A skill that is super useful for any ‘sled dog’ whether they are pulling you on a sled, bike, scooter, skis or as a canicross dogs, are directionals- learning to take turn cues on command.
A dog who understands directionals can be told when to turn if the trail branches apart, without losing speed. Typically, we only give turn cues when the trail offers options (ie a “Y” in the trail”), but sometimes there is a blind corner where the dog may benefit from a turn cue even if there is no other option- particular in the sports where the dog is running top speed.
My dogs learn turn cues as one of their first puppy tricks, as this is also handy for us in the sport of dog agility. I’m going to demonstrate a couple of different ways to introduce turn cues, and you can choose between them or use both to strengthen your dog’s understanding of this skill. Then we’ll start to put these into a sled-dog style training scenario to build from there. As I know that some of you who are following these lessons also compete in agility, watch for future lessons where I dig into this topic with some more in depth ideas on how you can advance this skill for that sport.
For me, I use the same directional cues for dog powered sports as I do for agility- it’s easy for me to keep these straight- Right and Left. However, traditional mushing cues are GEE (Right) and HAW (left). Apparently, these terms originate from the draft horse world, and there is no reason that if you are starting your dog from scratch that you shouldn’t use these traditional cues. Mushers often refer to lead dogs who understand directional cues as “Gee/Haw leaders”- not all lead dogs know these things – a lot of very successful racing dogs never require these skills as they tend to always run on very well marked trails with no options to take the wrong route- but for most of us, making use of public trails or mushing for fun, it is so worth it to take a few minutes each day during the learning process to give your dog the ability to understand directionals. Plus- it’s fun!
Method 1 – Introducing directionals- side tap method: This is a method that some use to introduce the directional cues to dogs for agility. This is not the method I usually use (my preferred method is below) but I’m showing it because I think there could be some advantages to using this method if you are doing dogpowered sports as your primary activity. Disclaimer: Willy’s responsiveness was not as good as I would have expected and it turned out she really needed to poop! I’ll try to video our next session so that you might get a better idea of how it should look. Here are the basics steps:
- Have 2 or 3 tasty treats in each hand. Start with your dog between your legs (or if they are not comfortable doing that, find some way to ensure that you are directly behind your dog for this exercise).
- Hold your hands (which both contain treats), near your dog’s ribcage.
- Give your dog a directional cue FIRST. Shortly after you say it, gently tap their ribcage with the hand that matches the cue. Ie Say LEFT and tap your left hand on her ribcage- the tapping is meant to be very gentle, this is to get their attention.
- When your dog turns to see what the tapping is about, say ‘yes’ and reward from that hand.
- Repeat with the other side.
- Quit the session or reload when one hand is entirely out of treats.
The trick for introducing this is that you need to say your cue word before you start tapping. You want the word to predict the side that your dog needs to turn to- so after a few sessions, you’ll eliminate the tapping and just use the cue words and rewards. It is important to keep treats in both hands during this exercise, because you don’t want your dog just turning based on smell- the response should be to your verbal cue. If your dog gets into this game and starts to offer to turn back towards your hand, cue the opposite side, and reward there. Don’t reward a turn unless you’ve asked for it.
The advantage to this method is that your dog is facing forward as they would with mushing, and doesn’t need to move their whole body around to face you in order to get the reward. The disadvantage is that some dogs are not really comfortable being hovered over or tapped even gently. If your dog just doesn’t enjoy this, introduce using the spin method described below instead.
Video: Teaching directionals using ‘side-tap’ method
Method 2– Introducing Directions- spin method: I like this method for teaching directionals because the dog must make a full revolution to get their reward. For agility purposes, this is super handy, as it opens up the possibility of having the cue mean everything from a subtle turn to a 180 degree turn. Of course, with mushing, we are not going to ask for 180 turns. Some may worry that you are teaching your dog to spin in harness which is not desirable (some agility competitors also worry that it will teach their dog to spin on course- I have found neither of these things to be true if it’s taught how I’m describing here).
Pro Tip: Remember that when you are mushing, your dog will always be facing the same direction as you- so when you are cuing your turns, make sure that your left cue is your DOG’s left, and right is right, even if they are facing you. Spinning left is counterclockwise and Right is clockwise.
With a treat lure in your hand, encourage your dog to make a complete revolution. Put the treat in front of their nose and lure them to the left. When your dog has made one spin, give them the treat. I never ask for more than one spin at a time. I do tend to teach one direction with this method, and wait until it is reasonably solid, before I start teaching the other direction using the same method. Do short, fun sessions until your dog has mastered both turns, gradually weaning off of the lure AND hand motion- and then randomize them. Still- one revolution = 1 treat. Never ask for multiple spins in a row before rewarding.
