Book Review: 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!

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