a specific size so you can find the corresponding measurement. Then place the middle of the pack on your dog’s back. Straps usually fasten around the waist, chest and/or around the neck. Adjust all straps to tighten the pack to fit your dog’s body. Don’t pull too tight, as you’re not going anywhere if your dog can’t breathe. Be aware that a too-loose pack can slip off.

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   Types of Packs

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Dog packs made specifically for mobile hydration hold a few items that are great for trail runs or shorter day hikes. Other packs are made specifically for training and exercise. Packs that work best for backpacking will have more volume and extra padding to provide comfort on your dog’s frame.

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   Pack Features

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All packs are designed to provide adequate weight distribution for your pet. Other common features:

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  • Dividers: So that you can keep food and water separate from any other supplies.
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  • Collapsible food dish: Fits perfectly inside the pack or sometimes zips on the outside.
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  • Pocket for a cooling insert: You keep the cold pack in your freezer and insert it into the pack before heading out; great for hot climates.
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  • Top handle: Makes it easy to hang onto your dog if you’re crossing a shallow river or up on a small ledge.
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You should also consider a waterproof pack if there’s a chance you’ll be in a lot of rain or snow. Also, the pack I use with Kiwi when I run is reflective and even has a spot to place a light. This really helps out with visibility, as many mornings in the Northwest are pretty foggy or sunless.

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Water Safety for Dogs

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 Are you planning to enjoy an alpine lake, cross a shallow river or paddle to your trailhead? Consider these safety concerns when your dog is going to be near the water.
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  Doggie PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices)

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Not all dogs are natural swimmers, which is why a PFD (a.k.a. "life jacket") can make sense. There are a couple of main considerations for shoppers:

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  • Type of activity: Heavy-duty models are meant for whitewater environments or rivers; others are designed for recreation on still lakes. There are even jackets that help your dog learn how to swim or provide assistance when they tire themselves out.
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  • Amount of buoyancy: This is based on the size of your dog.
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  PFD Features and Fit

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The key PFD necessities are proper fit and great visibility. Sizes are based primarily ony a dog’s girth measurement, which is the widest part of the rib cage. It should be snug, so that it doesn’t slip off, but loose enough so as not to restrict your dog’s mobility. Visibility comes into play by making certain that you, as well as those driving boats and paddling, can see your dog. So, though you think Buffy looks her best in deep purple, it may not be the best from a safety perspective.

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A handle, just like the one on my backpack, is something that is imperative on a PFD. Once Kiwi got a little too excited while we were paddling on the lower portion of the Gully River in West Virginia, and she hopped out while we were running through a slow-moving stretch. I was easily able to grab her from up top and help her get back into the boat with ease.

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The Coast Guard does not currently approve canine life jackets, so it’s best to do your research and splurge on a well-known brand. Though chain pet stores have a less expensive selection of generic life jackets, it’s definitely worth spending a little more to ensure your dog’s safety if you’re planning on frequenting the water with your friend. It should last you a long time.

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  Drinking Safety

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It’s always good advice: Watch what your dog drinks! Water in lakes and rivers can contain algae or parasites that can make your dog sick or even cause death in extreme cases. Keep plenty of fresh water on hand and train your dog to drink out of his or her bowl.

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This works well, but Kiwi’s love of chasing the waves means she always ends up ingesting a lot of water if I let her have this freedom. I learned that salt water can be extremely unpleasant. Now, I make sure I don’t let her play too long when we’re near the ocean. Ensure that your dog drinks a lot of fresh water afterwards; salt dehydrates dogs.

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  Post-swim

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It’s important to remove the salt, chemicals and extra stuff that may be floating in the water and end up on your dog’s coat. Also, if you have a dog with ears that flop down it’s a good idea to rinse out their ears or at the very least make sure you dry them out to help prevent any infection or irritation.

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Again, each dog is different. Some dogs will plop down when they start to get worn out, but others will play until you make them stop, even when they are exhausted. It’s better to be safe than put your dog in danger, so learn your dog’s limits slowly so that you can ensure they enjoy the water safely.

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  Toys

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There are lots of toys that float or glow to make your day at the beach or an alpine lake more fun. Kiwi likes the Chuckit! Amphibious Bumper Toy, but any store for pets will have tons of options.

