I had an epiphany recently. I belong to a few Facebook musher’s exchange groups, which are great places to find used equipment of all kinds. They are mostly dominated by sledders, but every once in awhile some scooter/skijor/mushbaby-appropriate gear comes up. They are also a great place to learn a ton from a lot of very experienced mushers discussing various topics with one another.
Occasionally, depending on the rules of the particular group, dogs are offered for sale or rehoming as well. For a number of reasons I’m not going to belabor but that are non-negotiable, there’s no way I can add a fourth dog to our household right now. But I still read through the postings for dogs because there’s a lot to learn from them.
Reading the descriptions of the dogs led me to my epiphany: “Trail leader,” “Strong in wheel, not a leader,” “Command leader,” “Best as a team dog,” “Versatile in any position,” and so on made me realize that with just two dogs, Maisy and Squash are both pretty much stuck by default in lead even if that’s not the position that suits them best. Even if it’s not the position that suits them best.
Maisy is perfect for lead. She is focused, smart, knows her directional commands, and running is far more motivating to her than distractions so she has a stellar ON BY. She naturally body blocks, pulls, or shoves Squash back on the trail when his ON BY fails. She’s shown some pretty impressive intelligent disobedience. And she has an incredible work ethic; even when tired she will put up a tremendous effort. Once she gets that harness on, she is all serious business.
But honestly, I don’t think lead is the position that suits Squash best. It’s no secret that I’ve battled (and continue to battle) his distractibility. Part of that is his age, and as he matures and we practice more and more it is improving, but part of it is his personality. His work ethic isn’t the best; when he gets tired his interest and effort wanes considerably (although with the treadmill conditioning he’s been doing, this is improving as well). He enjoys running, but he doesn’t LOVE it the way Maisy does. But he knows his directional commands, will take direction from either me or Maisy, he’s ridiculously strong, and he’s an incredibly goofy and fun dog to be around. I think he’s really a wheel boy; he’s a physical powerhouse but mentally needs direction. In a large team, or even a three-dog team with Maisy and another dog in lead, I think he’d be a fantastic wheel.
But… I don’t have a large team, or even a three-dog team. I have a two-dog team. And that’s not going to change any time soon.
Now, this epiphany isn’t going to make me stop scootering and skijoring with Squash. We’re all still having fun and getting exercise and learning and bonding with each other, and his weaknesses are improving over time. This isn’t our job and we’re not competitive, so there’s no reason to panty-twist over Squash being Squash. But my hope for myself and my dogs is that this will help me better appreciate each of my dogs’ strengths for what they are, accept their weakness for what they are, and truly accept that training can only go so far in improving skills but it can’t change a dog’s character. Not every dog is a leader, and that’s ok; while a round peg can sit inside a square hole, it’s going to rattle around a little bit in there.
So don’t sweat the rattling, mushbaby. Don’t sweat it, and cut that wheel some slack: He’s doing the best he can up there in lead.