When I was an adult of mid-twenties-ish, my mother and I were talking in the aftermath of some thing that I don’t even specifically remember, although the gist was that I had done some major life thing in a weird roundabout way. At one point she said, “Well, you always did have to do things your own way” without a trace of exasperation, or resignation, or even disapproval, just… putting it out there. You are, daughter, what you are.
So that’s the way I am, and apparently the way I’ve always been. It should therefore come as no surprise that when Squash was old enough to get him in a harness and start some dryland training (starting with canicross, which is like skijoring except you are walking/jogging instead of skiing), I did it without company. Sure, I had resources – my beloved Ski Spot Run, Squash’s first momma, and a handful of online resources and acquaintances. And it’s not like I really forged any new ground – I approached the training the way it was recommended. But when it came to the nuts and bolts of actually going outside and training my dog, it was just Squash and me. I wasn’t interested in any meet ups, or training buddies, or local mentors. I don’t have anything against those things in principle, it’s just… I am what I am and I like to figure things out for myself.
Which is fine for teaching directional commands like Gee and Haw. For those of you who just said “whut?”, Gee is right and Haw is left. Why not just say right and left? Because Gee and Haw are supposed to be easier to say when your lips are freezing cold from hurtling through space behind dogs on skis or a sled in the middle of winter. Rather than subject this reasoning to cold weather scrutiny, I decided to just trust generations of mushers and go with it. They’re very easy to teach, just walk your dog and shortly before you take a left turn say HAW! and shortly before you take a right turn say GEE! and pretty soon they will make the association, because that’s what dogs do. While you’re training them, every intersection is magically transformed into an opportunity to practice two GEEs and two HAWs and receive numerous befuddled looks from your neighbors. Plus, later, when you screw them up (and you will, no matter how determined you are to be the first musher in history to never, ever mix them up because RIGHT has the letter GEE right IN in, for crying out loud how hard could it BE?) your dogs will generally go the way you TELL them to go, not the way you WANT them to go. Good times.
Anyway, one of the huge disadvantages to this approach is that there are certain skills that are easier to teach with other people and dogs around. For example, Line Out. Which simply means that the dogs go out to the end of the line and wait for what you tell them to do next. Lining out gets everyone in position and ready to go, and prevents lines from getting tangled up when you start moving. These dogs are lined out:
The line is taut and they are leaning into their harnesses (well, except Pip, but he’s just along for the ride), but they aren’t actually moving or trying to move yet. They’re waiting to be told “Let’s Go!” or “Hike!” No one actually says “Mush!” except in the movies, again because of the cold lips thing.
So as it turns out, when you have a young puppy and you are behind him and there is no one in front of him, teaching the concept of Line Out can be a bit challenging. That’s where other people and dogs come in, they act as a bit of a tease to draw your dog forward. Here’s how I taught Line Out at first:
It’s a bit hard to see, and yes I realize my garage needed to be painted, but I’m standing in the alley and Pip and Maisy are in the yard acting as the teases to get Squash to line out towards them. Later, when I started taking Squash and Maisy to the state park to scooter, I hooked them up to my trunk latch and that made it much easier to really work on it because I could get in front of them. Maisy still likes to turn around and look at me, which can result in tangles, but they’re getting it down pretty well.
So we surmounted that obstacle, but there was a bigger one looming. Namely, that Squash wasn’t all that interested in staying out in front or pulling. Not completely surprising, since he was young and inexperienced and half Not Alaskan Husky, and he had an inexperienced handler/trainer. But what to do about it? Having another team walking in front of you can be helpful, as is hooking up your young, green pup with an experienced sled dog. But I had neither of those things… or did I?
I realized that while I didn’t have an experienced sled dog, I did have Maisy. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on a leash has never been my greatest strength as a dog owner/trainer anyway, but Maisy and I battled her incorrigible pulling pretty much from the day she came home until the day I first wondered if maybe she could help me out with Squash. The more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed… because not only did she pull, but Squash adored her thusly:
So I decided to give it a try even though she didn’t have a proper mushing harness or any trace of even a drop of breeds traditionally used for mushing. If things worked out, a real one could come later, but we’d use her plain old walking harness to experiment in.
Now obviously, since I’ve already talked about Maisy and Squash as a team, you know that on the day of the big experiment, a beautiful thing happened (he’s in just a plain harness here, too):
This is from the first time I tried them out together and just let Maisy pull as much as she wanted to. They both went out and stayed out together the whole time. They were like some sort of crazy pulling, staying out in front team of baby mushing dogs. And it kept happening:
And it kept happening after they both got their new x-back harnesses:
And it’s been happening ever since.
I don’t know where she gets it, because she’s about as far from any kind of Northern breed as she can be. All I know is, Maisy is amazing at this stuff, a total natural. Once she realized that not only is she allowed to, but supposed to pull in harness, something clicked on in her brain and she started showing me things I never dreamed she was capable of. If Squash gets distracted by something, she either pulls him back on course, or runs between it and him and literally shoves him back on the trail. I didn’t teach her to do that – I wouldn’t even know how to begin figuring out how to teach her to do that. She just does it because she’s Maisy and she is totally focused on pulling, and she’s not going to let some distracted whippersnapper screw it up for her. On more than one occasion she’s shown some stunning intelligent disobedience when I’ve screwed up my Gee-Haw and gone the way I wanted her to go instead of the way I told her to go. And she Never Stops Pulling.
So it turns out that one of the best things that ever happened to Maisy and me was Squash. Without him, we never would have gotten into mushing and not only does it make her SO happy but it has totally changed our relationship to have this outlet for her rather than constantly battling against her urge to pull. We’re a team now.
And maybe it turns out that one of the best things that ever happened to Maisy and Squash was this stubborn insistence I have on figuring stuff out myself. Because without it, I probably wouldn’t have gotten her involved at all, and they are building a real partnership that is beautiful to watch. They’re a team now, too.
So yea. I always did have to do things my own way, but sometimes that works out for the best.