No musher analytics due to GDPR

One of the things that I think is missing from sleddog sports – at least here in Finland – is that there are little or no data or analysis available regarding the sport. I think that data is a key component for many sports spectators, and without it, it’s harder to break into the mainstream as a sport.

Since figuring that out I have been working on digitalizing some of the Finnish results and developing an engine which can process and analyze the data.

On 25th of May, or Friday next week, the GDPR kicks in. It stands for General Data Protection Regulation, which is basically a Europe wide regulation limiting the processing of private information.

Personal data is any information that relates to an identified or identifiable living individual. Different pieces of information, which collected together can lead to the identification of a particular person, also constitute personal data.
Source: European Comission 

So what’s the problem? According to GDPR any database with personal information regarding the athletes constitutes a privacy registry. Since there is no legal premise for me to process sports results, including personal information, GDPR requires an explicit permission from every athlete. It is not enough to give athletes the option to opt-out and ask for their data to be removed, but instead, I need to have permission from everyone.

Analysis of the sports results has little or no meaning unless it can be compared to other results of the same class. I have no way of contacting every athlete, and even if I did, there is not much of a chance that everyone would take the time to actually grant me the permission.

It looks like my project scope will have to be severely restricted. I can only process and analyze results from Club perspective. I would love to be able to provide everyone with a chance to visualize their race performance over time, but due to privacy concerns, I cannot.

kolyma.pngFew words about the project: It is an Open Source project to produce a program, written in Python, capable of processing pre-formatted source data, and provide analytics for all official IFSS classes. The project is named Kolyma, after one of the lead dogs of John “Iron Man” Johnsson, A Swedish Finn who was born in Åbo, Finland in 1871, who held the All Alaska Sweepstakes record from 1910 to 2008.

If you know how to write Python and would like to contribute, please head over to project Kolyma on Github!

 

Book Review: Team Dog by Mike Ritland

Book review of Team Dog by Mike Ritland

While we were in Koskenpää conditioning our team for Gold Rush Run sleddog race I spent many hours on the trails listening to podcasts. I mentioned in one of our reports that at the time I was listening to Jocko Willink’s podcast, and that’s where I came across Mike Ritland.

Mike Ritland is a former U.S Navy SEAL and since his career in the Teams he has been training working K9 dogs for different units for well over a decade.

His book, called “Team Dog – How to train your dog – the Navy SEAL way”  cover makes the promise of teaching you the following:

  • Project what Navy SEAL teams call “situational awareness” and “command and control”
  • Establish yourself as a team leader
  • Master nonverbal communication with your dog
  • Understand how and when to appropriately punish or reward
  • Perfect the clicker training technique
  • Create a stable environment and healthy lifestyle for your dog

In my opinion, the book is pretty easy to follow, is aimed at the general public and is suitable for anyone who is interested in training dogs, without prior knowledge of the subject.

If you would strip away all the references to Mike’s experiences on the field and in the special forces, this would be a solid textbook foundation for training dogs. He does not offer any magic tricks or secret Navy methods, but instead a comprehensive philosophy on how to go around forming a relationship with a dog and get results together.

The references to military working dogs serve a purpose. They form a narrative that explains how Mike himself got into dog training and provide depth to the book, making it more enjoyable to read (at least for someone like myself who has an interest in the military as well).

As a canine training expert, however, he does not simply rely on his personal experiences or anecdotes. The science is in there, as well as references to canine academia, but does not dive deep into the depths of theory. As I said, this is a foundation level book, in my opinion. I would have liked to see a table of reference, or at least a “suggested reading” -section in the end, however.

Basically, I think Mike’s message is that first and foremost you should train yourself to operate in a manner that is easier for the dog to understand. Training your dog is essentially a follow-up exercise after you’ve first mastered yourself.  I think he is correct, and this is what most trainers would tell you. Mike’s background gives this an interesting frame, which I find motivating.

But how about the book’s utility for a musher? As I said, this is a comprehensive book so all the basics are in there, from psychology to feeding and training. Chapter seven, “Fitness and Fun and Their Multiple Rewards” is useful reading for every musher learning how to keep their dogs fit. The assumption in most cases is that you have just one dog to train, and training as a team is not on the scope of the book.

