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. 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

Subscribe to Blog via Email

This was part 4 out of 8, covering our lessons learned from Gold Rush Run medium distance sleddog race. To keep posted, you can subscribe to our updates. We will not give your email address to anyone else, that's a promise!ail.

Join 590 other subscribers

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

Subscribe to Blog via Email

This was part 3 out of 8, covering our lessons learned from Gold Rush Run medium distance sleddog race. To keep posted, you can subscribe to our updates. We will not give your email address to anyone else, that's a promise!y email.

Join 590 other subscribers

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

Subscribe to Blog via Email

This was part 2 out of 8, covering our lessons learned from Gold Rush Run medium distance sleddog race. To keep posted, you can subscribe to our updates. We will not give your email address to anyone else, that's a promise!

Join 590 other subscribers

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. 

Subscribe to Blog via Email

This was part 1 out of 8, covering our lessons learned from Gold Rush Run medium distance sleddog race. To keep posted, you can subscribe to our updates. We will not give your email address to anyone else, that's a promise!

Join 590 other subscribers

50 km milestone achieved

Today, our team achieved the 50 kilometres in one session milestone! We have three weeks until the Gold Rush Run medium distance race, 2x 75 kilometres, and I am starting to get confident that we can pull this off, which is a remarkable recovery from the blues I had just two weeks ago.

We are long ways behind of schedule. December was a complete lacklustre in terms of distance trained, and January was not much better. We caught-up quite a bit in February, but not quite enough. For the past weeks, we have been pushing the distances quite aggressively and keeping a very close eye on our dogs, to see that they recover from each training sufficiently.

The dogs are eating like never before! The distance training requires a heavy load of calories, and while we trust Racinel Black Label Extra Energy to cover the bulk of that, we do give them some raw meat with morning hydration to boost things up a bit.

Kirsi Sinda, our dog massage therapist, will be paying us a visit in a week or so, and we will do a thorough check-up then, to make sure that all dogs are fit to race. It is imperative for us that our dogs are ship-shape, and we do not want to push them too hard.

50 kilometres of training takes quite a bit of time. I usually spend the first hour or so focusing just on the training and the dogs, but once they settle down to a steady trot, I listen to some podcasts or music. This week I have been listening to Jocko Willink‘s podcast. I recommend that if you are interested in topics like the military and leadership.

Just one more week of distance training to go, and we are moving the focus to build up speed now. If you want to keep posted on our progress, follow us on Facebook or Twitter!

Some days you just wanna quit

The move from sprint distance to medium distance mushing is taking its toll. The sheer amount of time and distance travelled while training is getting to me. It would, perhaps, be easier if training the dogs was all that I do, but I try to train myself as well (Anna is my personal whip in that area), carry out my part of the family errands, perform my job and have a resemblance of a social life as well.

The environment here in Koskenpää is great for training. At a glance, so is the weather. It was just -12°C (10°F), but thanks to windchill, it goes down to -19°C (-2°F). Today, while training, I was wondering how come the dogs seemed to be struggling a bit until I gave the dogsled a push myself. It was like trying to push it on the sand, instead of snow. After weeks of sub-zero temperatures, there is no moisture in the snow, and the powder snow does not lubricate the skis at all.

Weeks of increasingly heavy training, slow snow conditions and post-heat anxiety took over Windy today, and she lashed out on Poju, resulting in a tiny wound just under his right eye. It looked bad at first glance but turned out to be a minor issue.

I was already on edge. The training did not start out great today, as I had just released the safety rope and applied the brakes on the first downhill when the steel ring on Remu’s harness snapped, leading to the plastic neckline connector to break, too. So Remu was running wild, which did not go too well. Apparently, he likes to keep bumping sideways into lead dogs, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom. Five minutes later I was back where I had started, fixing the lines, and cursing Non-Stop. Unfortunately, this was not the first steel ring to come apart from our last batch of harnesses, which is starting to annoy me.

