You Are My Sunshine...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Neck Line

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The video shows the neck-line arrangement that seems to work for my two boys.  It consists of a boot lace put through a piece of PVC pipe with clips on either end. It is attached to the dogs' collars like any other neckline.
Rigid Neckline: PVC Pipe / Boot Lace / Two clips
Regular sledding collar

When I first began putting Nico and Benny  together as a team we had some trouble. Nico had experience as a solo pulling dog skiing with me, but had never pulled with another dog.  His relationship with Benny was evolving as Benny grew up and into his own. When I put them together they were fine until, last fall, we met a turtle on the trail.  A big turtle!  Nico tried to pick it up. I said "leave it," and he did.  So Benny took it. Woops.

My mistake was to forget that Nico left it because I told him to, but that Benny didn't know that didn't mean he couldn't have it either.  In the house and the yard, Nico will often walk away from a toy when he is done with it. Then Benny can take it with impunity. So how was Benny to know that Nico wasn't leaving the "toy" for him?

Nico jumped Benny then and it was on. It was more than a spat because neck-lined together, Benny could not get the distance  he needed to show Nico that he was sorry, that he misunderstood.  I got bit because I stupidly tried to break it up, but then again, neck-lined like that and unable to communicate the way they normally do,  I'm not sure how far it would have gone before they stopped if I had not stepped in. 

A second incident occurred that was less serious but showed me that we need to do something else. Benny was simply not disciplined enough yet to run along beside Nico without slacking or pulling off to the side. But when he pulled on the neck-line Nico got very upset, confused and finally aggressive.  He did not have the "leader" experience to know he could  keep  Benny on the trail just by holding his own line and the neckline steady.  After these incidents  Benny was nervous going in beside  Nico. He hung back and pulled as far to the side as he could just to get some distance. This only exacerbated the problem from Nico's perspective.

Then  I got some excellent advice from Benny's breeder, Nathalie Roy: She said first and foremost to do individual training with them.  Nico didn't need a lot for he already pulled well on his own. But Benny benefited hugely from pulling the weighted toboggan with only me running beside him. I was able to correct him  when he tried to go off the trail, and encourage him to pull steady.  The toboggon provided contiuous drag most of the time. If he was moving he was pulling. That was good thing for getting him to wrap his head around what his job really was.

Soon  it was time to put them together again.  Nathalie had also suggested that they did not have to be on a neckline.  I tried this; it meant Nico wasn't being pulled sideways by Benny, and Benny could get some distance when he felt he needed it.

But while Benny had come to understand what his job was he still was not focused enough  to stay at it  consistently without guidance.  The least distraction would draw him.  Nico wasn't sure what we were doing as a result: free walk? or pulling time? He was becoming more nervous because  we were stopping and starting while I tried to sort Benny out. Nico was still not ready to be "lead dog" in a team, and Benny was not ready to be a steady team dog.

Enter a new leader: me.  I put both dogs on a leash, and ran between them. That worked really well.  I had to correct Nico only once or twice for turning to Benny. "No. That's not your job." I told him.  "That's my job. Leave him alone."

I turned and corrected Benny. Just with a word: "Straighten up now." But what was enough made Nico  happy.  He doesn't have a big domination agenda with Benny. He just doesn't handle it very well when things aren't going the way he thinks they should. His insecurities come to the fore and then he does what insecure people do when they feel things are out of control: he lashed out.  Once I took on the job of disciplining Benny from up front, in the position of lead dog, Nico was able to build his own confidence as a running dog, as a team dog, and finally as leader.

At first I ran between them. This worked well, except that Nico is a big puller all the time. If he feels resistance on the coller he'd pull harder. When Benny held back, I had to hold Nico back with the leash while bringing Benny up to position. This took a lot of strength. But Benny soon caught on that he had it was o.k. to  stayed up level with Nico, that Nico wasn't going to nail him at least not with me there.

Then I started running beside. This was awkward with the two leashes. If I  ran on Benny's side I could keep him from going off the trail with my legs.  But if Nico came into him, it was hard to  correct Nico without pulling him further into Benny. If I ran on Nico's side I was always pulling Benny into him when correcting Benny for straying.  By the time I was done all of this pulling on the dogs, I was pulling them more than they were pulling load.

Meanwhile my husband Rick manned first the cart and the sled.  His job was to use the brakes to keep the line tight, and not to fall off.  That was a training adventure that need not be discussed here.  He was also supposed to give direction and speed commands so the boys could get used to being directed from behind. That was just plain funny sometimes.  "Haw" when he meant "hike," and "hike" when really a whoa was absolutely necessary. Fortunately the dogs just got used to listening to me, whether I was in front, beside or, eventually behind. 

