Our rigorous and year-round dog training program is very respectful, humane and safe for our huskies. We believe in training our huskies by building trust and friendship whilst, just like with a child, having clearly defined boundaries and appropriate behaviour expectations.
We start condition training using quadbikes and training carts in the Autumn once the temperatures have consistently dropped below 5C. At that time, the speeds are kept really low so that the dogs build endurance and proprioception rather than speed. This helps to keep injuries to a minimum both then and later on in the season.
As winter approaches we begin to add to the miles they run to build endurance. Once the snows come and we start training with sleighs, we have less control over speed, but by then the dogs are fit and their muscles are strong enough to be able to protect their joints if they stumble. Once the snow arrives, the guides are itching to be out on the longer trails, but we need a good surface base of snow before we can start compacting the routes and making them safe for the dogs and the musher alike.
At this time, we have already started to use our main training tool - we call it our winter training 'master'.
At the start of the season we are very conservative about the combinations of dogs which we utilise since energy, at this time, is a lot higher than it is later on in the season when the dogs have settled back down to running as one of their everyday routines.The dogs run such low mileages and such similar mileages at this time, that the traffic lights take a while to 'get going'. We try to run every dog at least every other day so that they can build both conditioning and proprioception during this important training time.
They also have to remember what it means to take breaks and be waiting calmly and silently every so often, around the trails. In this way, we teach them to conserve their energy at appropriate times (and we can also hear ourselves thinking as opposed to trying to shout over the top of the noise of barking dogs, when we are trying to give driving instructions to the clients and the dogs are waiting for them on the startline later in the season, since they are trained to be quiet and relaxed on command. This also reduces the risk of fighting (or destroying equipment) when waiting in line).
We are still generally restricted to very few routes at this time since it takes a while for the snow to be deep enough on the marshes and for the rivers to be safe to start to use our longer routes. However, we have a good GEE HAW training area on our own land and so the dogs don’t get bored despite running within a relatively limited area, since they are constantly being challenged to make turns to our commands.
We always try to open, first, the tracks on the marshland immediately outside the area of our farm and we then venture out onto our 6km route, once the rivers are safely frozen.
At this time we are also reintroducing the previous year’s pups to the concept of running without jumping up and around excitedly and eating their harnesses at every stop and we are reminding the dogs that when they are waiting, they need to lie or sit down and be quiet so that they can conserve their energy for the task at hand.
These training months are probably the most enjoyable months for the guides since it is when you learn new things about the dogs every day; who seems to enjoy being given the responsibility of leading, new pairings that work well, etc. We are out on the sleighs many hours every day building our strength and stamina up too, as we swap dogs into and out of teams between loops. From this critical 2 to 3 month period, we build a picture about how the dogs are running, their potential, who is ready for more responsibility or a new standard position in a team etc, that we take with us through the winter.
At the end of this time, the dogs are hopefully ready both physically (their hearts and muscles) and mentally (so that they know the routes and are keen to run) to enter straight into the busiest time of the year – our Christmas season.
They are generally comfortable, already, running 40kms in a day and by mid season they are comfortable running even further, for up to 5 days at a time if need be, for the multiday safaris.
Throughout this time, we are recording the mileages that each dog is running and we are ensuring that all of the adult dogs are running more or less the same distances and that those dogs on a reduced running programme (the old and the young) are running less but with consistent spaces between training sessions. We build up the distances for all the dogs gradually and might choose to alternate in and out, the younger and older dogs from within the teams when the pass back through the farm mid-training session.
At this point, we are compiling team lists daily so that we are all working off the same sheet when it comes to planning and preparing for each safari. When we have multiple things happening at once, it can all get a little bit like a juggling act - but that is part of the fun! And that kind of fun also grows, in perspective, over time, in ones memory!
Once the majority of our clients leave at the end of March, we are left with one of the best snow months of the year, since most tourists have not yet discovered the joy of late spring in the High Arctic. A few longer tours are still going on at this time, but on the whole, we spend this time concentrating, once more, on the dogs, and on enabling them to enjoy and be challenged by the chance to run.
We may do a few longer safaris just for fun for the guides but on the whole, we switch back, at this time, to early season training so as to remind those dogs who haven’t, maybe, been out on the longer multiday safaris (eg, the shorter-haired race Alaskans) that they actually need to listen to the commands of those driving the sleighs. During the season, the shorter haired dogs who primarily run the day-length safaris become used to simply being directed into turns by physical signals from the guides on the accompanying snowmobiles since we do not teach clients on the shorter safaris the turning commands for fear that they might forget them in the heat of the moment and thereby confuse the dogs.
It sometimes takes them a little while to remember what GEE and HAW means and to have fun responding to direction on the multitude of interlocking trails that we once more open up – and even extend - around the farm itself. However, it is fun for both dogs and guides and this is the time for exploring trails and taking the mushing skills of the dogs and guides to a whole new level.
This is also the time of year when we have time for speed and race training and for training trail etiquette tools like passing being passed. Working on all of these things is not only stimulating but also helps to extend their comfort levels and understanding of how to react appropriately to new challenges on the trail.
Guides also enjoy the extra time that is available and frequently come in on their days off to go skijoring with either one or two dogs at once. There are few things more exhilarating than hurtling down a hill on skis, being pulled by two eager huskies who may or may not listen to your command to stop!