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Other Dog Hiking Considerations

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   Additional Gear
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This is just the beginning of the gear you can invest in to make the outdoors a safe and fun place for your dog. A few other examples:

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  • Dog harnesses for more technical trails or climbing
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  • GPS beacons and leashes that fasten to you via carabiners
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  • Dog-specific bike trailer
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  • Dog tent (Not all dogs like these for overnights, but they can double as sun shelters.)
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  • Leashes (I prefer using a waistbelt system so I don’t have to hang on while I run; while backpacking, I like a leash I can clip to my pack.)
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  • Cooling collars for hot days
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  • Creams that help breeds that don’t need boots stay comfortable in the snow.
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  Disposing of Waste

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Let’s be honest here. Taking your dog means you must clean up after the both of you. Make sure you bury all pet waste just as you would your own—at least 200 feet away from trails, camps and water sources.

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  Post Trip

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At trip’s end, be sure to check your dog’s body for ticks, burrs and other objects. If you do find a tick, I recommend contacting your vet. There are different dangers for pets regionally, so a vet can help you decide if you should remove the tick yourself or come into the office. Also, I wash Kiwi with some medicated shampoo, as the plants that brush up against her can sometimes irritate her belly since she doesn’t have a lot of fur on it. However, most dogs will be fine with a quick bath.

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  Dog Resources

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Best Hikes with Dogs is a series of guidebooks specific to different geographic areas.

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In addition, there are some great blogs to learn more. I subscribe to the Ruffwear blog, and I read the Raise a Green Dog blog, which helps you find eco-friendly dog products that are safe for your dog and the environment. 

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A Primer on Working the Alaskan Malamute
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Getting Started

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You have always wanted to try working your dogs in harness, but you are unsure on just how to get started. Or maybe you have made previous attempts at it, but they have either ended in total disaster or have been frustrating and dissatisfying. You have dreams of seeing your dogs strung out ahead of you, gangline straight, tuglines tight, and heads down as they concentrate on transporting you through a snowy landscape. But in reality the gangline is down and the tuglines are not tight, their heads are up and they see every distraction along the trail, they stop without warning and far too often, they are deaf to your commands, fights break out, and the list goes on and on.

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Let’s face it. Working a team of Malamutes is a challenge. They are smart, and they are manipulative. However it can be done. The price is a great deal of work and large amounts of patience, but the results are well worth the effort. And the reward comes when you see that team strung out ahead of you, you see the straight gangline and the tight tuglines, you feel the snow hitting your face as it is kicked up by their feet, they don’t stop, and best of all -- they listen to you!

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First Introduction -- Dog Meets Harness

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Some Malamutes are natural pullers; others are not. But natural or not, they all must be taught that pulling is not something to be done at their convenience, if the mood strikes them. They must learn the command to pull and obey it just as reliably as a good obedience dog is taught to reliably jump or retrieve the dumbbell.

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Puppies should be introduced to the concept of pulling at three to four months of age. One method of doing this is to harness the puppy and attach the tugline to a light weight, such as a small log or small tire. Place a light choke chain on the puppy. The puppy is then given the command to "pull" and simultaneously pulled forward using the choke chain. Some puppies will do it right away, while others will throw virtual temper tantrums, screaming and hurling themselves on their backs. One way or the other, either on its feet or on its back, the puppy is moved forward a very short distance and then given a great deal of praise for its accomplishment. This is repeated, always with praise for pulling, until the puppy gets the idea to pull on command.

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Adults may also be introduced to pulling by this same method. A heavier weight must be used however. The weight must be heavy enough so that the dog, or puppy, knows there is something there and they must work to pull it, but not so heavy that they can’t pull it.

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On the surface this may appear to be too hard on a puppy. But think back to some of the antics you have seen puppies go through when they are leash-broken. More than one puppy has taken its first steps on a leash quite involuntarily and often not on its feet.

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Harnessing Up -- Holding the Line Out

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When a team of dogs is harnessed, the first dog to take its place on the gangline is the lead dog. It is the responsibility of the lead dog, or dogs, to hold the gangline tight while the other dogs are harnessed. This is known as "holding the line out".

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The method used to teach a dog to pull is also used to teach a lead dog to hold the line out. A choke chain is put on the dog. The dog is harnessed and put into position at the end of the gangline and given the command of either "up front" or "stay". The command is given and the dog is pulled forward enough to tighten the gangline. Don’t forget to praise the dog for moving forward to tighten up the gangline (whether it was his idea or not!). This exercise must be repeated an innumerable number of times until the dog reliably responds to the command of "up front" or "stay". You will find yourself constantly returning to the dog to correct them, put them back into position, and praise them. With enough patience and time on your part however, the lesson will be learned, and you will have a lead dog that will reliably hold the gangline out straight and tight while the remainder of the dogs are harnessed.