Sleddogs are mentioned a couple of times:

Many dogs enjoy pulling things. Sled dogs spring to mind immediately, and I know that in some areas of the country where snow is plentiful, skijoring is a popular activity. … it’s important to note that you are allowing your dog to pull in this instance. For some dogs, making the distinction betwee when pulling is acceptable and when it’s not may be difficult. Repetition is key. (Mike Ritland)

The book does not go deeper into the subject, so I reached out to Mike and asked if he thinks that not allowing a sleddog to pull while on leash would impact their drive when working in-harness? Mike replied to my question:

I don’t think so no, I believe that the context of being on leash with owner vs. in a harness with a team is night and day difference and wouldn’t impact it. Similarly to our bitedogs– teaching control/letting go of suspect doesn’t make them weaker” (@MRitland)

The reference to bitedogs is an interesting one. Bitedogs are working K9 dogs, that unlike most detection dogs used to find drugs, are trained to physically subdue people. Just because they are trained to, following a specific order, let go of their target, does not mean that they do not bite first with all of their might. Mike thinks that the same applies for sleddogs; not pulling in one scenario does not impact the ability to do so in another, as long as the dog understands what’s expected of her.

My conclusion is that if you are new to training dogs, this book is a great way to learn the basics. If you happen to be interested in the military as well, this may well be the best book for you. For me, this book changed the way I carry myself around my dogs, and it works. And I will put parts of this into practice quite soon with our new puppies!

I hope you enjoyed this book review, and if you would like to see more like this, drop me a comment. And kudos Mike for responding to my questions!

Gold Rush Aftermath pt. VIII

This is the last part in a series of 8 lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here.

Eventually, I think there are two ways to get better at any sport. You can train until you’ve got everything together. Or you can, with basic safeguards, help from others and responsible consideration, take your chances and learn on the race tracks.

I figured this out some years ago when I practised Bazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I was a white belt rookie when I signed up for my first Finnish Opens. I lost hard, but what I gained was valuable: I learned what it was to compete, and after that, I was able to mentally approach training in a completely different manner: I do not try to win training, just condition mentally and physically.

The logic does not carry over directly to mushing, but the same elements are there. Training should be fun, even if hard. It’s not just OK to fail in training, it is infinitely preferable to do so, rather than to fail in a race. Racing should be something where you can give everything. I think we did just that.

Lesson learned: Participating in a medium distance race taught me more about sleddogs than all of my previous experience put together. 

Anyways, thank you for reading! I have been really happy to see that we have had visitors reading about our mishaps and lessons learned from three different continents and at least a dozen different countries. I hope I have been able to share something of value and would appreciate hearing from you if I did! Take care, and keep on mushing!

(P.S: I am not saying this way is the best or only way to learn. Depending on your personality, you may have a higher or lower risk preference than I do, and should adjust your approach accordingly.)

Gold Rush Aftermath pt. VII

Vet checking Esko after Gold Rush Run

This is Part 7 out of 8 in a series of lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here.

During the race, I think I had almost every dog in the lead at some point or another. It was quickly becoming evident, that our training had not been sufficient. On our way back, before the last, steep uphill section to climb to the top of Jorpulipää hill (200 meters of vertical), Remu wore himself out, having worked the whole day in the wheel in soft snow, and had to be bagged into the sledge.

My team was thus just 7 seven dogs strong for the last, hardest part of the heat, and I had to work hard myself, too, to push the sledge with one big stud in it to the top of the hill. My veteran dogs were showing the distance passed, but all the dogs were making me proud. Every shortcoming in the team was mine alone to take responsibility, I cannot pass any of it to my team, who with limited training and various amounts of experience crossed the finish line after the first day, coming in 15th out of 20 teams.

Lesson learned: It is not evident which of the dogs is doing the most work. Remu had shown no signs of fatigue before he went lame. Quite simply: he had given all he had to give.

