How To Train Your Dragon, I Mean Lead Dog...!
I am often asked how a good lead dog is trained, but more often than not it is phrased as, "How do you pick the leaders?" Truthfully, I don't, and I don't actually think that it's ME that is doing the training.
Let's start by talking about what I see when a dog does not want to be a leader. For me, I look for a dog that simply has the desire to be up front. Just like people, some dogs would rather follow, and putting them in the lead makes for a very obviously awkward and even counter productive training run. They will let you know if they don't want to lead, or if they just aren't ready to run in front. Just like an unmotivated employee, they may be going through the motions and jogging down the trail, but not be pulling that line tight. They'll spend more time distracted and looking back at you, than they do actually leading the team. If you aren't able to pick up these cues that the dog is giving you, they very well might just nose dive right into the snow bank and say, "Nope, someone else please go in front!" Point being that you can't force a dog to do anything, let alone LEAD! With that said, dog mushing is not all science, and the dog's unwillingness to be in front might have something to do with their objection to the dog behind them or next to them.
It's not that I am choosing which dog I want to lead, as much as I'm giving them all a chance, and they are making the decision. Every musher has their own way of doing things. I have always liked to give them a chance at leading while they are pretty young. I've even seen pups who have led on their very first run in harness! I'm not putting them up there for some monster run, but just give them a taste and see how they react. For example, when I was just starting to put Gale in lead, I would start the run and leave the yard with her somewhere back in the team. Leaving the yard adds an extra element of hype and confusion, and I'd rather rest drive the new ride on a smooth surface. So, we leave the yard, and after a few miles I stop for our regular scheduled water break and switch Gale into the lead position.
I make sure to put her next to a veteran leader who has really good habits, and who can teach her a thing or two. We scurry down the trail a ways, and then I stop to go up and tell Gale how great she's doing! Especially with young dogs, it is CRUCIAL that their experience is all positive. They don't know any better, YET. So if Gale is goofing off and not wanting to lead, I would NEVER yell out her name and try to correct her behavior. I would simply stop and put her back in the team somewhere. She will tell me when she's ready, and honestly some dogs aren't ready to lead until they are much older! Every musher you talk to will have some story about a dog they bought from someone who said, "This dog won't lead." And then the dog turns out to be their best leader! No sir, that dog wouldn't lead for YOU!
Okay, so you've determined that a dog wants to run in the front, has the confidence to lead the team. How do you teach it 'gee' and 'haw'? The vast majority of dog training, is the other dogs teaching each other what to do. I am really more of a facilitator and moderator. I put them in the position to learn from one another, and monitor how they interact. I give voice commands on every single turn we take, even if we always go 'gee' at that intersection, even if there is not even an option to 'haw', I say 'gee'. It's not just the dogs in lead that are listening to me! So run after run, while Gale runs in the middle of the team, she is hearing the commands and following through.
It really does help to have a solid dog like U-Turn or Wyatt or Louisa to take responsibility for training new leaders. You will come to an intersection and say 'gee', Gale keeps running straight, and U-Turn pushes her onto the gee trail. It doesn't take very many of those re routes for the up and coming commanders to pick it up. They're smart dogs, and of course you have to have patience and understanding as a musher. You have to be able to cue in on body language. If you stop your team to snack, and your young dog in the back of the team is still pulling that line tight and trying to go forward, odds are they would take the reins well, try it out!
The real question, which I have no answer for, is how do you train a leader when you have no other leaders...?! Part of it, I think, is genetics. I've seen entire litters that all grow up to be leaders, and some litters where you only really get one or two leaders.
The last point I'll make, is that not all leaders are created equal. Some dogs are trail leaders, they'll do great on an established trail, or following right behind another team, but they balk when having to break trail or find their own way. Some dogs are great in lead on your training runs, and you find out 300 miles into a race that they don't really like leading that much after that point. The super leader needs no trail, just your voice commands. They'll run up front for 1000 miles. They'll go 'gee' when you call it out, even when there is a thicket of willows in their way..!! Happy training!