The Growing Pup - Training

The Growing Pup - Note about training.

During the pups’ winter training, it is a good idea to teach them to answer to whispered commands. This is not as odd as it may appear.

An old musher recounted a story of when he was a “young hothead” back in the 1920s. He had ignored advice about the deteriorating weather and was caught out in a four-day blizzard without food or sufficient clothing. He hunkered down as best as he could until the weather abated. A raging fever and sore throat made him most miserable. A break in the storm finally occurred and he decided to leave his improvised shelter. Recognizing he was not too far from a settlement, he decided to head for it. His dogs were used to him yelling the commands, and they failed to respond to his hoarse, feeble cries. He walked among the dogs to rouse them. After much effort, they understood. They set off, but either they did not hear or did not recognize his muted commands, or had ideas of their own, and true to their nature, the Inuit dogs ran not to the nearby settlement, but straight home, which was farther away.

When he recovered, and suitably chastened, he taught them to answer to whispered commands.


Brent Boddy, a member of Steger’s International Expedition to the North Pole, trained his dogs to answer to voice commands. This served him well. Once on a training trip, he made a halt. His team took off suddenly. He shouted the command to turn right, and right again, until the dogs had made a complete semi-circle back toward him.

Inspired by Boddy’s example, the author made a special effort to train her own dogs to voice commands. For some time there was had doubts that the dogs listened and would obey if they were in a similar situation as Brent Boddy’s. One winter while driving a team of two-year-olds in a modified fan hitch formation on a wooded trail, the team hit a four-foot snow drift. The dogs milled around until they realized, with encouragements, they could climb over it. They did so with their usual enthusiasm, but the sled stayed behind – the large locking carabiner holding the lines had come undone. It was now or never. The author could not see them, but called out while scrambling up the drift. They stopped. There was a small marshy area on their left that would give them room to turn. The author called the left command. They turned left. Left again and left again and they galloped back to the sled. They sat, though not so patiently, while lines were re-attached, one by one, to the sled. Following this incident, the carabiner was thrown away.

Sometimes it is inevitable that a musher has to stop for a moment whether to fix a loose strap on the sled or take off a layer of clothing. The team may be content to sit for five minutes... or five seconds. Yet the musher ought to never let go of the sled. This was a lesson Paul Schurke learned the hard way when he had to run several miles behind his team. Fortunately, the team had come upon a man ice-fishing and the dogs gathered around him waiting patiently for him to get more of the fish they had already devoured. Paul’s story When My Dogs Went Fishing can be read in full in the tales archive section. 

Nothing kills a pup’s enthusiasm faster than an ill-fitting harness. A harness must be a good fit. This probably means that an eight-month pup will start the season with one harness and finish it with a larger one. The standard (Alaskan) harness must slip over the head so that it falls without room to spare on the neck in front of the shoulders joint. It is too big, it will lie over the front of the shoulder joint and will be uncomfortable. On a long-distance trek, the pressure will give the dog sore shoulders. Most commercial harnesses are made of a one-inch braid, crossed over the neck. They slip up under one armpit or the other and end up by chaffing the fur and skin, especially on long trips. The breast piece should be as wide as the span of the chest without rubbing on the armpits. The author modified the nylon web harness to  have double width at the chest.

 The traditional Inuit harness does not cross over the neck but is joined by a piece of horizontal strap.

Not all the dogs have the same measurements. Males have a wider chest than females, and young dogs are slender than mature dogs. Harnesses should be fitted individually. 

The Inuit pup reaches 18-27kg(32-60lbs) by the time they are six months. The temptation is to harness all that boisterous energy and let the sled or cart fly. But their young bones are not ready for such strenuous activity. In fact their bones will not finish growing until the dogs are between two and three years old. The larger muscle mass will develop after that. They reach their final size between three and four years of age. That is when the adult takes on the majestic air he is renown for. In the meantime, the pups can run beside the sled. If this is not possible, they should run by themselves pulling an empty child’s sled or a kick-sled while the musher runs along holding a long line. By the time they are one-year -old the can start with light work on the outside lines of a fan hitch team, or in the middle of a tandem hitch, namely two dogs side by side, with a neck line attached to a central gangline.

Inuit dogs are born pullers, They like nothing more than being in front of a sled. However, a pup can be ruined if he is allowed to pull too heavy a load in the company of older dogs, or if he is made to cover too long a distance for his stamina, and of course an ill-fitting harness. When a pup is not comfortable, he is reluctant to pull. This why obedience school for Inuit dogs is not suitable. Pulling is forbidden and pups are reprimanded if they do so.

Starting after eight months, when the fastest growth spurt is over, sledding training should be light and minimal. The Sirius Patrol in Greenland does not start training pups until they are one-year-old. Rest should be adequate to give muscles time to recuperate. In the North, when a six- or eight-month-old pup is first hitched, he dashes ahead eagerly, occasionally stopping to look back. In the process he gets dragged backward. The wise musher will stop to let him regain his footing. This will happen again once, maybe twice, after which the pup gets the idea to pull straight, but he will try to pull harder than anyone. He soon gets tired. In their traditional culture, Inuit would let the pup run free alongside the komatiq. This is not usually possible in the southern regions where sled dogs have to be hitched in tandem for lack of space on the trails, and because of regulations about loose dogs.

Often the pup would be bewildered by the moving team and dart off in the wrong direction, only to be brought back by the whip. When the idea that he has to go straight enters his head, he tried to find a congenial place among the other dogs. After tangling all the lines, he would find a niche and try it for a while. Among the Greenland Inuit, if the pup decided to try another place, the whip told him to stay put.

Greenland hunters prevent the pups from going toward the back of the komatiq by looping a piece of wood or bone half-way down their lines. Thus a pup could not reach the komatiq and risk being dragged or run over. In southern areas, some mushers insert a length of pipe on the gangline to prevent the dogs from turning back toward the sled.

Hunters with pups and young dogs did not go very far, usually hunting for the day. It was not too taxing for the pups, and they had time to rest.

In Labrador, as well as in such places as Iglulik and Iqaluit, pups were carried in a box on the komatiq. On the way back, they were dumped out on the snow to run behind the team. St Toadhall it is the reverse. At the start the pups are too full of pep to sit in the box, but are content to lie down on the way back.

Many men in charge of dogs in expeditions believe that it was best to develop a strong dog first and train him afterwards, rather than hitch up too young a pup to the sled.

When the pups understand what is expected of them, they learn the sense of team work with the adult dogs. In the pups’ third year, the bone growth is complete. They can pull their own weight over increasing distances without suffering any damage.

Patience in training helps produce strong dogs that will live a long life free of physical complications. Young dogs that are kept in good physical shape, working regularly over increasing distances, reach old age without any sign of osteoarthritis – the sled dog’s worst enemy.