Running with them was hard work. As Benny grew into a better understanding of his job, they were ready to go faster than I could run.  But neither of them had the experience to be able to run together in concert.  I had to revist the idea of the  neckline. I was worried though: what if they fought again? It made me  very nervous. I had been bitten badly  in the turtle incident. I remained concerned worried about the damage they could do to each other.

Then another friend, Molly Moldovan suggested putting the neckline through a PVC pipe. With a rigid neck-line maybe they wouldn't be able to get at each other.  I wasn't sure about this idea: I was worried they would somehow poke each other with it.  So I tried it with my husband. Really - we did that! We each held one end at our necks and tried to get at each other.  We couldn't, but we also didn't  poke each other; when the pipe made contact with our necks and shoulders it just slide off.  So I began with the dogs. 

In fact, because of the way their neck / head alignment is different from ours, they could get their heads close enough together despite the line to bite each other if they really wanted to. But I do not think they would be able to do much damage if they fought because it makes it very awkward. But the better news is that they, so far have simply not tried.  I did some walkign with each of them separately and then together to get them used to the hard line. Nico had to learn that the stick was not a weapon; Benny needed not to treat it as a toy.  It took about a week: we go very slowly with Nico when it comes to these things, but he always delivered.

And this time both boys delivered. One day I put the hard neckline on them, hooked them up to the sled and we took off. I was running beside them but they wanted to go. So I eased  back, let Rick fall off the sled (I did not push him!) jumped on and off we went. We were a team! It was fantastic and we have continued that way ever since.

Nathalie said that it is better if the dogs are necklined, if we could manage it without trouble.  The boys certainly go much better this way and I will probably keep the rigid neck-line  in place. I do not know if they will "outgrow" the need for it.  It is not so much about keeping them apart I see as giving them both  a very clear marker as to who should run where and how. Nico seemed far more relaxed, one he got used to it of course, than before.  Benny too.  It is no more trouble than a soft neck-line and gives me more confidence for not worrying too much about them nailing each other in a crisis. No doubt some of their ease is because I am no longer nervous on that account. It is also easier to see and grab when that is needed  than a soft line.  Also if Benny is slacking or Nico is distracted, I am able to step in between them easily and make corrections without  worrying about getting tangled in the neckline.

For my two dogs, neither of them trained when we began,  one very nervous, the other young, it was a great solution to the neckline and proximity problem.  

We have been doing this for months now, weather permitting.  Nico has stepped up to the plate as a real leader.  He is no longer nervous and defensive, Benny is no longer afraid.  When they run together their tails are high and their heads are up; when the pulling gets hard, their heads go down and they work together, most of the time anyway. Sometimes, when Benny slacks I notice Nico gives him a look and Benny tightens up.  That is all. No growling, no fighting.


The day this video was taken we were enduring a heat wave. It is too hot for the dogs to pull anything or wear packs, but I feel they still need their walks. In the video I am just walking behind with the dogs on skijor lines hooked to my belt.  This is how  I take them out when I am alone with them.

You will see that Benny  has aleash on his collar as well as the neckline. He is an extremely powerful dog. If we see game and he goes to take off,  without the weight of a sled or cart to slow him down, I can't hold him back.  He is still young and doesn't always listen when those instincts kick in, though he is getting better at that. It is difficult and probably ill-advised to give correction from the harness.  The leash on the collar gives me a little more leverage  when I need to remind him that hunting is not in his current job description.

With the harnesses and the belt, I can ground the dogs if they see something they want. I cannot hold the two of them together otherwise.  But Nico in harness is more responsive, more controlled when we see game then when just on leash.  Neck-lined, he helps me ground Benny.   When Nico is paying careful attention to me which is most of the time, I have no worries. But even though he's just gone six years of age, he has a playful soul.  When he gives a certain   bright-eyed little look at Benny, and a particular flick of his tail that I know I have to dig in for he is going to let Benny take me for a ride!

These boys  are Malamutes and they do get excited.  I have had a few occasions to practice my butt-joring, my fall back position when I think I cn't hold them being to just sit down and ride it out, literally.  But they are very good dogs, big of heart and mind.  Learning just doesn't get any better than this. They remain my best teachers.

 Heat Wave! May 29
Ok. Mum. See you got your pic, can we go in now?
Its hot out here!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Wagon Shafts: The Sequel!

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Wagon Shafts: The Sequel!

