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Thursday, April 9, 2015

How our Dogs learn on Iditarod - Part One

Sled dogs learn a bit differently than some other dog breeds and varieties. That is because sled dogs still live and function somewhat in a "pack". (Although "team" might be a more politically correct term.) In saying that, I think our dogs learn a lot from their pack members. And this year, as I look through the recent Iditarod photos, one example has become very obvious.


Mismo and Mac run in perfect sync just before they crossed the Iditarod finish line.

The Iditarod Red Team was mostly a veteran squad. With the exception of Nelson, every member had been on the 1,000 race before. But, there was still an opportunity to pair up extremely knowledgeable veterans with relative newbies. So, during Iditarod, I decided to pair the 'big dogs': Mismo and Mac.

Mac, as many people know, is a highly talented, very confident, somewhat aloof, fantastic sled dog. Fantastic might even be an understatement. But, Mac was once a young novice and he learned the ropes just like Mismo is doing now. Mismo is happy, always ready to go and wants to please. I paired the two about half way through the race. My hope was that Mac would influence Mismo during the second (and more difficult) half of the race. In Sebastian's photos, from Koyukuk on www.iditarod.com, you can start to see the pairing -- often one or two positions up from wheel.

In the beginning the pairing went fine. I think that Mismo was still confident and strong on the Yukon River so they just ran together as a steady even pair. But, the run over to the western coast is always challenging. This year wind was very fierce and the sun was high above our heads. We even passed two unexpected dog teams that were camped just alongside the trail. This is an area that front runner Iditarod teams have quit before, so seeing those teams was emotional.

I noticed Mismo lean into Mac periodically after that and check in with him - nose to nose. I think novice dogs do this when they are unsure of a situation. If their partner barely acknowledges this nose touch and keeps working, that's basically telling the novice dog: "It's fine buddy. This is normal."

The conditions got much worse along the western coast. When we left Unalakleet the wind was extreme -- gusting to 40 mph. Mac is not a dog who will panic, just like his mother, Chica. They are steady, smart and unwavering. This helped Mismo stay completely calm when we came over a ridge and into a whiteout blizzard. We had lost the trail, but found Mitch Seavey and his team. Mitch and I took turns watching the both teams so that the other could search for the trail but never lose sight of the dogs. Our dog teams had to remain calm, stayed lined out in the fierce blowing snow and not panic. I am sure that Mac helped Mismo with that. After quite a bit of time and deliberate searching we found the trail again.

As we continued our race up the coast, I noticed Mismo acting more and more like Mac. In Koyuk, Mismo was almost cocky when the spectators flocked around the team. He was certainly gaining confidence. The two of them rested together in Elim and didn't leave each other's side for the next 150 miles. They were the strongest dogs in the team, pulling us up the mountains outside of Golovin. Then both of them enjoyed the kids that came to pet the team when we passed through Golovin village.

The final run from White Mountain to Nome was great for the pair despite a few challenges. There was some deep overflow that we side stepped. Then the run through the notorious 'Blowhole' (about 40 miles from the finish line) was extremely windy with gusts up to 35mph. But, in comparison to last year, which I am sure Mac remembers, this year's situation was practically easy. Mismo picked up on this feeling and he now has complete confidence in windy situations.

Our run from Safety to Nome was in the middle of the day and their were spectators and fans everywhere. There must be thousands of photos of Mac and Mismo working together the last 22 miles. I have picked out a few photos that show how in tune these two dogs became. It's really spectacular!


Mismo and Mac: Look how their legs are in perfect stride in both photos.


Mismo and Mac stand identically for their snacks; They even lay down the same!.

These last two photos are the best. Because no matter how much Mismo learned from Mac, he just couldn't get the hang of sunbathing in Nome!

Yes… I agree, we need some larger airline kennel in Nome next year!

23 comments:

Britty's mom said...

Thanks for the interesting info. Love the pictures!

Anonymous said...

Love this article! you explain it so clearly. It makes me want to know MORE! those boys were awesome. Thank you Aliy!! BTW Who is writing a book on sled dogs and teamwork; you or Moira? =)
Padee Santa Rosa CA

Anonymous said...

That was a beautiful as well as instructional post, replete with pictures illustrating the story of a young dog learning the ropes from a mature partner - thank you so much!

Best,

Margaret



Cindy Schaus said...

