Friday, October 9, 2009

Fall is here, the training run

The first run is always a momentous occasion! In a way, it is a little like "going back to school". That is the best thing I can compare it to because once you do that first run, training season has begun in earnest. That means getting up early on weekends to run when it is cold, getting up earlier on week days to get the runs in order to get "real" work done later. Though each run may not take all that long, the total time spent in the endeavor takes several hours by the time we load our dogs into our truck, drive to our training site (which may be anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes or even an hour away), unload the dogs and equipment, run them, feed them, drive home, unload them. It is a major investment in time and effort. Each dog weighs from 40 to 60 pounds and must be lifted up into the truck. The dogs can help on the boxes on the lower deck but for the upper deck it takes some upper body strength.

Wedsnesday we got up at 6:00 which is not all that early. The first thing we did was give the dogs some "baited water" which is water with a little meat or canned food or something to get them to drink so that they are hydrated before they start their run. We usually use a special raw meat product for this, but our shipment is not here yet so canned food it is. Then we had our breakfast. After we had breakfast we hooked up the trailer to the truck and drove down to the dogyard to load. We have a good setup and can load 16 dogs,water, and food into our truck in about 15 minutes. Then we started off to a place about 10 minutes from the house here, called Granite Plantation, it is mixed ownership with Forest Service, State Land and private timber. It has a wonderful network of roads with loops up to 10 miles in length.

I have 3 girls in heat now so I brought all the Samoyeds but ran them in separate boys and girls teams. I am also running a 4 year old Siberian Husky as a leader to work with my leaders. Wednesday she ran with the boys because I have two boys on the team who are not fond of each other and with the girls in heat I wanted to make sure that there would be no chance of "issues". So there were 4 boys and Cooper and 6 girls on each team. I ran the boys first, because one of those boys, Skye, will chew his tail in his dog box if he has to wait very long :0!!! Skye ran up at lead with Cooper, Pepper ran at swing/point by himself. He is also a leader and this a great place to train leaders. My wheel dogs were my two beloved brothers, Donner and Blizzard.

When the dogs were dropped from their boxes, and attached to their drop chains their excitement was evident. Tails were wagging. Some were spinning in circles. Some were barking. All eyes were on me. When the harnesses came out, each one laid out next to the right dog,the excitement clearly intensified, more barking. They love to get their harnesses on because I always give them a little rubdown as I do.Next the cart was hooked up, a snubline was attached between the cart and truck, brakes on cart set, 6 dog line set out. Now time to hook up!!! First the leaders, Cooper and Skye are hooked up, then the swing dog/s, then the wheel dogs. At this point it can get REALLY noisy, but my dogs are actually pretty calm. My call to get started is to say "Are you ready", then "lets go". "Are you ready" is when I want to see them lean into their harnesses, with the lines stretched out tight. When I say "let's go", I will release all the brakes and off we go. So wednesday I cried out "Ready" and Cooper slammed into her harness and Skye followed her lead. Off we went!They were running full out at the start but I held their speed down with my brakes. It is unwise early in the season to let dogs run full throttle. This can lead to injuries until they build up their muscles to protect their joints. They can also be more susceptible to sprains. Not far into the run their pace falls off. Their muscles are still "soft" from summer, we settle into an easy trot. At about a half mile I see just a couple tugs look like that are going a bit slack. Tugs are short for "tuglines" and are the lines that connect the gangline to the harnesses on the dogs. When dogs are pulling hard those are very tight. I stop for a break to give the dogs a rest. I wait until their energy builds, they begin to strain in their harnesses to go or bark. You have to understand that you can't make a sled dog run but you can shape good behavior. By waiting for them to regain their energy, they know that they can trust me. Sometimes I ask for a little more, as they get in better condition, on some days I may do hill or interval training, but I am always fair, my relationship to my team is built completely on trust and mutual respect. I stopped several times today, to give them a breather and then we would be off.

It was magical to be out in the woods, to see hear them breathing, to see them moving in synchrony, to feel their power. When we returned I put them back onto their drop chains on the truck for a nice broth of water baited with canned food again. All tails are wagging, all eyes still follow me. Its time to take the harnesses off, give each dog a little rub down, a dog biscuit or two.

Next I had my second team, the girls, to take out. I was so jazzed about this run. My leaders were youngsters, homebred Rose, and kennelmate Starr. At swing was Nova and her daughter Saffron. At wheel were partners in crime Willow and Kes (another story). I had contemplated whether to use the big cart or the little cart because these girls are not as big as the boys…..Silly me to wonder. I decided to use the big cart. We hooked up the grrrrrls team and when I said Are you Ready? Rose and Starr slammed their harnesses. Hmmmm I was pretty pleased (much of last year Rose ran lead with our old alaskan leader Jezebel). Off we went and this team of all grrrrls, all Samoyeds, was keeping up as good a pace as my first team which had Cooper and my big boys in it. At the first turn, there was a pause, these leaders are not real sure about their turn commands I can see. But Starr started to go in the "right" direction, I praised her with a "Good Gee" and then to my surprise and pleasure the team took off at a dead run. I slowed them down a bit with my brakes. At the next corner, at which point there is a lovely view down into the Hoodoo Valley, the team settled into a trot and we stopped for a breather and I admired the view. Next there is a left turn, and at this point we are halfway done with our run. At the next and final turn to the left we paused again. Rose and Starr were anxious at each stop to get going again but I was keeping a close eye on Kestrel who is 9 years old. The cardinal rule in training and racing as well is go as fast as your slowest dog. Otherwise you will be overrunning your dogs, which is frustrating for them, and because they do have a hard time keeping up also ends up teaching them not to pull because they simply won't be able to. They may not be "necklining" or dragging, but they may not be working. At some point you may make a decision, if a dog is just holding back the rest of your team, well maybe that dog is just not a good fit. But maybe that dog is not having a good day that day, there could be a slight injury even. In Kestrel's case, she is 9 and I think she deserves the right to go a little slower and I also know she loves to go and as she gets in condition she will do fine. It just takes her a little longer now. I have to pay attention more to her needs.

Now we are on the home stretch, a squirrel races across the trail ahead and up a tree. What say Rose and Starr, a Squirrel??? Like any self respecting Samoyed, they completely forget what they are doing (leading and running on a sled team) and head straight up the tree trunk, jumping at the base, their teammates behind them. Ok, time to stop, set my dirt brake, go up and line out my leaders, who promptly go back over to the tree where the squirrel is, sigh. I line them out a second time, telling them to "leave it" and to "line out". Hey they do it, they must have learned something last year!!! Sammies lining out with squirrel in tree. WooHOOOOO! Excited after the squirrel incident there was an extra boost in their stride for the next quarter mile or so. They thought about chasing some chickadees that were flitting about but kept going straight ahead.

I am grinning from ear to ear. This is why I keep 20 dogs. Sometimes at midsummer feeding 20 mouths I ask myself, why do I have so many dogs????? It's hard for me to do anything spontaneous. We always have to find someone to take care of the dogs. We can't just leave, you can't board 20 dogs and it takes awhile to train someone to properly care for them in our absence. But when fall arrives and the magic happens, I remember again that special relationship, what it is like to be out in the woods, larch turning, birds singing, just me and my team. Not every run goes perfect but that is the challenge, trying to put myself in their heads, what motivates them? I learn from the runs that don't go perfectly and sometimes from the ones that do like today that I didn't think would ;). Most of all I rejoice in the time we have spent together, them and I.Til we run again….Jill and the Dashing Sams (and Cooper)

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