Tina takes Milt for a ride!
No more stay-at-home Seniors

Sue Logan, accessed the instructions I posted here under  "Wagon Shafts" at
to build her own shafts for almost exactly the same wagon.  She made a few modifications and sent me some pictures. Sue gave me permission to share all, as follows:

Milt is 12 and his hips and knees are getting pretty bad so he can only go on short walks now. Tina is only 7 and still needs to burn off a lot more energy. I always feel so guilty taking her for longer walks and having to leave him home.

When I saw your dad’s modification to your wagon, I thought that was the perfect solution. I already had the same wagon. I only made a couple of changes to the design.

 I decided to attach the shafts to the handle instead of directly to the wagon. Originally I attached it the same way you did but Tina was freaked out by having the wagon so close to her butt. She was a lot less nervous with a couple feet between her and the wagon. This also made the shafts easy to remove so I could haul the whole rig in my truck when I want to take the dogs to the park. I was worried that if they flipped up like yours, the PVC would break when I was driving down the highway. 

So far, it’s working great. It only took 3 trips down my driveway for Tina to get used to pulling it. We practiced with a load of bricks for a while before trying it with Milt in the wagon. I thought teaching him to sit still in it would be the hardest part. But he loves it.

Pretty cool!  What a great use for the system!  Thanks Sue. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Gold Star Day!

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Gold Star Day!

Nico has been with us since December of 2007.  That's about four and a half years.  You'd think we'd pretty much be over all  celebrating his learning to embrace human companionship and trust human affection. Or rather, you'd think he'd have made all the progress he was going to make by this time.  But maybe not: Nico continues to show us that just when we think he's come as far as he's going to come, he steps it up another notch.

So today was a gold star day because for the first time ever he asked to come out of the yard when complete strangers, and men at that, had come to pay a call. Our water pump broke down yesterday. Two young men came today in a white van to fix it. They did their job, and just as they were packing up to leave, I went up to the yard to get Benny to do some pulling.  Nico wasn't on the agenda at all as he never, and I mean never, comes out of the yard voluntarily when there are visitors here,  even regular visitors.

I opened the gate, and Benny came right up to me. He never hesitates to come, and typically Malamute, loves to meet and greet new people. But there, right behind him was Nico. Well, that was unusual, but I figured he would step back as soon as I reached out to him. I had to try though; it was like he was asking me to try. So I held out the collar and didn't he just step up, and put his head in?  Then he trotted most happily out of the yard.

I thought maybe he doesn't see the white van and the strangers standing around it. He  walked right  around the corner of the house towards it though, instead running  away down the trail. And then he went right up to the visitors and acted just like any other friendly Malamute I've ever seen.  Go figure!

The picture below is of Nico with Rick:  In December of 2007 when Nico came here, it took  twelve days before he would come out of his dog house and let Rick even touch him for a second. I am talking about  twelve days of bitter cold in which, twice a day, Rick took the food out to the kennel, set it down on the ground, then sat back and waited for forty-five minutes each time for Nico to come out. But Nico refused to budge from the dog house, while Rick was there. For twelve days Rick waited,  Then finally, one day, he came out of his house, took a chicken back out of the dish, and set it down in front of Rick.

When Rick told me about this I said, "That dog has seen too many Disney movies."  Rick, thinking back, remembered that  he didn't know what to do. However,  since he wasn't going to eat the raw chicken back himself, he just picked it up and put it back in the dish.  Nico then looked him right in the face,  turned around and then ate his food in Rick's presence.

That was the beginning of a very long and slow healing process. Itis pretty clear to us that Nico was very badly treated, and by a man or men, or boys.  It would still  be months  before Nico would come in to my husband when called. It was months before I could get him to come into our house. And then  when he did he finally bring himself to cross the threshold, it was to huddle  in my arms on the sofa. When Rick or my son  came into the room  he would shake and cower. On the trail, he would not pass my husband, even when old Thunder was happily trotting on ahead.  Rick's hands hanging down were just too frightening, and if one of them happened to swing, as they do when we walk, Nico would crouch and try to run.  

But the day he came out to eat with Rick was a beginning: Nico offered, and  Rick accepted. And after that it got better every day, one small step at a time.

Nico and Rick: A contract made, a contract honoured.
Benny looking on saying,: What's the big deal?
Rick's  great: he's the one who brings on supper!

You  can see from this picture, how things turned out between Rick and Nico, eventually. But it was maybe a year  before Nico would  approach any other man  and then it would all fall apart if the man so much as looked at Nico, much less tried to touch him.  Now years later, for the first time  Nico  came voluntarily out of the yard, his safe place, came as if   he really wanted to meet people, and greeted them without fear.  I thought I should make note!

