Getting Started in Sled Dog Racing with Samoyeds
With two or three Samoyeds, it is easy to start dreaming about zipping silently through the snow on the runners of a sled, the dogs navigating deftly through windswept trails. Perhaps you are an aspiring Iditarod distance racer. The differences between a team of long distance Alaskan Husky athletes and a Samoyed sprint racing team are considerable, however.
Before you begin building your "dream team", consider the heritage of the Samoyed. The Samoyed breed has a versatile history in herding, sledding and weight pulling, yet it is not considered a top performer in any one area. Depending on your fondness for the breed, the Samoyed is either a "renaissance dog", or a "jack of all trades and master of none". Many other mushers point out that the typical Samoyed racing performance is slower than other breeds specifically bred for running (Siberian Husky).
Most experienced Samoyed team drivers acknowledge the breed’s limitations for racing, especially compared to cross-breeds developed specifically for racing, such as the Alaskan Husky. However, in sprint racing over shorter distances, many Samoyeds make up in attitude what they may lack in ideal racing conformation. Furthermore, our breed often performs relatively well in races where conditions are less than ideal because of the Samoyed’s superior intelligence and perserverence.
Building the Team
It takes several elements to build a successful racing team. Set your goals in keeping with your own athletic ability, your dog’s abilities and aptitude, your ability to train, and your access to key resources (dogs, training partners, equipment, training trails, races).
Keep in mind that, although other expert mushers are extremely helpful as you learn about training and racing, the experience and advice of non-Samoyed teams doesn’t always work well for our breed. As you start out learning about training your dogs for races, read "Mush" (Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers) or Lee Fishback’s "Training Novice Sled Dogs". "Mush" is available in many public libraries. Fishback’s books are available from mushing supply catalogues.
Once you have reviewed the basics, visit a sled dog race and talk to several mushers. At the race, you may find an experienced musher to train with. Keep in mind that many serious mushers may discount the Samoyed’s abilities as sled dogs—be persistent but be realistic about your dogs’ prospect as a top racing team. Your best bet, if you cannot find a willing Alaskan Husky team willing to work with you, would be to approach other purebred (Siberian Husky or Samoyed) team drivers. A well-conditioned Samoyed team can keep pace with many purebred teams.
Training the Team
When you are just starting to train, it’s a good idea to keep sight of lofty goals, but be cautious about setting expectations too high. At first, concentrate on getting each of your dogs to understand what is expected of them. You may do this by working with them individually, on a leash and in harness while you jog or hike with the dog. Teaching the concept of holding the line taut and obeying the commands (gee=right, haw=left, hike=let’s go) are easily done with one or two dogs at a time. If you are lucky enough to find a musher who will let you hook your dogs in with the team, you can start team work right away. No matter what type of training you’re doing, remember the cardinal rule: make it fun or don’t do it!
Once you’ve got the hang of it, you should consider some training tips specifically tailored for Samoyeds.
Since Samoyeds are easily bored, it is important to really "spice up" training sessions. Practice on trails with lots of variety by varying distances and routes, reversing the order you run the trail. Some times, train with another team, practicing passing and chasing (following) another team. Have another vehicle (a truck or car if you’re running with a cart) run just ahead as a "pilot" vehicle.
Teach your dogs the pace—don’t let them decide. If the dogs get tired and begin to slow, it is best to stop them on command and let them rest for a moment and then proceed at a reasonable pace. Most dogs have "favorite" parts of a trail where they will pick up the pace a little –praise them for that and teach them to "pick it up" on command. Some mushers stop the dogs before ascending a hill to allow the dogs to enthusiastically "charge" the hill.
Balancing speed and distance can be difficult, particularly at the beginning of the training season when the dogs aren’t in condition. One tactic which seems to work for many teams seeking to improve speed is to divide the training course into four equal lengths. Start out with a short distance! At first, you may plot out only a mile long course. When the team can complete the last quarter of the course in the same time as the first quarter of the course, increase the distance by a half mile or so.
Most beginners don’t have a natural lead dog. This often results in confusion and inconsistent performance on the team. Don’t get discouraged if the dogs at lead don’t automatically know what to do and aren’t sure if they want to stay out in front. Being a lead dog is a big responsibility, and most dogs need to "grow" into the role. Most mushers run two dogs side by side in double lead with a neckline connecting them, so the dogs offer one another confidence.
It’s a good idea to train all dogs to follow commands and to do some basic aptitude testing with each dog. Sometimes the dog you think is your likely leader turns out to be better suited to a different position.
"Training Lead Dogs", also by Fishback, is a good investment for anyone not lucky enough to inherit an experienced leader (most mushers).