Sunday, October 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Yeti: Lead Dog Lingo, and What It Takes to be a Leader, Part II

Fall is really the most wonderful time of year. It bombards the senses with the colors, the smells, and the cool crisp morning air. I love fall!

Fall training in the Upper Peninsula outside Nature's Kennel in McMillan, Michigan is especially beautiful.

I recently returned from another trip up north for some training time with the amazing canine athletes I call Team Diamond Dogs. We have logged many miles toward conditioning goals so far this season, and are looking forward to the time when we head back up north.

My team of amazing canine athletes all muscled up on a training run. Oh, how I love and admire them!

See that dark dog up in front of my team? On the right in the photo above?

Here. This is a close up shot of him.

Look at those eyes. Such intelligent, expressive eyes.

These eyes belong to my main squeeze dogger, Yeti. He has been my main leader since he was 10 months old.

Today, Yeti turns four. This blog post is for Yeti, the backbone of my kennel and my main dude.

I wrote last winter about what it takes to be a lead dog. That post is here if you are interested in reading further. 

Yeti began leading long strings of dogs almost as soon as he was in harness. There are several "types" or levels of lead dogs. At that time, Yeti was a natural trail leader - a dog who naturally is comfortable being out in front and getting a team down the trail. He or she doesn't necessarily know commands, but has a knack for leadership and command.

Then there are gee/haw leaders - dogs who mature into knowing commands and following a musher's directions down the trail. This involves high intelligence levels and a keen sense of direction. Gee, in mushing lingo, tells a dog to turn right; haw, subsequently, communicates a left hand turn. There are more commands, but for the purposes of this post, I will focus on these two simple commands.

Yeti has finally graduated into what I would technically call a "gee/haw" leader. He has logged hundreds of miles on the trail in his four short years - enough to confidently follow my commands, even on unfamiliar trails he's never been on before.

Finally, there are crack leaders - dogs who are like power steering to a musher. They will turn on a dime the second a command is called, without hesitation, even if it means driving into an area that looks like there's no trail. Their command and understanding of words is so precise and finely tuned, that some mushers recount tails of driving large teams of dogs through a slalom-type course with crack leaders.

In just a little over three short years in harness, Yeti has mastered many skills. He passes through large areas of standing water without pause, as is illustrated in the video below.

He's raced through crowds of strange people without hesitation. He's learned how to navigate felled logs and unfamiliar trails. And this past summer, he fathered his first litter of future athletes, and, hopefully, lead dogs.

I couldn't put a price on Yeti. He is such a special boy to me. And what's ironic is, he was given to me.

Indeed, Yeti is the best "free" dog I've ever gotten! Happy Birthday, Yeti!

A word about conditioning
Conditioning with the dogs is a lot like people training for a marathon. It takes months to build up the muscle, stamina and endurance needed to compete in races when the snow flies. The beginning part of the fall is spent primarily on muscle-building. We do this through training with a four wheeler.

There are varied training methods and theories. For me, I generally train my dogs in 2nd or 3rd gear on the four wheeler, allowing them to alternate between slower, harder-pulling training runs to faster, easier-pulling training runs. I may alternate between training slower and in gear on the quad one day to training with the quad completely off and in neutral the next and allowing the dogs to lope more to build up their speed.

Anyone who has ever been a runner knows this routine. And like runners training for a marathon, the dogs have their good days and not-so-good days.

Mostly, we have had great days lately. The mistakes made have primarily been made by me, not the dogs!

My little canine carnivores resting during a 10 mile training run. Yeti (left) and Ruffian (right, standing)

Stay tuned as we up the mileage heading into November!

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