I'm pretty sure that  this has a lot to do with Benny, his little buddy who is now bigger than him, his follower in all things, who nonetheless leads the way when it comes to all things social. I guess it takes a long time though  for a dog to forget when someone has hurt him.  It does me no good to dwell on what kind of mistreatment  Nico must have endured to be so distrustful, especially of men. But it sure makes me happy to see him come around like he did today!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Fire Mal"

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In an interview with Nathalie Roy of Nordicight Alaskan Malamutes,  Gery Allen an American Breeder and Musher of Malamutes (Kennel Name: Nuvakachina) was asked  to describe one of his best moments on the trail. Gery answered:
pre-wrap;"> Hmmmm… moments on the trail?  I guess I would have to say that some of my best moments are seeing the sun come up after we’ve been running in the dark for an hour or two (I typically get up to train well before the sun comes up).  There’s something about seeing the light hit the dogs, especially if it comes from behind.  The dogs reflect the light and they become luminescent, almost glowing in the morning light, and I have a couple of red mals that look like they're on fire!  It only lasts for a few minutes.  But, in those few minutes when everybody is running in sync, with clouds of frost hanging about them, and the early morning sunrise is lighting them up, it just makes for a beautiful sight!  These are moments when I think to myself: My god, these are amazing animals!  Seeing them all working together as a team, as go we go down the trail on a snowy morning is like watching  poetry in motion!  It’s something that’s actually brought tears to my eyes a few times!*

Gery's description of the red Malamute as a  "dog on fire" capitvated my imagination and the rest of his answer warmed my heart. So I thought I'd share it with you here.

*Shared with Gery's permission.

Friday, April 6, 2012


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I      just     can't    help  falling 
in love     with     you.....

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wagon Shafts

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*Note:  What follows are not instructions:  this is simply a  description  of what I did to build something my dog could pull with me walking beside.   It is not something a person or child could ride in. I do use a line on the wagon, so I can hold it back in case something lets loose, and I do keep the dog on a leash.  This is not an instruction package. I make absolutely no claims for the safety of this design and cannot be held responsible for any outcome should anyone choose to imitate it with or without modifications.

Wagon Shafts

I have been asked to show how I made the shafts for the wagon.  The shafts are made out of rigid PVC conduit pipe, half inch.  I bought one 10 foot length  of pipe, a "T" junction, and two "sweeps" to make the corners.

I bought the wagon a number of years ago at Canadian Tire.  The handle that came with the wagon fits on a piece that connects to the front turning axle by way of an upside down u structure.   

Then I called  my dad, Bill Sallans.  What came next is largely his work!

If difficult to see, pass your cursor over the image and it will go full screen.
Click back again, off the pic and you will be back in the post.

 Initially my dad and I just talked on the phone. We got into some confusion because he has the same wagon as me, but bought it a year or so earlier. The handle hook-up is different from mine.  Mine is shown in the picture on the left.  The picture on the right, with the blue writing is the way his handle worked. If mine were like his, it would have been easy to simply cut the handle off near the end, insert a stub in bit that was left, and then insert this stub into the box that makes the T for the PVC pipe.  If I'd had  that kind of handle then  what follows would have been a little different. 

The "u" that connects the wagon handle 
to the piece that goes to the turning axle.

My handle worked with an upside down u that had been welded to the shaft of the wagon handle, and a bolt  to fix it in the piece that goes to the axle. So we had to do it differently. We cut the handle off pretty short, and then stuck this piece itself into the PVC "T". In the end it was a good fix because that the handle pivots on a bolt means that the shafts can also pivot. So when not in use I can stand the shafts straight up against the wagon.

The "T" junction available for PVC rigid pipe.
You can also see one of the "sweeps" here.
The opening on the T is where we put the wagon handle end .

I am pointing to the "u" from the handle.
You can't see the handle stub itself because
it has been inserted into the PVC "T"

The handle stub  comes right out the other side of the "T". You can see the top of the eye bolt that we put there: that is where I hook up the "tug line" that goes to the back of the dog's harness.  You can also see that  there is a D-ring on the piece that goes to the axle with an old leash attached to it. I use this as a brake when necessary and also to pull the wagon myself rather than pulling on the shafts when moving it around.

Here you see the hook up on the piece that goes to the axle.
The shafts are now in a vertical position, so you are looking at
the bottom of the PVC "T" .
The "u" part that was part of the wagon handle is actually
now in the position it would be if the handle were still on it.
 This is how it looks with the shafts in pulling position.
You can also see the eye bolt that is pushed through a hole
we drilled in the stub of the wagon handle. 