This is also the ideal time to get the young pups used to running in the teams. They have generally been being walked, in harness, for three plus months by this stage, so they are used to the concept of pulling and have fun doing so. However, although they may have been skijoring with an older dog, they will never have run in the teams themselves until right at the end of the season. When we go out with the pups, we do so on hard-surfaced, easy loops and stop many times en route to teach them to recover, on command, by either sitting or lying down. When they are used to lying down on command in the line, it helps them to learn to wait calmly for the tourists in the season and to not expend their energy unnecessarily before the safari.
In the summer, we do very little with the dogs when the temperatures are over 15C since they are acclimatised down to -40C in the winter and the risks related to overheating are too great. However, between 5C and 15C – and on days when it is raining – we do quite a bit of individualised training, using a combination of the running fence (for basic obedience training), the on-farm agility course (for fun / agility training), the 2km track and ridge walk (for occasional variety) and the GEE-HAW training area (for stimulation).
For leaders, it is obviously critical that they listen to turning commands, but it is also important that they learn to hold their line taught, and thereby keep the team behind them in a straight line, free from tangles and with reduced chance of fighting. That is actually one of the hardest skills to teach.
The summer training is not recorded in the main training spreadsheet, since it is not so much distance-related as skill-related. The training target is different, at this time, for each category of dog. Pups are primarily still on an obedience, harness-training and ‘fun’ (e, agility) training plan. All dogs born on our farm and those that are reasonably socialised get basic GEE HAW training and obedience training for socialisation. Some dogs have specific needs and need to be trained out of, eg, chewing their harnesses when waiting during the season. Others simply need socialisation and just get walks, cuddles and hair-plucking time (since that means that you spend quite a bit of time with them just handling them). Dogs on specific training plans have their training successes recorded on a computerised system through which we can build up a picture of how well they are responding to various commands and which commands need specific attention or maybe even the attention of a more experienced trainer. To make sure that all of the dogs are, at minimum, walked in rotation, we have a very simplistic monthly overview sheet, recording when they have been taken out on a leash / harness for any training or walking purpose.
The thing that the guides probably find most challenging about summer training is that we encourage the use of bootees just so that the dogs can get used to wearing these and don’t get bothered by them if they suddenly need to use them because of icy conditions or problems with their paws during the winter season.
Socialization is also an integral part of training program - particularly on a farm like ours which has quite a lot of rescue dogs and dogs who have come from other, larger kennels. Although all our huskies have had the same opportunity to socialize with our guests some would still rather not be petted by people they do not know well. All our huskies, however, are very well trained (we notice this time and time again when we take a random selection of our dogs to local dog obedience classes and are amazed by the ease with which ours appear to be handled compared to many of the house dogs!).
We are sure you will agree that all of the hard work is worthwhile, when you join us on the trail!
We have over one hundred dogs. Hence, the concept of potty training them probably sounds mad. However, it is linked, in our mind, to intensive socialisation training, and this serves a couple of purposes.
It is always easier to train a dog that is open to touch and keen to learn. Hence, by taking the shy dogs, in particular, home, and gaining their confidence, we help ourselves in the overall process of helping them to become good sled dogs. Once a dog has spent a night cuddled on or beside a bed with you, it is invariably less wary of you the following day. Quite a few of the dogs who arrived at our farm scared of handling have become very open and social dogs through this process. Incidentally, they have generally also become house trained.
This is great, since we have a policy of not putting down dogs that become injured or are simply not great runners. Instead, we try to find them new homes. If we didn’t know how they react around babies, visitors, in the house in general, it would be difficult to offer a husky to a new home in good conscience. As it is, however, we swear that many of our dogs try to get injured to spend time indoors, since most of them totally love it.
Nearly all of the dogs that have been born on our farm (ie, 41 dogs) and c. half of the rest, are now pretty much or completely house-trained. Some have become house-trained in the process of recuperating, post-injuries. Others become favourites of the guides and get taken home for cuddles relatively frequently. For those who would otherwise not get this experience since they do not, maybe, stand out so much from the rest of the pack, we try to have a rotation system to ensure that all of the dogs get taken home for house-training over a period of time.If you are interested in adopting one of our (hopefully) potty-trained huskies, please click here.
Our puppies spend their mornings going for long walks to keep them fit and social with other puppies and adults as well. They begin their first run within the team at six months old in the swing (middle) position with an older veteran husky. The veteran is always very calm and relaxed providing security to the puppy. We do not want the process to scare him/her. The greatest percentage of the pups will run and pull quite naturally, however, there is a very small percentage that do not. We will work with these less willing pups using many alternative and positive techniques. Sometimes it requires only that we run alongside the pup for a few feet to boost his/her confidence. Despite our best efforts somehuskies just aren’t meant to be sled dogs and if for some reason the puppy decides it would rather be a house pet, the young pup is put up for adoption.
Learn more about the training progression each of the puppy litters goes through, here.
Retired dogs are the only dogs which have weekly personal training goals through the year - mostly to ensure that they are handled and socialised enough to meet their needs in the winter. Whilst the clients who visit the farm for just a day tend to spend time on fun activities like the puppy agility, we ask those clients with whom we have time to spend talking to also give some time to the walking of the retired dogs in their first evening which is spent on the farm.