To wean your dog off of the hand signal, I first start to make my hand motion very fast. Then, I gradually reduce the size of my hand signal, until eventually they are responding to only the verbal cue. Expect this to take several sessions at least.
Video: Pixie’s first introduction to left directional/spin:
Once your dog shows that they understand these cues quite well, we can start to show the dog that they don’t need to entirely spin to get the reward. In the video below, I start by having Willy do a few complete revolutions before rewarding her (she’s guessing a bit at times, which is unlike her, and again I think this is because she needs to poop!) Then, I switch to rewarding her when she’s pointing away from me. At first, she faces me waiting for a cue, and I’ll tell her right- but reward her half way through the spin so that ideally, the reward comes when she’s pointing forward. Same thing for left. You need to be quick and able to stretch out to deliver the reward away from you. After a few trials of this, you see that she is not offering to turn all the way back to me, but is switching between right and left in a much more ‘sled dog friendly’ type of manner that they will be able to repeat while they are hooked up. Remember, that we mostly use this cue if there is a choice between two trails, so the dog will typically be moving more side to side to get onto the right trail ,vs making really hard sharp turns, though that may happen occasionally.
Video: Advancing directionals using spin method
Video: Verona- directionals using verbals only:
Practice both method 1 and method 2 to help proof your dog’s understanding of the cues!
Teaching the cues in context:
Now that our dog has a decent understanding of right and left (or gee and haw), we want to start easing this into a mushing scenario. First, I take my two treat targets that we’ve been using for line out practice, set both out (not inline, this time, but side by side with about an arm’s length gap between) and load just one of them. I ask Willy to line out – and she cleverly aims for the target that is loaded. I give her the directional cue and as long as she remains pointed at the loaded target, I will send her to it. As she’s eating her treat, I swoop in to scoop up the empty target (I don’t want her foraging, guessing or thinking that the game is hopping from trail to trail or target to target- I only want her being rewarded for the correct choice).
Once she’s figured out what we’re up to, I’ll load both targets. I ask her to line out, and then go to one specifically- but before I send her, I look for body language (I can’t see her eyes) that let’s me know she’s going to choose correctly. I only send her when she is choosing the correct target. Sometimes the signs are subtle so watch things like where her head is pointed, if an ear on the proper side flicks back, weight shifts towards the correct side. At first, this may be a really quick movement on her part but as she gets the hang of it, she’ll ‘lock in’ on the correct target after I give her a cue. As soon as she gets to the correct target, I again swoop in to pick up the other so she doesn’t get rewarded from the wrong target. Note that throughout this exercise, just as with the ‘line out’ training, I am keeping tension on the line. This encourages confidence in pulling towards the proper direction, and it also would allow me to stop and prevent Willy from getting the treat from the wrong target if she happened to change her mind after being sent.
Eventually, she will become more confident and make obvious moves towards the right target and I won’t need to rely on such subtle signals (especially as we increase the challenge by taking this outside) but for now, we want to aim for success and hone our ability to use her body language to know where she’s going to go- an important skill for a musher!
Video: Working directionals, viewed from the front:
Video: Working directionals, from the musher’s perspective and in a ‘y’ trail context:
As with other types of training, the goal is to have dog understand (and be motivated to perform) our cue on the first verbal signal of it, so try to give your dog time to respond to the cue before repeating it. However keep in mind that when you’re introducing new stuff (and new variations of known cues, like we’re doing in these target plate exercises) you may need to help your dog be successful- don’t let them struggle to the point where they are getting confused or demotivated. Taking a few steps towards the correct target plate, after you’ve cued it, may be just the help your dog needs to understand what you’re asking. You’ll also need to watch that you don’t exceed your dog’s ability to hold the line out, pay attention to what you’ve built up in your line out sessions. In this 2nd video where Willy is practicing outdoors, she’s already tired from a big run and is a little distracted from some other things going on in the yard- I’m giving her a little extra time to respond because of these factors, but made a mental note to try to practice next time when she’s fresh and with fewer distractions to try to keep her responses perky and accurate. In the last repetition of this video, my timing on releasing her to the target was a little late and she had started to turn back to me- I’ll want to really watch that I don’t do that very often as I really want to avoid having her turn towards me as any part of the reward chain. Don’t forget to keep working your line-outs in separate practice sessions (or even for a bit before you set up for these directional drills).