At the finish line, I informed the judges that I had one dog in the bag and was instructed to consult the vet. He checked Remu and said there was nothing serious, he was just worn out. While he was around, he took a look at the other dogs and noticed that Esko had a limp, too, and his ankle was swollen. We were instructed to keep an eye out and consider the dogs’ condition in the morning.

The next morning, back in Sodankylä, I did a quick inventory of the dogs. Our veterans Chaika and Skoda were showing clear signs of fatigue and were quite stiff. Esko was still limping, and while I could not see any symptoms in Remu, I was still worried about his ability to perform. Altogether half of my time was in a condition less than ideal.

I made the call to DNS for the second day. My objective for this season was to successfully participate in a medium distance race and get the experience of a solid performance. I think we achieved that. A lot of lessons to be learned, but that was expected.

Click here to read part 8 – the Conclusion!

Gold Rush Aftermath pt. VI

Taking a break during Gold Rush Run 2018

This is Part 6 out of 8 in a series of lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here.

Once on our way, the team was working really well. It was just an absolute privilege to get to see the Huskies working in what I can only consider as their natural environment, doing the work their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years and countless generations. Stunning!

As we started last, pretty soon we started catching up with some other teams. I lost track of events at some point, but we were passing teams on the left and the right, being passed from both sides, meeting returning teams head-on on a single width trail, and at one point even coming across a returning team head-on while passing an LD team on the same, single width track!

Lesson learned: For a race like this, you need to prepare for every conceivable event. At the end of the day, it boils down to your lead dogs, and their ability to keep it together. 

I am super proud to say that our dogs managed these rendezvouses without incident. Initially, I had Chaika and Skoda in the lead, as originally planned. At some point. Chaika started losing speed, as was expected, he is starting to show his age. This was also a conscious decision I made before the start, to use Chaika in the lead in the start, to help keep the speed down early in the race.

To continue reading, click here. Next lesson is about assessing the dogs' performance during and after the race. 

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Gold Rush Aftermath pt. V

This is Part 5 out of 8 in a series of lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here.

Early in Saturday morning, we woke up in Sodankylä, fed and hydrated the dogs, and packed our team into the van for the last 130 km. We reached the starting zone with just minutes to spare before registration was closed, but we were finally there. In the mushers meeting I listened carefully, and amongst other things, learned that the race organization had prepared for teams of volunteers to escort the dog teams from the parking area to starting line.

We got our dogs ready, got some help to get the sledge ready, prepared mentally and generally just waited for those nerve-wrecking last minutes to pass by. Which they did. And the escort team was nowhere to be seen. I lost track of time, and once the team arrived, we were in a hurry. We rushed to the starting line, just to miss our departure slot by 15 seconds or so, resulting in a two-minute penalty and being moved to the last position in our class.

Lesson learned: Musher is always responsible for her team to be on the starting line, on time. Regardless of any other arrangements, there may be.

We had to park the team next to the starting line and spend the next ten minutes watching other teams, one after another, start before us before finally, it was our turn (again). The dogs had built up considerable frustration by this time, and when I was just about to get started, I fell over, quickly recovered, and was finally on my way!

Click here to read part 6 - about assessing the fit of the dogs

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Gold Rush Aftermath pt. IV

This is Part 4 out of 8 in a series of lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here.

On our way up North we picked up Swing and Boogie from Bearhill's, but just 130 kilometres short of our 1000 km journey, we were stopped on our tracks and had to come up with yet another hairbrained scheme to get us to the starting line the next morning. Who do you think I called? Vallu (I am starting to feel a bit ashamed now that I am writing this!). He contacted a local musher in Sodankylä, who welcomed us to her house for the weekend.  We had scraped by another obstacle, but not without cost.

Lesson learned: If you have one major race event in your schedule for the year, make double sure you have logistics planned out well ahead of the event. 

Otherwise, if something goes wrong at the last minute, your schedule for hydrating and feeding the dogs will be compromised. Again, this is something that Anna did comment on, early in the project, but I refused to cancel. I should have planned better and made arrangements earlier on.

