The teams generally consist of 4 to 6 dogs for solo sleighs and 8 to 12 dogs for paired or family sleighs, depending on the safari, the conditions, the experience and strength of the musher and the overall weight in the sleigh.
Since we can never know all of the variables ahead of time, we have to estimate what the optimum number of dogs will be for each safari, prior to actually meeting the clients, based on the information that we will have received to that point. If we have put together too many dogs in one team for the safari in question, they will run too fast and the clients will either be scared or sad that the safari has been completed too quickly. It also puts the dogs at greater risk of injury. If we have under-estimated the difficulty of the safari, the dogs will be running slowly, with too much strain upon each individual and clients could get tired from having to push too much to keep up. Dog mushing, therefore, is not an exact science.
Once we have met you, we may make some immediate adjustments in the hope that all teams will then be able to run at more or less the same speed. If, for instance, we find that we have some 50kg mushers and some 150kg mushers in the same group, we will probably reduce the number of dogs in the lighter person’s sleigh and add dogs to the sleigh carrying the heavier party. (Don’t worry at all about your weight, however. If we get the number of dogs in your team right, the dogs really won’t notice at all).
Whilst we always endeavor, on paper, to have created equally balanced teams, dogs are animals and, just like humans, can have off-days. Hence, we may decide mid safari to rebalance the strength ratios within certain teams by moving dogs (or even clients!) around. Occasionally, we also swap the order of the teams.
Those taking part in multi-day safaris generally go out with the dogs on their first day for a training ride so that we can test how well our team compositions are working and then we solidify those teams, once we have them all moving at more or less the same speed, for the remainder of your days with us.
Many people ask us if we always run the same dogs together in one team, if certain dogs are always in the front and back teams (for instance) and if the pairings of the dogs is always constant. The answer is no, (to a degree) although the more difficult (grumpy or unpredictable with other dogs) any given dog is, the more restrictive are our choices of which other dog we can run beside them and where they can be placed.
The leaders of the first team are an elite few dogs who have a strong desire to run no matter the conditions and who do not need a team to chase in order to be eager to run. We have both older, experienced dogs and younger, keen dogs, that can run in this position. However, we tend to use the older dogs in this role later on in the day, when the speed and excitement has settled down.
The members of the back teams are always the girls in heat. Whilst it would seem to make sense to put the heat teams in front for all of the others to chase, in reality it is better for them to be at the back since the males do not then get distracted with scent markings whilst they are running. Our whole farm layout is designed around this since these are the dogs that get put into the teams last (less risk of exciting fights and inducing ‘accidental pregnancies) and when the dogs return to the farm through the front gate, they end up back beside their cages and can be immediately taken home. Some of our best leaders have to switch positioning from the front, mixed-sex teams to the back teams when they come into heat. However one, in particular, is grumpy when running with many females so when she is in heat, her team morphs around her and her wheel dogs generally become some of the castrated males.
Since different numbers of dogs are needed on different safaris depending on the length of safari, the weight they are pulling and the condition of the tracks, and since dogs get injured, sick, in heat and potentially even pregnant at unpredictable times during the season - it starts to make more sense why the teams are not set in stone. In addition, as responsible owners, we need to balance the distances that the dogs are running to make sure that none are running excessively little or excessively much compared to the others of their experience and age.
For our core safaris, for instance, we may run up to 5 x 6km safaris almost back to back during one day. We may start with 6 dogs in the team for the first fast safari of the day (occasionally 5, when the surfaces are very fast in the late Spring) and increase the number up to 8 dogs by the end of the day to compensate for the slower conditions and the boredom and, or, fatigue of the dogs.
During a safari, we may move a couple of dogs around within the teams to balance them. However, most juggling is done in-between safaris, when we will switch out the dogs that are looking particularly tired, cold or bored and any dogs that are injured. We may swap in new leaders, to keep the energy levels within each team at a good level and we may start to use the older or younger dogs once we are sure that the speed is one they can cope with and once the early morning playfulness which would be disrupting to the training of the youngsters, has settled down. In other words, it is a constant juggling act, to balance the running needs of the dogs with the overall speeds at which the teams are progressing.
We can predict nearly all of these instances ahead of time and can plan for 90% of the swaps on paper ready for the start of each new day, utilizing the pairings that we know will work well together. This definitely makes things easier for the guides who are often juggling dogs to very tight timetables. However, we cannot know the exact weights of the clients and nor can we predict for injuries.