Here you see the shafts all hooked up to the dog.
I put loops on the side of his pulling harness to hold the shafts.
You can also see the  clips I put  there too to make the "hold back".
The "hold back" is necessary to keep the cart from riding up on the dog.  The clips are just swivel tugs. They are fixed to the shaft with hose clamps.  The loops for the shafts are sewn into the harness, and then a second loop is provided for the clamps for the hold-back.

I finished off the ends of the PVC pipe just by sticking an adapter that you use to join two pieces together on the end with a nickel inside to close the pipe.  

The harness I use is our wintertime sledding harness.  It is  called a toboggan harness. It comes down the sides of the dog's back legs and has a spreader bar to keep his legs from being squeezed when he pulls.  I modified it by putting a piece of elastic at the back so that when it is slack, the spreader bar does not drop down and catch his leg.

This harness can be seen at this web site:  (scroll down to toboggan harness).

If I were buying a harness specifically for this purpose I think would go to Black Ice and get their Sierra Drafting and Pulk Harness  because it already has the shaft hook up on the harness itself. It also advertises that it can be used for weight pulling which suggests it may have wider webbing making heavier loads more comfortable for the dog. We are very happy however with the toboggan harness and it is very versatile, especially since I modified it to keep it up off the dogs legs when the line is slack.

I prefer these options to the commonly seen cart pulling harness that goes straight across the dog's chest because I think the x crossing on the chest is more comfortable for the dog. I also prefer the way the spreader bar allows for a single tug hook up, rather than hooking up two lines coming from the dog.  Also the spreader bar acts as  "breeching" -- Papa says "britching" -- helping to keep the harness and therefore the cart from riding up on the dog when going down hill, or stopping on the flat. 

A note on the choice of PVC pipe: It may not be elegant, but it is cheap (less than $20 for all the materials in the shafts) and when you put it all together, it remains quite flexible.  I am teaching Benny to make sure he lies down like a sphinx between the shafts, but once in a while he rolls. The shafts just give way and nobody gets hurt, nothing is broken. It is also quite light weight, yet sturdy.

When we got the whole thing assembled and were sure all the parts fit, we used PVC black glue, the kind designed for the pipe, to put the pieces together.

And that's it!  Thanks Papa! (that's my dad.  He builds cool stuff.)

"Papa"  (Bill Sallans)

Benny's Summer Job

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Benny's Summer Job

Benny's summer job: moving next winter's wood from driveway to woodshed. I made shafts for the wagon - he is so steady, he took to them right away, and has already mastered tight turns (requires him to cross his legs) and hold back on the hills! Malamutes rock!  

I was asked about the training for this, whether or not I had to start with just the shafts. The answer is no.  Benny is a rock steady dog. I just laid the shafts down on the ground and asked him to line up, so he did, just like he does on the sled. Then there was a lot friggin around while I fitted everything. I told him to stand still, like I do for harnessiing or grooming , so he did. Once I got everything adjusted I said lets go, walked beside him as I wasn't sure he wouldn't jump the shafts, but he didn't. He right away figured out what to do with his body to make the turns and the down hills etc. easier. 

I think Benny is a dog who likes to use his own head in his own good time. The slow work of hauling wood with the requirement that he think where he puts his feet and his weight, particularly as we have a lot of steep hills up and down and sharp turns throughout to negotiate when we are doing this, seems to suit him. I think a more high energy dog would require more training.  

My Nico would be very nervous about the shafts.   He has pulled wood in the wagon for me in the past, but only only  a line, like we use for the sled.  I would not put him between shafts; he's never liked the wagon much. Its too erratic, without shafts, and yet  I know he would feel trapped in the shafts, especially if something went wrong. Benny on the other hand just waits calmly for me to solve the problem. Benny also is a much slower, but steadier puller. Nico likes to run, and pulls because something is attached him when he is running. 

Benny on the other hand just likes to pull.  Benny is calm and very trusting. So he can devote all of his mind to figuring things out as he goes, instead of getting all panicked,  and not being able to learn for wanting to run away.  Once he's shown something that works, he remembers and does it again on his own. He also loves weight. I am going light right now while he figures things out, but I learned with the toboggan that the more he has to pull, the more he seems to get excited -- er,, in a calm "Benny"sort of way!

So Benny has become my wood hauling dog; Nico, as befits his station as the senior dog around here watches over the work from the yard, giving, no doubt advice which Benny, no doubt, ignores.  When Benny is done his job, they both get a nice treat: Benny for doing the job, Nico, for  just being Nico. What a team!