It took a lot of willpower to try and stay calm and cheerful. I cannot say that I succeeded at every turn. Of course, that did not make the dogs’ job any easier. I was scheduled to go 35 kilometres (21 miles) today but decided to call it a day after just 23 km (14 mi). And that’s when Windy attacked Poju. The only good thing was that I was just a few hundred yards from home, where I could give Poju a proper check-up and give everyone some chow. Poju got some extra love, today.

Anyways, sorry for the rant, but it’s been a long day and it was not a good one. I suppose every error I make, every mistake I come across and every challenge that needs to be overcome is better to experience here, in training, than in competition. Knowing that, however, does not make it any easier on a day like this.

Arktic dogsled

Arktic dogsled

Today was an exciting day! After a long way, we received our brand new Arktic dogsled. This sled is 100% hand-made, Finnish craftsmanship. It is a beautiful item, and handles really well – very relaxing to drive!

We had given the dogs a couple of days of rest, so when morning came they were full of energy. After a proper hydration, we had time to pick-up the sled, rig it up with anchors et al, and then it was time to harness up the dogs and get going!

With this sled, we finally have the possibility to take the whole family along on the long training runs. Of course, some training needs to go light-weight, but every now and then we can share some quality time, on the snow!

Distance Husky lifestyle

Trailwinds Huskies Remu shaking off snow after training on frozen lake near Jämsä, Central Finland.

Since 2018 kicked off, our dogs have now trained 233 kilometers or 144 miles. Before Gold Rush Run medium distance race starts in 31st of March 2018, the dogs will have spent well over 1000 kilometers in training after New Year’s.

For the dogs, this means a lot of hard work. For us, this has been a head-first dive into a distance husky lifestyle. We have moved from Southern Finland to Central Finland until the end of GRR race, and as a result of a 300-kilometer move, we now have a whole lot better chances of being able to train according to the plan, instead of the weather.

Right now the dogs are working 25+ kilometers per day, and we need to push this up to 75 in a time-span of five weeks. On average, we have about 5 training days per week and two rest days for the dogs. It is vital that our dogs are well-fed, with sufficient fat intake to provide fuel, and proteins to build-up muscle and protect from injury.

We are really happy to have Racinel Black Label sponsor super premium extra energy food for our dogs and tmi Kirsi Sinda to check-up on the physique and massage the dogs to enhance mobility and recovery.

We keep a very close eye on the dogs’ performance. If there are any signs of lack of motivation, asymmetry of movement or other signs of trouble, extra rest is scheduled and endurance training is replaced by free running and other fun activities. After all, we want our Huskies to enjoy this challenge as much as we do!

(P.S: There are currently 22 mushers registered in the limited class. I wonder if there is a Red Lantern in GRR…)

From Safari Dog to Coach Dog

I recently wrote a brief update when travelling up North to Rovaniemi to pick up Skoda, a veteran safari dog from Bearhill Huskies. Time for an update!

As reported, her name is Skoda, and she is a very experienced safari dog. She is not young anymore, but our sports training is relatively easy going, compared to full-time professional safari work. We hope that we can give her a nice, active retirement home, and in return, we hope that she, along with her brother Chaika (who joined our team in the summer), can depart some of the wisdom built up during their working years.

When I was at the Bearhill’s kennel, Vallu (co-owner of the safari) noticed that Skoda had a lump in her chest, about the size of a walnut. We agreed that I would take her to the vet and get it checked out. Bearhill’s agreed to pick up the bill for the operation.

Once down South, I contacted Omaeläinklinikka in Lohja. I took Skoda for a check-up and since the lump seemed to be mobile (and thus less likely to be life-threatening), we decided to go for a direct approach and scheduled a date for removal. Last week she was operated and the lump, along with two smaller ones were removed. Everything went well in the operation.

She is now recovering. She spent the first five days indoors and is now back in the kennel. There is no sign of infection and next week it will be time to remove the stitches. By end of the month, she is scheduled to be back in training with the rest of the pack!

I would like to promote this type of adoption, especially for less experienced sleddog sports amateurs; give a home to an experienced, professional sleddog. From my personal experience working with Chaika and Skoda (we got a few training runs done before the operation), I can promise you that the dogs can teach you things you would never pick-up from a book. And your other dogs will benefit immensely from having two experienced dogs in the lead, working as intended, to learn from!