For all of the above reasons, we work really hard, in training, to try new combinations of dogs and to encourage them to be comfortable running alongside as wide a variety of dogs as possible. This is particularly helpful when guides have to make sudden swaps mid safari, since they are generally restricted to swapping dogs between adjacent teams just because of the difficulty of moving about in soft terrain.
To this end, we pay particular attention to testing new combinations of dogs in the training season and we record, as we go, how the dogs have run with each other, until we have a pretty comprehensive overview of each dog’s running type and preferences.
When strong new combinations are found, (for instance, a pairing that seems to encourage an otherwise lazy dog to actually pull), we may also take this into consideration when we are planning to reposition dog placements within the kennel. Whilst we have said that the teams are not always made up of the same dogs, we have some ‘sweet’ team combinations for 6-dog teams (which is probably our standard number). In cases like these, they tend to live close to their favourite running partners so that when they are collected for running, the guide can fetch the two dogs most likely to be running next to each other at one time, without having to find them from different sides of the kennel.
Having dogs that often run near each other roughly grouped together by location reduces the time taken to put the most commonly run team combinations together and we are aware of this, when making the teams, ahead of time, on paper. Having said that, at the end of the season, we always tally the totals, and generally find that the ‘winning’ dog in terms of total kilometers will be one of the easiest dogs to place beside others since their name will always spring to mind, when trying to find new pairings that will work – particularly when in a rush to find a solution or add a couple of dogs to a team, just before a safari sets off.
When we take the longer safaris into the mix, this adds a whole new dimension into the equation since we have to balance performance potential, the personality preferences of the dogs and seasonal running totals with additional factors like the thickness of their coats, to ensure that they can survive out in the wilderness without shelter. If we only ran longer safaris, we would have more solid teams since it is harder to swap dogs in and out of such safaris at random points in the wilderness. However, by having both long and short safaris, we can juggle total running distances to accommodate for the needs of most of the dogs.
At the end of the day, irrespective of how complicated the day has been, how many safaris have been going on concurrently across the Municipality, and how much juggling has been going on between and within teams on the core safaris closer to base, the lead guide has to know which dogs have run which distances, so as to plot the numbers in the computers and come up with the ideal team combinations for the safaris planned for the following day.
This is by no means, an easy task!
All of our dogs are categorised according to their normal team positions - lead, team or wheel - although we also have trainee leaders and second leaders. All of this information, plus the size (colour) of harness that they generally wear, is displayed on boards in our farm.
In a six-dog team, the dogs are harnessed in three pairs. The two nearest the sled are the wheel-dogs, the middle huskies are the team dogs and the front two are the leaders. The wheel-dogs are normally larger dogs (often males) and provide the power. We rarely run lazy or smaller dogs in this position but this is a good position for dogs that tend to look behind them at who is following them (since there is no-one behind them to break their concentration). Dogs in the middle need to be the constant workhorses; they should be looking forwards and pulling eagerly without turning around or barking at the dogs around them. These speed-dogs provide the stamina and regulate the team's speed, while the leaders are usually smaller (often female) and provide the intelligence.
Each year, we select some of our young dogs to train as future leaders. They work alongside experienced dogs such as Arvi, Liz and Max during the season, to learn their new roles and responsibilities and then get individual coaching out of season.
Lead dogs not only have to guide the others, but they have to understand the spoken commands, and to hold the line out straight, whenever waiting or stopping. Our most talented lead dogs are Sanna, Max, Arvi and Samu. All of these are capable of leading the very first team, even if some of them are starting to get a little slow compared to the youngsters behind them. We tend to work with a double lead – ie, two dogs running in the lead position. However, it is also possible to work with just one leader.
Swing dogs are those directly behind the leaders. We often run a back-up leader in this position. Team dogs are those in-between the swing and wheel dogs. We sometimes run teams of 7 – which means that there will only be one team (or swing) dog running. When we do this, it is because 7 is about the maximum number of dogs that a novice mushers can cope with when they are driving at the start of the day when the dogs are very fast. Later in the day, we may add an 8th dog to help the dogs that are getting tired. Young dogs run less than the fully formed dogs and we always try to ensure that they don’t run so much that it stops being fun, since cultivating the desire to run from an early age is vital.
Wheel dogs are those closest to the driver and these tend to be big, strong dogs who can not only bear the burden of the tugs that come onto the line from the sleigh but who can also use their strength to change the course of the sleigh.
We play a lot with the combination of the dogs, trying to figure out which dogs enjoy running together and which really do not get along (eg, Bernie and Chocolate; Tiinu and any male dog). By knowing the dogs well, we can minimise the fights that might otherwise break out within the teams.
