Brand, or how teams work.
Brand, or how teams work.
On the trail in Northern Canada, “Marche” is the word that translates to “Porridge” and is used to drive dog teams that were once the only source of power in the frozen North.
What was not translated was the original meaning of the word “Marche”, which was the French imperative “Go”.
Don’t run, hurry or walk faster, just walk.
In fact, there are only three commands that a sled dog understands: “Stop,” “Go,” and “Quiet.”
I was fortunate enough to take a dog sledding tour of Canada with Snowy Owl Tours under the careful guidance of Connie Arsenault.
She began the tour by introducing us to the dogs with an attention to detail born of genuine respect and care for her teams.
She explained how the team works.
All dogs are attached to the sled by a common line to which each dog is attached by a separate harness, the direction of this line is the direction the sled will take, and the effort of each animal can be measured by its alignment with the direction of travel on the sled.
Connie talks about the importance of choosing the right dogs for each team.
Positioning of dogs on the team is determined by their size, level of courage and willingness to perform.
“When we put our dogs in a sled, we have front and back dogs, guide dogs, carry dogs, swing dogs and wheel dogs.
In a team of eight dogs of four pairs, the first pair are the lead dogs.
They are not the strongest, but they have the intelligence, focus, character and speed that allow other dogs to follow them.
If the guide dog does not lead, the team will not follow and the sled will go nowhere.
Next are the point dogs, the apprentice guides, who are usually one year old.
At the back of the team are the dogs on wheels, these two are the strength of the team, strong and undramatic.
They take their direction, then put their shoulders to the tracks and get the job done.
In the middle is the schoolyard, the swinging dogs.
This pair usually consists of a young dog and an older dog, perhaps an old handler or wheel dog, who is advancing in years and has been replaced in his primary position by a younger, more capable animal.
His usefulness isn’t over, power isn’t the team’s only commodity.
The old dog in the school yard or on the swing now has the task of attracting the younger dog by his example and experience.
He, in turn, responds and receives fresh energy from the younger dog’s enthusiasm.
These eight dogs will comfortably pull three people all day or just as happily fight and play in the snow.
These eight people make up the team.
Driving is done exclusively through praise and recognition.
Kudos to the team effort as well as the individual.
Connie explained the importance of our position to the team.
We were part of the team, but like the dogs, we still had to earn the right to be there.
Unless we were willing to jump off the sled and give them a hand when they needed it, they would lose respect and stop pulling.
This included helping by pushing on the ascent and holding the sled back so it wouldn’t run over the dogs on the descent.
It wasn’t our job to tell the team what to do, they already knew what it was better than us.
Our job was to provide the physical and verbal support they needed to let them know their efforts were appreciated.
There are no passengers in the sled.
Connie’s reason for making this explanation was that she cared about her teams and did not want us to annoy or upset them through accidental mishandling or abuse.
There was a nagging question: “What if we get it wrong?”
I could see the picture this man had in his mind, he was hanging grimly as his team hurtled towards the horizon at top speed out of control.
Connie saw it too and knew the answer perfectly.
She told us: “If you’re leading a team and you make a mistake, the team will stop functioning.
This means that they will stop pulling in the same direction and therefore be unable to break away to any horizon, but they will let you know long before that all is not well.
All you have to do is watch for the signs they will give you”
She said: “The first thing you need to understand is that these are working dogs.
Dogs who are so excited at the prospect of pulling that at the start of the day when they are fresh, they will sometimes move too fast.”
If you stick to the three instructions they know and understand, Stop, Go, Calm, and give them the support they need, then they will do their best for you.
If you confuse them with unnecessary or conflicting orders or yell at them, they will stop working as a team. They’ll take their weight off the rope while holding it taut to make it look like they’re working, or they’ll just go off line and start eating snow or fighting.
The first sign of this in the team is when the dogs start looking over their shoulder at the handler.
Usually the lead dog is first, he turns while still pulling and you can see in his eyes what’s on his mind.
He says “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it” or “We’re doing our best, why don’t you come down and help instead of yelling”
Unless you pay attention to these early signs, team breakdown will follow.
Connie told a great story, but we couldn’t wait to hit the trail behind our teams.
At first I was harnessed to a handler, she released the dogs, stopped them and told me when to hit the brakes.
She spent the rest of the time praising the team and the individuals.
At first I thought she was overdoing this support and was puzzled by the meticulous way she named each of the dogs and encouraged them, returning again to praise the entire team.
at first it sounded like overkill and I couldn’t see any effect.
What I really mean is that the team just did what a dog team was supposed to do.
They didn’t make a noise, they pulled in one direction and kept their eyes forward, except for an occasional glance to greet our guides words of appreciation, as if they knew that she too must know that her efforts were appreciated.
There was a lot of yelling and noise coming from the sled behind us.
They had no guide and we had to stop to let them catch up.
Our guide had her hands full trying to shower the same amount of attention and care on the team behind us who were clearly not having any fun at all and needed help.
Then I realized that what she was doing was a physical thing.
She wasn’t just “nice” to the dogs, she provided the fuel the team needed to run.
Without the support she provided to our team, the team behind him would have fallen apart.
The more the team stopped functioning, the more the drivers yelled, cajoled and instructed.
This is exactly what Connie told us would prevent the team from functioning, and she was absolutely right.
At the halfway point some of us switched sleds and I ended up with the team that was behind us on the way out. One of the outer stage drivers also stayed with this team.
We set off with a chorus of shouts and hollers, all intended by the guide to motivate and push the team to greater effort.
It was obvious that this confusing set of signals wasn’t working, the dogs would turn and look at us, they wouldn’t pull and the sled wouldn’t move.
More yelling was added and the pilot launched into a litany of the team’s mistakes and how it was really ruining the day that we had such a bad team.
I remembered Connie’s words and suggested we try something different.
“Why don’t we just save our breath and see what the dogs will do on their own.”
The driver stopped screaming.
With the word “Get up” (the modern version of saying “Mush”), the dogs pricked up their ears, turned forward and began to pull.
We have not given any other command to the dogs.
They knew where they were going.
We helped up the hills by walking or running next to him and stopping down.
The rest of the time was spent providing the team with the fuel they needed to do their job.
“Good puppies, good puppies, well done Misty, good boy Laredo, well done midnight, good girl Mexico.
Good Boy Butch Well Done Sundance Good Girl Cinders Good Boy Butt. Well done boys! Good girls!.
And just once I got a kind of a look back from Laredo, he seemed to say, “See, that’s the way it’s done,” and then he went back to his work of keeping the sled up front and tending to the youngster on his shoulder.
The reason you told us how to make teams work wasn’t because Connie Arsenault had heard a theory about leadership principles and wanted to try it out.
The reason was that she was racing dog sleds. She was racing sled dogs the same way they had been racing for hundreds of years, and she knew that was the way to win.
#Brand #teams #work