When Whoa Matters: Road Crossings!
Updated: Oct 10
Last spring when Stoco Lake Dog Derby organizer Abby Fallis asked me to help her supervise the road crossing I thought, 'Ok. This should be interesting! Playing traffic cop for excited packs of dogs all running together, musher in tow meeting oncoming vehicles on a busy road? What could go wrong!"
Answer: Lots! "We may also have head-on passing happening at this point," she added, referring to the situation where two teams have to pass each other going in opposite directions. Cars do this too, but hopefully not when we are taking teams across the road! Hopefully.
Despite so much disaster potential all went well. Most of the teams running were well disciplined. When asked to whoa and wait, that is exactly what they did. Same for the cars! But Abby and I were there for a reason, not only to signal the stop and govern the passage but also to lend a hand when things went more than a little sideways. Sometimes "whoa" and "hold" fails. Sometimes teams tangle or go literally sideways when the route from trail to road and back onto trail isn't clear to the leaders. Sometimes dogs spin and turn on the gang line, a tug lets loose, or a collar comes off and briefly, chaos reigns. These things can happen even with the most well mannered team under the hand of the most competent musher. As for the cars, the biggest problem there was that the most considerate, in the interest of safety they would slow down well ahead of the crossing, then take forever to get through. Others, simply not thinking and enjoying the "show" chose that moment to stop and take a picture. Meanwhile the dogs wait, and hold and hold and hold and then GO! It was rather like watching the fuse run down on suppressed dynamite! So I guess that means there is more to running dogs then climbing on the runners, calling "Hike" and holding on.
The photo above shows my young dogs in training coming up on Highway 62 during a brief moment when traffic was quiet. It is a fast road with much traffic and poor visibility due to curves on either side. "Whoa" and hold mattered even more because I was on a kick-bike. That means I had very little in the way of "rig" and no serious braking power to hold them back if they decided to ignore my words. You wouldn't try this with a large team for sure, but what I do in this situation is call the whoa. Then I ask for "hold" as I work my way up the tug line, scooter in one hand, line in the other. When I get to the dogs, it's "Stay" while I get organized. Next it's "Heel" and with one hand on the neck line, the other on the scooter, we cross side by each, when safe. This is not the way mushers generally do it. Sled dogs aren’t' usually trained to "heel." On a less scary crossing I might not do it that way either. But in this type of context, with two young dogs just learning and all on my own meeting a busy road, I take advantage of training for hold, stay and "heel," that I have been able to do because I only run two dogs. A large team on the other hand, has the benefit of a heavier rig behind it holding the team back and of course usually a well trained leading pair who do hold the "whoa" until released. Still the larger the team the greater the distance between the lead dogs up front and the musher at the back on the rig, it is almost impossible hard to see enough of the road to determine if the crossing is safe. Once the dogs are released to go, they're going to GO and there is no turning back. From of all this I arrive at two thoughts. The first: training matters. I could not go out alone on trails like this with two young dogs if I did not spend a lot of time building the communication that gives us a clear understanding of "whoa, hold, stay "and "heel." The other: if asked to volunteer at a dog sled event say yes! I helped out at Stoco Lake, Dog Derby 2023 and learned a ton. If you're offered the road crossing position, especially alongside someone who knows what their doing like long time musher and trainer Abby Fallis, take it! So much happens at these critical junctures. Watching, working with mushers of all levels of expertise from beginners to experienced and their amazing dogs is a learning experience you won't get otherwise. These events can't run without volunteers so helping out makes sure they can happen. But the win is all on the volunteer in my experience! Plus you get to spend the day hanging out with some of the most incredible canine athletes on the planet. Who could say anything but yes to all that.
I look forward to running my own dogs at events such as these once they are "ready" in body as well as in mind. But what I enjoy most is simply running them on my own, just me and them and the trail. And that means being able to keep them safe in all circumstances, all on my own. So today, after yesterday's "big" away run (big for my young "adolescent" team just begining training) they get to "rest." Because they still have lots of energy that means a big free run, free play in the dog yard, and - oh yeah - on leash and off "basic" training in manners. That is, " Whoa, Hold, Stay, and "Heel," not to mention some other important concepts like "leave it" when something juicy is lying right there on the trail! "Basic" training", or what I prefer to call basic communication, is another day's story. Meanwhile, I invite you to find a mushing event and volunteer to help out!