Click here to read part 5 - the musher is always responsible

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Gold Rush Aftermath pt. III

Trailwinds sleddog training camp at Koskenpää

This is Part 3 out of 8 in a series of lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here

During our time in Koskenpää, our dogs lived in an old cowshed, and almost every night we set the dogs free for some free range speed training. In February, most, if not all of our dames were in heat, and while we did keep them separated from the studs, apparently we were not careful enough. Not one, but two of them ended up pregnant, which explains some of the behavioural problems we had in March, leading to some of the issues described above.

Lesson learned: If you go out for a training camp, you need to make sure you have proper kennels available.

Eventually, end of March was at hand, we were two dogs short of a team with just days to go until the race started. We had all sorts of other issues to manage as well, which I will tell in another story later on (too good a story to pass, we seem to have this tragicomedy thing nailed). It started to look improbable that I would be there on the starting line.

However, I think that unless you have actually tried everything, you cannot say "it could not be done". So one by one, we fixed the issues or rather worked around them, and I asked Vallu if I could borrow two dogs. Again, I am lucky he said yes.

Click here to read part 4 - about the importance of planning the logistics

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Gold Rush Aftermath pt. II

Training on frozen lake with Suunto Spartan Ultra

This is Part 2 out of 8 in a series of lessons learned from our first medium distance sleddog race. To start from the beginning, click here

In January we established a training camp in Central Finland, in the town of Koskenpää, near Jämsä. The winter is a lot more predictable there, and from first days of February until late in March that's where we trained.

I had limited experience of driving more than 4 dogs at a time when we moved there. In hindsight, that may have caused me to focus too much on a controlled training environment, which in this case meant that pretty much all of February I was training on a frozen lake. We racked up a substantial amount of mileage, quickly, but it was very monotonous.

Lesson learned: If training for a race with lots of steep climbing - like Gold Rush Run - you need to include a lot of hill training.

Anna did comment on this, but I had a theory that the somewhat heavy strength training period in the autumn, followed up with some late-season hill training would be sufficient. Anna was right, I was wrong.

First of all, it would be more motivating for the dogs to have a variable training program all through-out the training season, even if there is more emphasis on specific areas of development at different times.

Secondly, my "late-season uphill conditioning" failed to materialize due to random factors hampering our training late in March. If you focus some area of training, for example, speed, to only specific weeks, you risk missing that altogether if something comes up during those weeks.

Click here to read part 3 - the importance of having proper kennels during training camp

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Gold Rush Aftermath pt. I

Trailwinds Huskies early season strength training session

Sometime during summer of 2017, I set my sights on Gold Rush Run medium distance race to be held in Finnish Lapland late in March 2018. Considering we had only done a couple of years of sprint racing, most of which dry land racing, it seemed like a daunting task.

My background is in hiking and mountaineering. I have climbed in the Scandinavian Mountains, the Swiss Alps and the Peruvian Andes. I am compelled with challenges so long that adrenaline rush alone cannot sustain the performance. There has to be some epic element to it, and sprint racing does not provide that for me, even if I do enjoy those in a different way.

Preparing myself was therefore not a completely unknown territory, but how to prepare the dogs? I have attended some really great training camps arranged by L-SVU in Finland, but I felt the message was more geared towards sprint racing, and even then, it focused mostly on the athletic training and nutrition. For other areas of training, I asked Vallu from Bearhill's to act as my mentor, and I am happy he agreed.

I drafted a training plan with comments from Vallu, but failed to properly understand some of his key comments, which in hindsight carry a lot more weight. This especially:

"The best training is the one that you can actually do"

My training plan, especially for the autumn season and early winter down South was simply too much. As the conditions (weather, work schedules, and all those things I had not accounted for in the plan) started to hamper the training, I started falling behind, causing a domino effect which led to a sort of training paralysis in December, lasting halfway through January.

Lesson learned: Training plan should be milestone-based, and not a weekly curriculum. 

Curriculum - as in having a daily schedule - will break down eventually, which may cause you to miss out even more workouts, as you are "already behind schedule". Milestone based system, however, always dangles an objective in front of you, regardless of what you did or did not do last week.

Click here for part 2, lessons about matching the training to the race. 

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