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During the harnessing process, the sled, or training cart, is secured by means of a quick release line. The anchored sled or cart and the lead dog holding the line out provide a tight, stable gangline for hooking up the remainder of the dogs.

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The same process is followed, but in reverse order, at the end of a run. The lead dog(s) again hold the line out while the remainder of the team is unharnessed. The lead dog is the last one to be unharnessed. While still in harness and hooked up, they are watered, and each dog is given praise for its work. Additionally sometimes a small treat is also given. Unless the lead dog is watered first, it may turn around and forget to hold the line out.

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After they have been watered, the musher will often drive them again, a very short distance. This is to prevent the team from becoming used to the idea that once they reach the truck, their work is done and they don’t have to do anything else.

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Equipment No Malamute Driver Should Be Without

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Most sled dog drivers have one or more "jinglers". A jingler is anything that makes a jingling noise. The most commonly used jinglers consist of a ring with several metal washers on it. When the ring is shaken, the washers make a jingling noise. Jinglers are not used during the time a dog is learning a command. Once the command has been reliably learned, then failure to obey the command while in the team results in a correction that is accompanied by the sound made by the jingler. Corrections are made by tapping the dog with either a piece of doweling, a piece of garden hose, a piece of thick braided hemp rope, or a slapstick -- with the jingler attached to it. The intent is to teach the dog to associate the correction with the sound of the jingler. Eventually it will evolve to the point where the sound of the jingler itself is sufficient to correct a dog.

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Three important points need to be made with regard to the use of a jingler.

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  • The jingler must never be allowed to make noise except when it is being used for correction.
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  • When the issue is one of growling, looking around at the scenery, etc., only the offenders are corrected.
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  • When the issue is one of failing to pull, all of the dogs on the team are corrected, not just the ones that are the most flagrant offenders. The dogs that are pulling are corrected very lightly, while the culprits receive a slightly harder correction.
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Lead Dog Training

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Almost any dog can be trained to lead a team, but some of them are a lot better at it than others. Either one or two dogs may be used in the lead position. Being in the lead position is stressful for most dogs, and sometimes two dogs, known as a "double lead", will work better at lead than a single dog. Two dogs tend to bolster each other’s confidence -- a trait that is a definite "must" at the lead position.

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Training a dog to lead can be most effectively accomplished by use of what is known as a "belly band". Use of this device allows the trainer to keep the dog up front, ahead of the trainer. Basically it consists of a band which goes around the dog’s belly, with an attachment that goes to the dog’s harness. This band serves a dual purpose; first, it prevents the dog from backing out of the harness, and second, it allows the trainer to "throw" the dog ahead of him. This is done by placing one hand on the collar, the other on the tug loop of the harness, and then giving the dog a hearty heave-ho forwards. The attached leash on the collar can also be pulled to one side or the other to teach the "gee" and "haw" commands.

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An alternate method of training a lead dog can be accomplished by placing two choke chains on the dog. One is placed so the "pull" is out to one side, and other is placed so the "pull" is to the opposite side. Attach two leashes, one to each side, somewhat like reins on a horse. Then the commands are given and the appropriate leash is pulled to move the dog in the desired direction.

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Dogs have a tendency to follow a trail. Training a dog to lead in an open field, where there is no trail, presents a much more difficult challenge. Two techniques can be used here.

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  • Give the command to gee or haw, and tap the dog on the opposite side with the slapstick/jingler
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  • Give the command to gee or haw, and go to that side and call them
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  • Open field training is very stressful on the dogs, so you don't want to overdo it. Open field training can be gradually introduced by initially following the perimeter of the field and then start cutting the corners. This gives the lead dog a visual target, and gradually the amount of corner cutting can be increased.
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If by now you think that you are going to be doing a lot of running, you are right! Training dogs, particularly lead dogs, requires a great deal of running back and forth. If you aren’t in shape when you start, you will be by the time you finish

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The Principle of Drag -- Don't Be Without It

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The underlying secret of training a Malamute team lies in always keeping their minds on what they are doing. In other words, forcing them to think about pulling. This is done by always making them pull against resistance or drag. If they aren’t pulling against resistance, they aren’t thinking about what they’re doing. Then they get creative, and creativity does not belong on a Malamute team. If you’re working on a wheeled cart, you may create resistance by dragging a tire behind the cart. If you don’t have a tire, then the last resort is to ride the brake. On a sled, resistance is created by dragging an auxiliary brake. This auxiliary brake is generally a section of snowmobile track which the musher can stand on in order to create as much drag as is needed. In particular, coming out the chute, or just starting out, they must be slowed down.

