Lead dog psychology

Tanga threw out her shoulder chasing a pack of wolves. It was on the long run between Dawson and Scroggie, and Tanga's musher Kyla Boivin was nodding off. There was a pack of wolves at the Indian River Bridge an

EAGLE, AK

Tanga threw out her shoulder chasing a pack of wolves.

It was on the long run between Dawson and Scroggie, and Tanga’s musher Kyla Boivin was nodding off.

There was a pack of wolves at the Indian River Bridge and as soon as the team smelt them, they broke into a lope.

“Dogs should not lope after an eight-hour run,” said Boivin.

“I woke up and braked, but they’d already loped 100 yards.

“And that was enough to do the damage.”

Tanga is Boivin’s main leader.

“And she’s sore,” said Boivin. “I’m running to how she feels, because I don’t know if I’ll get to Fairbanks without her.”

Lead dogs make or break a race.

Running in front of the pack, they set the pace, know their commands and hold the string of dogs in place so the team doesn’t turn around or get tangled.

Of the 10 dogs this year’s race winner Sebastian Schnuelle finished with, eight were leaders.

“Every run I do, I run a different leader,” he said.

On the last push to the finish line, Schnuelle wasn’t sure who to put up front.

“Vasser has the most speed,” he said. “But he’s a dead brain with commands, and there are so many road crossings.”

Unlike Schnuelle and his team of huskies, Yuka Honda only has one, named Olive Oil.

Just after Carmacks, less than 320 kilometres into the 1,600-kilometre race, she got sore and didn’t want to run.

Honda had some dogs who would run in front with Olive Oil, but not without her.

It set Honda back hours.

The Japanese musher is now running in 20th place.

Becca Moore had to drop her two main leaders at the first checkpoint.

“But the alternates are pulling through,” said the Alaskan rookie in Dawson.

One of them is a two-year-old who’s turning out to be one of the best leaders Moore has ever run.

The youngster “has unbelievable grit and determination,” she said. “But she has to learn how to hold the line out,” to keep the team from turning around.

Running with a “young unknown leader, and one who’s getting old, has been an adventure,” added Moore.

Jon Little also has lots of young dogs.

“They’re not as developed as they should be,” he said.

There was one leader he thought was strong, named Adidas.

But before Dawson she kept stopping. It cost Little the gold.

“I asked her if she’d go and she said, ‘No,’” he said.

Dogs pick up on a musher’s mood, said Luc Tweddell.

If the Yukon musher’s having a bad run, he’s careful not to let it affect his team.

“I say all their names one after another to cheer them up, so they feel I’m not angry,” he said.

“If I don’t do that their tail is not up and they look sad.”

“It’s crazy how much your attitude flows into the dogs,” said veteran musher Brent Sass.

“You can’t fake happiness – you can’t fool them.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com