I absolutely love learning all about these awesome athletes and how they function, Mismo leaning into Mac for confirmation & gaining confidence from him is so awesome!

Sue McCandless said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your life with these awesome pups with us. It always makes my day to see a post from SPK on my page.

shamalam said...

Thank you. This was very interesting. I watched the insider video of Aliy and the 2014 race and I wondered if similar was going on with Sissy and Mac when she was laying on him at one of the last rests before the trip into Safety. Was she looking for reassurance or just heat sucking?

Anonymous said...

Mismo had his mirror neurons activated with Mac!!!

Fascinating to see how the learning/mentoring occurs. Really appreciated the nose touch explanation and what it communicates.

Holly

A-town's Becky said...

The only difference...
Mac wants a belly rub and Mismo wants a butt scratch, LOL!!!

They both have awesome smiles on their faces, while they work too.
:-)

Great insights!
Thank you :-)

Anonymous said...

Love reading about the dogs! They are so amazing the way they work together! Thank you for sharing and keep up the good work!

Cliff said...

What a fabulous, informative post! Thanks so much for sharing this with your fans and supporters. We are checking in from NYC tonight. --Cliff Michel & Family

Nessmuk said...

Right off the bat I gotta say I LOVE the picture of Mac sleeping in his crate....that's classic "Happy Dog" sleeping style! This was a great post...."Dog to Dog Mentoring"...what better way to learn? I'm so proud of Mac and his Protege Mismo....it was a great pairing and must have been awesome to witness on the runners over hundreds of miles!! Too Cool!

Dawn E said...

How cool! Thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

Yep another great insight love learning about the dynamics of the "pack" but I really love 😍 the photo of Mac sleeping in his create . That's how my goldie Denali sleeps it's so cute 😏 .. Look forward to more insights and the book ! πŸ˜ƒ πŸ‡¦πŸ‡ΊπŸΎπŸΎJoanne and Denali .

Sherri Suppelsa said...

I've always loved Mac Daddy and this just makes me admire him even more. So cool to see Mismo being "groomed" by his steady Eddie teammate!

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. It always amazes me how much thought you put into the dog team. Really a fascinating post. Thanks!

Pamela K. said...

Interesting stuff. I'd like to know more about your decision to keep Clyde in wheel this race. My understanding was that he had leadership potential. What happened?

Heidi Phillips said...

Thanks for this awesome training insight! As I was reading I had a few Duh, that makes sense, moments. I can only imagine what it would be like to watch Mismo "grow" as he was running next to Mac. I think it also reflects the respect that Mismo has for Mac as a junior dog learning from an "elder" and his place in the "Pack"...

Can't wait to hear more!
Heidi

SAY said...

Thanks, your knowledge and insight into sled dogs would fill volumes. The pictures are a great illustration. I love to look at the gaits and see who, if anybody, is moving together.

Gaye Morgan-Walton said...

This was excellent and so informative!! Since I am gradually working on a book about the women mushers who do the long races, I am soaking up this great blog like a sponge but have fallen totally in love with these dogs. This pair is amazing; team mates set with the mentoring idea is fantastic. Mismo is so cute and Mac is just a gret dog.

Linda Toth said...

I don't know what to write; I rarely know what to say to people, but almost always can spin something in writing.

This post was immensely satisfying. Mac's sire is sleeping near me. There is no way I could not love Chica and that small litter too, but to see Mac become as stellar as his stellar ancestors, Zorro, Chica, and Pingo, sits really well with me. And as I let your description of him settle into my thoughts, I see some of Cutter in him too, large square head, big, powerfully strong and prone to run with a steady, long legged stride.

Leanna said...

So many moving parts... literally! in running a team. Thanks Aily for a peek into a bit of what you do.

marilyn cozzens said...

Thanks so much for your informative awesome post. I love the photos showing how in sync Mac & Mismo are.

Rose Lewis said...

Thanks for describing the team learning experience. I have 2 Siberians, amateur mushers, and have observed with interest how they teach and influence each other. Qanala, 4, has more harness experience than Enu, 8, a rescue, but when they run together, they balance each other out well. Qanala is more gamey, and Enu is more dog social. Qanala listens to commands more instantly, but Enu is more of a consistant goer. I only dream of assembling a balance between 14-16 dogs with all the variables and possible permutations. Not jealous, just envious of all the intricacies that entertain the human mind. Yes, even the tootsie roll patrol!