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Another favorite method of forcing the dogs to concentrate on what they are doing is to train on four-wheelers -- the popular ATV’s (all terrain vehicles). The dogs are hooked up to the four-wheeler, and it is placed in either first, second, or third gear with the engine just idling. The dogs must pull hard enough to continuously turn the crankshaft of the idling engine.

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When you wish the team to go faster, you can give the command to "pick it up" and simultaneously shift into a higher gear. This reduces the amount of drag the dogs are working against, and their speed will automatically increase.

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All training is done at a very slow pace, with the dogs pulling and working hard. They are never allowed to run "pell mell". In particular, great care must be taken when going downhill to see that they do not pick up their pace and rush downhill. Keeping it slow going downhill is particularly crucial to prevent shoulder injuries.

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Just Rewards -- Don't Forget the Praise

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Throughout all your training, never forget to take time for praise. When they have done well, let them know about it. After training, stop them and give them all a hug. Let them know they have done well. In obedience training, the saying is "cover a correction with praise". In other words, when you do correct them, and that will be often, then praise them for doing the right thing. Praise at the right time is just as important as a correction at the right time.

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When you give a command, only give it one time; then correct if the dog doesn’t follow the command. The purpose of the correction is to show (or remind) the dog what needs to be done. As soon as the correction starts to take effect, i.e. the dog starts to do what is wanted, then cover the correction with praise.

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After they have completed a particularly stressful portion of training, such as working in an open field with no trail to follow, stop the team and give each dog a hug and words of praise. It really pays off in the long run. Even when on the trail and continuing to move, let them know they are doing well.

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Commands -- The Ones Most Commonly Used (Outside of Hollywood)

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  • Come Gee -- make a U-turn to the right
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  • Come Haw -- make a U-turn to the left
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  • Easy -- slow down
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  • Gee -- go to the right
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  • Gee Over -- move over to the right side of the trail
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  • Good (alternately That’s Good) -- praise for the right actions
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  • Haw -- go to the left
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  • Haw Over -- move over to the left side of the trail
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  • Hike -- let’s go
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  • Mush -- used only by Hollywood
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  • On By (alternately On By Dammit) -- go past a distraction without stopping or slowing down
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  • Pick It Up -- increase the speed
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  • Pull -- buckle down to work and pull (quit gazing around at the landscape)
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  • Ready -- let’s go
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  • Right There -- telling the lead dog the correct trail has been selected or standing in the right spot
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  • Straight On -- don’t turn, keep going straight
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  • Up Front -- keep the gangline stretched out tight, stay "up front"
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  • Whoa -- stop
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Fighting -- What Causes It and How to Stop It

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Fighting is the single most difficult obstacle to overcome in working a Malamute team. Malamutes, as a breed, hold fighting to be one of their First Amendment rights and if given the chance will happily morph from a working team into a ten-dog furball. To put it in a nutshell, fighting will not be tolerated at all, under any circumstances.

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Fights start when the dogs lose their concentration and don't focus on pulling. When a fight breaks out, it is imperative that it be stopped immediately. One of the effective methods of stopping a fight is to whack the aggressor across the muzzle, and to use a great deal of force in doing it. For this purpose, it may be necessary to use something as drastic as a length of ax handle or heavy broom handle, with a jingler attached to it. Always bear in mind that in the long run, it is far kinder to the dogs to break the fight up quickly (though the immediate result may be quite painful) than to let them inflict serious damage on each other. Ultimately, even though you may not believe it at first, fights will be eliminated.

