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!

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