While dogsledding may not be as easy as the movies show, it is a fairly easy sport to start - as long as you love dogs. Each of our Snow Forest Adventures begins with your guide providing an orientation and instruction to dogsledding. Your guide will teach you what you need to know to start safely. Each day, your guide may then add additional lessons that allow you to progress from novice to advanced novice!
If you would like to get a head start, you will find some important lessons below
Dogs. It is all about the dogs. Everything we do while on or around the dog sled has the best interests of the dogs at heart; their health and safety are always foremost in our minds (along with yours). If you are not sure why we do something or how it is best for the dogs, no worries: just ask us, we will explain; we hope the dogs mean as much to you as they do to us, and together we can have fun on the trail. It is important to remember that dogsledding is distinctly different than getting in your car and driving away. The dogs have personalities, they can think, and they are smart. And like people, those personalities behave differently with different people or environments. Before you even approach the dog sled, it is already a team sport: the dogs do not see you as their boss, but their leader - you are part of their team. Sometimes this involves riding along, other times you may need
to work with the dogs and sled to get around a sharp corner, slow the sled down on steep descents, or give that extra push when going up a slope. When you do, you will earn the dogs respect and they will listen and work for you. It's not hard, and if you don’t they will question you by glancing back as if to say "help us out - we're in this together!"
Dogs understand things.
Dogs understand other dogs better than people understand dogs.
Dogs understand people better than people understand people.
The reason? Maybe it’s because people talk so much that they don’t have time to listen.
Dogs can’t talk so they listen a lot.
That’s why dogs understand things better than people.
- Don Beland, Veteran Musher
Keeping the above quotation in mind, the actual words you say - while important - are not the only thing that keeps the dogs listening to you. In fact, the less commands you give, the better; if you talk too much, command inconsistently, or simply get it wrong, the dogs will start to ignore you! Trust us, we've seen it happen. With that in mind, the three aspects to ensure the dogs obey your commands are: tone, consistency, and physicality.
Your tone is more important than your words. Higher tones indicate excitement, lower tones indicate disappointment, middle tones are neutral; ensure your tone matches the command. All of our dogs are trained to the same consistent standards. This ensures they know exactly what is expected of them. This is what allows us to provide you with a dog team that is able and willing to follow your commands. We ask that you follow that consistency and give commands as instructed. The dogs run better knowing what to expect.
The last component is physical. Sled dogs are easily excitable, neither do they want to stop. As such, most commands have a physical component to accompany it that ensures the dogs get the message that you want them to obey NOW, not in five minutes. This physical component will be left for your orientation with your guide.
When it's time to get going: "Ready - “Ready” gets your dogs attention. Let's Go!" "Let's" starts out neutral with a rising inflection followed by an excited "Go!" "Let's" allows the dogs a second or two to get ready (that's more than they need!), whereas "Go" is the actual command. If you need to stop the command is an immediate "WHOA!" Short and sweet with a deeply pitched voice. This is a command to stop, not slow down, STOP. Use your bossy voice. The commands for your lead dogs to turn are "Haw!" (left) and "Gee!" (right). There’s no need to shout these, and they should be said neutrally - neither high- nor low-pitched.
We suggest you write Gee & Haw on your steering wheel (or hands!) so that they are firmly implanted in your memory before you need them. Having said that, the dogs are smart and know what they’re doing: except in rare instances, they will follow the team in front of them. In fact, you likely won’t need to worry about steering - instead your job will be to keep the sled on the trail: lean in the direction you want the sled to go. For example, if your sled is aiming for the left snow bank, and you want to move the sled back to the right: lean right. It will seem awkward at first as you’ll be focusing on which way the trail leads (often the opposite of where the sled needs to go) but you’ll pick it up quickly.
It is also important to control your speed. Similar to a car, if you feel that you’re going too fast SLOW DOWN! This is easily done with the two different brakes on the sled: the bar and pad brakes. The bar brake is a metal bar with two spikes that dig into the hard-packed snow. It has the power for going down hills or coming to a complete stop. In contrast, we use the drag brake while mushing along to slow down more gently and graduallly. It is a rubber pad with studs that allows you to put varying degrees of pressure on it.
The above commands, leaning, and your brakes are the only controls you have over your dogs & the sled. As such, there are three golden rules to be aware of:
Keep your gangline taut. If your gangline is slack it means your sled is about to run over your dogs!
Always have a hand on your sled; otherwise the dogs may take off without you!
Be aware of what your dogs are doing. The dogs reflect your energy: if you are tense, the dog will become tense; if you relax, the dogs will remain - somewhat - calm.
It may seem overwhelming at first, however the dogs love attention: learn their names, pet them, talk to them and spend time with them at the end of the day in camp. The more they know you, the more they will trust you and the better they will mush for you.