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During a fight, the dogs are in a heightened emotional state, and if you become hysterical or lose your temper, you are only adding fuel to the fire, so to speak. Even though you may be taking extreme physical actions against the aggressor(s), keep your voice quiet and calm! (Much easier said than done)

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The Art of Passing -- Other Dogs, Not the Buck

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Inevitably you are going to encounter other dogs, whether it be another team or loose dogs. The Malamutes must be taught to ignore these inviting distractions. Again, focus on pulling is the key. If they are concentrating on their work, they do not become interested in the other dogs. At first you may find it necessary to run beside them in order to correct any tendency to swerve towards the other team or loose dogs. Keep the dogs focused on their work by grabbing an offender’s tugline and pulling backwards, along with the command to "pull" in order to redirect their attention to the job at hand. Soon they will reach the point where no attention is paid to other teams, loose dogs, or even terribly inviting distractions like horses running in a pasture.

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At the "dog mushing camp", held by Jamie Nelson (defending champion of Minnesota’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Race), there would be as many as four teams of Malamutes working abreast, passing back and forth. When Jamie first told the participants about this exercise, they were all terrified at the prospect. But Jamie insisted they could do it successfully. Much to everyone’s surprise, they were able to do it, and no fighting or challenging occurred.

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A Word About Equipment

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An elastic, stretchable loop, called a shock absorber, is used to attach the gangline to the sled or cart or four-wheeler. The purpose of the shock absorber is to lessen the impact on the dogs if the sled or cart should hit a tree, for example, and come to an instantaneous stop. In addition to the shock absorber, a safety line is also used between the gangline and the cart or sled. The purpose of the safety line is to keep the gangline from pulling free and releasing the dogs in the event the shock absorber should break.

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A quick release line is used to attach the sled or cart to an anchoring object during the harnessing process. This line can be released with just a single pull. It allows the musher to release the line with one hand while hanging on to the cart or sled for dear life with the other hand.

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If you are running the dogs on snow, a snow hook should be on your sled. This is a large hook which can be stamped down into the snow to provide an anchor should you need to get off the sled.

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Harnesses are of the "over the back" type, where the pull comes from the back. They should fit snugly around the neck. The objective is to have them fit tight enough so they do not slide down over the dog’s shoulders, impeding the free and natural movement of the dog.

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The dogs are fitted with a limited-slip collar. This collar is adjustable and is made out of heavy webbing. It will only tighten up a limited amount, so that no dog can inadvertently be choked

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The lead dog has a short jerkline attached to its collar to facilitate moving or correcting the dog. If a double lead dog combination is used, they are not coupled to each other via necklines. This is to prevent one from dragging the other off in the wrong direction.

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Indelicate Subjects -- Watering, Peeing and Pooping

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The dogs are moderately hydrated at least one hour prior to running. Then they are put on a picket line in order to attend to those indelicate necessities. During the run itself, no "bio breaks" are allowed. In other words, if they have to eliminate or urinate, they must learn to do so on the run. If a dog suddenly stops in order to eliminate, it throws the entire team into chaos. Therefore when this happens, it is imperative that the culprit immediately receives a correction and the team must keep going.

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It’s even worse when the lead dog comes to a sudden halt. If a lead dog persists in either unauthorized watering of trees or fertilizing of the trail, one solution is move the dog back into the team. Then an unauthorized halt will often result in the offender being dragged by the rest of the rest of the team. When the team is stopped for a rest break, of course they are allowed to relieve themselves as needed.

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Putting It All Together -- The Keys to Success

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  • Patience -- infinite amounts of it
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  • Consistency -- consistency in corrections and expectations
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  • Praise -- always praise them for doing well, cover your corrections with praise
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  • Focus -- keep their minds on pulling
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  • Drag -- always keep them pulling against resistance
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  • Slow -- keep them working slowly, never allow them run "pell mell" like gangbusters (for ½ mile)
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  • No fighting -- fighting is not an option, swift and painful corrections for all participants
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  • Rewards -- reward them for doing well, stop and give them all a hug and a treat
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Keep your expectations realistic. Yes, expect a lot out of them, for they can deliver. But don’t expect every run to be trouble-free. Most runs are not. But then when that special run does come along, when they are strung out in front of you and pulling hard, and you realize the power and strength of these dogs, you will know it was all worth it.

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Linda Dowdy
rnBethel, Minnesota
rnComments or questions? E-mail me at lindowdy (AT) visi (DOT) com

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Copyright © 2006-2007 Linda Dowdy, last revision 061031


Copyright © by Alaskan Malamute Association of Eastern Pennsylvania (AMAEP) All Rights Reserved.

Published on: 2013-04-10 (1684 reads)

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