Whilst this all seems as if it is a lot of work, it ensures that our dogs are well socialised and can run with many other dogs. It also means that most dogs run a comparable distance over the whole season as opposed to the burden of running just falling to the lead dogs or the best dogs. In reality, the dogs that tend to run the most are the gentlest ones who are always easy to find a space for, in any team.
People often ask if the positions within the team are fixed for each dog. In other words, if once a leader, always a leader, etc? The answer is, ‘yes and no’. It essentially depends on the dog. Many team dogs can also run in wheel if need be, and if they are not too small. Some wheel dogs can run in team if they can concentrate just as well there.
Young dogs start out in the middle of the teams where they do not have too much pressure – either from the sledge behind them or the trail in front of them. As they settle into their work, we build up a picture of how they run, who they run well with, and whether or not we think that they may have the potential to become a lead dog a year or so down the line.
Of all the roles, the role of leader is the most constant, once assigned, since all teams, irrespective of size, need leading dogs. Old, experienced leaders, in particular, who are on a reduced running plan, will rarely run in an alternative position since it is a shame to waste their talents when they actually run.
Having said that, we have our core, strong leader team – most of whom could lead the front team without needing teams to chase - and we also have dogs that we term ‘second leaders’. These are dogs that have the capacity to run in the front of their team but they probably wouldn’t be comfortable in the front of the front team and they also wouldn’t be comfortable leading without a strong leader beside them. We also have trainee leaders – youngsters with the heart and soul of a leader, but with little experience. They also need to run in the leadership role only when there are strong leaders who can train them well, beside them. The second leaders and trainee leaders may spend some time also running in team or wheel (depending on their size). With the youngsters, in particular, it is important not to put too much pressure on them at once.
Whilst many farms get rid of their lazy dogs, we simply castrate them (to ensure that the trait doesn’t carry to the next generation) and then try to run them, eg, as a 7th dog when we really only need 6! If we do not run them at all, they just get more and more out of shape compared to their team mates and that helps nobody. Occasionally, when we have more or less written a young dog off as being hopeless, we will finally find a pairing combination that seems to incentivise them to run. You never know!
At the end of each day, the dog manager ‘composes’ new teams on the computer, based on the information that is generated from the data that has been entered into our training macro. (link to running records).
She starts out by assessing the number of safaris booked, how many teams will be needed for each and how many people will be in each sleigh. From this, she will determine the number of dogs that will be needed for each team on each safari and she will have an overall total in her head w.r.t. the total number of dogs that will need to run and the number that can have a day off.
She will then look at the training macro and assess the ‘green light’ dogs within those classified as full leaders (ie those who have run the least over the last 7 outings). She will select a primary leading pair that can not only work together but can also lead the first team (since all of the other leading dogs are generally following that first team, unless something has gone wrong en route) for each safari. From that point on, we have a grand puzzle to complete. We choose as many additional lead dogs as will be needed for the number of teams that we need to put together that day and then find swing, team and wheel dogs that can run with each of those front combinations.
From that point on, we have a grand puzzle to complete. We choose as many additional lead dogs as will be needed for the number of teams that we need to put together that day and then find swing, team and wheel dogs that can run with each of those front combinations.
We know which dogs can run together, which are unpredictably aggressive with other dogs (and with which ones) and which can never even be at opposite ends of a team from each other. We also have to be aware of injuries, pregnancies and heat and any dog in heat runs only in a female / castrated dog team in one of the last teams. (Some people think that it makes sense to put the dogs in heat in the front team so that all the others want to chase hard – however in reality, the scent that they leave when peeing etc just causes the following males to stop and sniff!).
Whilst this all seems like it is a lot of work, it ensures that our dogs are well socialised and can run with many other dogs. It also means that most dogs run a comparable distance over the whole season as opposed to the burden of running just falling to the lead dogs or the best dogs. In reality, the dogs that tend to run the most are the gentlest ones who are always easy to find a space for, in any team.
When choosing teams for the multi-day safaris, it is a little more complicated still...the multi-day safari lead dogs need to be stronger on GEE and HAW than those running on the short safaris, since the scent of the trails might not be so clear and they need to be able to both seek out the trail themselves (if covered by fresh snow, since we may not be able to open the tracks as well as we do the routes closer to home) and also respond to directions reliably. In addition, if they are to sleep overnight out in the wilderness away from their normal warm beds, we have to make sure that we choose dogs that have lots of Arctic fur.