Rob's Blog Archive

July 1, 2012

Learning Curve










The first year I ran a twelve dog team, each of the dogs had 85 runs.  That meant that I harnessed dogs a thousand times.  I got it right most of the time, probably messing up only one in fifty or less.  Still, I remember running the second day of a 50 mi./day heat based race and, having completed thirty miles, discovering that I had put Tok’s harness on wrong.  That was the 2005-2006 season.

It’s 2012 and it’s been years since I misharnessed a dog.  I check every harness every time.  True to my kinesthetic nature, not to mention the speed by which this can be done, I do this by feel.  I imagine I’ll mess up again before I die, but it won’t happen often. 

This past Saturday, a new friend came over to watch and ride along on my ATV as I ran teams of dogs.  She arrived, I handed her a cup of coffee per our correspondence, and we headed out into the dogyard to get everything ready for the first run. 

My two teams are The Team of the Little Bitches and The Dogs of a Certain Age.  Within each team, I move dogs around a bit, but it’s still a constrained problem.  Only bigger dogs run wheel.  Only leaders run in Lead.  Swing dogs have to be able to keep from getting tangled if the lead dogs stop before I notice.  Additionally, while we train off of the ATV, I balance the miles between left and right---I insist that at least when we leave the yard, the dogs are on the side of the gangline on which I harnessed them.  Finally, I sometimes move dogs between teams, but given that these two teams are well balanced, I don’t do this much.

It wasn’t until the 2009-2010 season that I got around to training the dogs to come to me to be harnessed.  This lets me do the following:  I detach each dog who’s going to run from his or her tether.  I then make sure everybody is in the hook-up yard and close the gate between this and the kennel yard.  All of the harnesses are attached to the tuglines at the positions appropriate for the run we’re about to take.  At this point, I call each of the dogs over to me.  About three quarters come immediately.  The rest let me corner them quickly.  The net result is I save about ten minutes a hook-up compared to bringing pairs out on leashes and harnessing them directly, like I had done in previous years. 

My first run was with The Dogs of a Certain Age.  With somebody new in the yard, Jake made a half assed effort to disobey me, Fondue played hard to get in a very normal fashion, and everybody else pretty much came right to me to be harnessed.  Happily, the dogs have figured out that the faster they let me get the team ready, the faster they get to run.  I scratch and complement each dog when he or she comes to me, but I suspect the real treat is when they go.

With everybody hooked up, I reset the GPS, tell my friend to take a seat on the ATV, disconnect the line between the lead dogs and my gate, and open the gate.  The dogs know the sequence.  There are usually only one or two that jump, “banging harnesses,” at all before I start walking to the gate.  Some even lay down.  Once they see me head to the gate, however, all hell does break lose.  I hurry back to the ATV.  The only reason they’re not dragging it is I’ve trained them not to.  I do know that they will only maintain that discipline for seconds. 

And we’re off.  Everything does impress my friend.  With this, I still doubt she realizes how many errors I had and how much training each of the dogs has had for things to be this smooth.  I don’t quite step in exactly the same spot for every hook up, but I doubt that the spots vary by more than inches.  Efficiency is based on routine. 

Even with Maria on board, we have a great ride.  We get back into the yard and my good buddy Jake decides to see if he really does have to hold the line out.  I yell a quick “Line Out Jake!” and he decides he does.  Maria and I leave the yard to get water and treats.  We enter the hook-up yard a couple of minutes later.  Jake has done his job of keeping the line straight.  He is far from my most belligerent dog and I am not surprised.

I start at wheel unharnessing each of the dogs.  With the two buckets and four water bowls I’ve laid out, there’s no waiting.  I gather the line up, giving the dogs a bit more time to warm down and get some water.  For their treats, each happily lets me hook him or her back up to his/her platform.

It takes another ten minutes to turn the ATV around, lay out the lines, and change harnesses around so they’re correct for The Team of the Little Bitches. 

During hook-up, Tok plays a bit with me costing maybe twenty seconds before I catch him.  The combination of Kennicott’s low intelligence and low self-confidence still has her unsure of what she’s supposed to do, and it takes a similar amount of time to catch her too.  On the other hand, even though this routine is entirely new to Gaiya and Gaiya likes to cling to old routines, she’s getting it.

Another fast run.  I close the gate and check the thermometer.  It’s going to be a warm day, but the temp is 51 F and the sun is still quite low.  I open the gate between the kennel and hook-up yards, add more water to the water bowls, and start the process of deharnessing the dogs.  The closest thing to a glitch is Gaiya is still trying to convince me that she should be watered at her platform.  However, she lets me grab her and walk her to the water bowls where she drinks.  One or two more times and I won’t have to show her to the water. 

With the dogs on their platforms, I close the gate between the hook-up yard and the kennel yard.  Putting everything away takes another ten minutes and we retreat into the house for more coffee.  Maria has work to do, thanks me and bids me good bye, and leaves.

In Taekwon-Do, there are three levels of black belt.  The first three dans are novices.  The next three dans are experts.  The last three dans are masters.  In all the things I’ve done, I’ve found that it takes about ten years of devoted study and hard work to become an expert.  It takes an additional ten to twenty years of hard work to really become a master.  Taekwon-Do, physics, and now mushing---I’m getting ready to celebrate my mushing bar-mitzvah--- really are the same in this regard. 

There are two things that are fun now.  The first is that I can look back and see just how far I’ve come in my knowledge as a musher.  The second is that I am continuing to learn.  And being a 56 year old means that I take the time to savor both. 

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