When Sled Dogs Go Outward Bound

Blitzen on an expedition team

This blog post originally appeared on the Voyageur Outward Bound School’s blog. Check it out in its original home.

Just like our staff and students, our sled dogs come from all over. Some are born right in the yard, products of selective breeding of our best dogs. We can trace some of these dogs’ lineages back to the dogs deported from the Mawson Australian Research Station on Antarctica. Many of our dogs, however, come to our yard from other mushers. Sometimes the mushers’ yards are too full, and they need fewer mouths to feed. Other times, dogs pass their sprinting primes and need an expedition pace for the rest of their careers. For whatever reason they come to our yard, however, our new dogs don’t truly join the VOBS family until they have their own Outward Bound experience.

One of our newer dogs, Blitzen, came to our yard at the beginning of the 2012-2013 winter season. A tall and lanky dog with brown and black coloring, Blitzen looked more like a German shepherd than a husky. Looks were deceiving, though. He was shy, sweet, and loved to pull. Blitzen came from a racing background where his 10 mph pace did not satisfy his musher’s need for speed. In his first few months at Outward Bound, we frequently remarked that he was likely the fastest dog in our yard. He’d never helped pull a 500-lb sled before, however.

Blitzen learns to pull a dog sled

We eased Blitzen into life as a VOBS sled dog, building a series of increasingly difficult challenges so he could get comfortable in his new home. First, Blitzen learned the yard and our feeding routines. We paid him lots of attention, speaking softly and approaching slowly to avoid startling him. Dozens of new people enter our yard every month, and it is important for our dogs to be comfortable around visitors they don’t know. We then paired Blitzen with gentle dogs who knew their business and started with empty or light sleds. When Blitzen became more comfortable with each step, we’d give him another challenge, all the while making him feel loved and supported.

After nearly two months of VOBS training and short day runs, Blitzen was ready to go camping for the first time. His first extended overnight expedition turned out to be the coldest week of 2013. The thermometer didn’t rise above zero until the fourth day of travel. Blitzen ran right in the middle of the team, a place he could focus on running and not be called upon for too much knowledge or power. A blanket of new snow and the cold temperatures made for slow going. Every time the sled stopped in its tracks—most often due to human tiredness—Blitzen whined and turned back. “What are you punks doing?” his eyes and whine seemed to say. We worked with him to pull against his tugline at the same time as the rest of the team and even ran along with him through deep snow to teach him the continuous travel pace for which we strive.

Blitzen feeling right at home on the tie-out in camp.After a couple of days of constant expedition training, Blitzen showed obvious signs of improvement. He no longer stopped pulling the moment he felt the sled slow down. He only whined on stressful portages, and he even managed to remain quiet in camp. “Operation: Blitzen Goes Outward Bound” was a wild success, and now he was ready to pull for students in the field.

Students at Outward Bound often undergo a transformation similar to Blitzen’s, though in a shorter time frame. They arrive a little nervous, don’t know anyone, and embark upon an experience that appears immense at the outset. By learning basic skills—tying a trucker’s hitch, layering to stay warm in the cold, kick-gliding on cross-country skis—our students build competence and become more comfortable in their surroundings. With each mastered skill, Outward Bound students discover the satisfaction of successfully pushing through the difficult circumstances of a winter wilderness trip. Just as Blitzen’s newly acquired expedition skills helped him gain confidence in the midst of 69 other dogs, our students’ increased mastery and accompanying sense of confidence helps them go home better able to take on life’s challenges.

Dogs pulling onto Kekekabic Lake

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