On the Seeds of Teamwork

It came instinctively, intuitively. I started unclipping snaps, working back to front and front to middle. Three dogs, the three newer dogs, Willie Jr, VooDoo, and Rocky I guided by hand back to the truck.


Victor Hugo and his uncle Rocky.

Victor Hugo and his uncle Rocky.

The rest of the team, fourteen other dogs, explored around me, around the truck, throughout the open area of the log landing. Bolt and Gem ran up a woods road, bringing four other dogs with them, and then came right back. Hilde hid under the truck. Wembley scratched her back against the tires, as she does when she’s satisfied and happy. Oriana wouldn’t leave my side. Aurora self-loaded into the trailer box. Victor pranced around, and Zippo constantly launched himself at my face. Easily, joyfully, each and every dog came to me to have their harness removed, and then came to be loaded into the box. I checked their feet, I rubbed their butts, and kneaded at the soreness that I suspected a few dogs carried with them still.


We are about a month into the training season. In terms of objective facts, the weather has been fairly reliable this year. It was cool in the mornings in September, and recently grew cool enough in the past two weeks that the dogs and I can run in the evenings. Being able to run in the evenings takes a huge mental pressure off, as I’m no longer loading dogs at night, sleeping fitfully, and then waking at 4 a.m. to run them before work. I hadn’t done my homework over the summer of checking out new trails, as the trails we’ve used over recent years were either destroyed in last falls’ rainstorm or have become so hammered by ATV use that the dogs will get injured easily. I rushed to figure out the new trails last week.


Thanks to friends…..we have new trails. New trails on the other side of a gated road, with no traffic. Silent roads and solid ground, running for the first time underneath yellowing tamaracks. We don’t have the variety of loops that will build command leaders, but it is good training ground for October—no hill is too steep up or down, it is just twisty enough to keep dogs looking around the corners, and we are the only souls out there.


Earlier in the month, I watched the team and couldn’t tell what was going on. The rhythm and flow seemed off, there was no snapped-in-line-symmetry looking down the line. Everyone was happy, but I couldn’t tell if they, if we, were becoming a team.


Victor Hugo in lead with Aurora. 17 dogs strong.

Victor Hugo in lead with Aurora. 17 dogs strong.

That is already changing. The intuition that had me unclip everyone at the end of the run came from the gut feeling, from the knowledge, that the teamwork was forming. The identity was coming into being. The shared sense of purpose, the electricity that runs from my hands along the lines of the team, those are some of the reasons I train a dog team. The first step is teamwork. The next step is resilience.


The run that preceded the freedom at the end was so smooth. Victor Hugo was leading his first run, set up for success with Aurora next to him and Ariel and Fanzine behind him. I held them back at the start and let them open up at the end. It was cool and clear. They were beginning to move as one, to work together.


As I cared for them at the end of the run, loading them into the truck, I noticed the elements of teamwork also in them realizing that they have to help me help them. This means Rocky isn’t doing gymnastic slinky backflips making it hard to load him into the box. This means Inferno comes right when I call him and puts his paws on the tire to be loaded. This means Zippo launches himself at my face a little bit less than he did a week ago. This means every dog goes right to their house when we get home.  Teamwork isn’t just what happens on the trail.


October is when I get a little bit overconfident in what the team can accomplish. The runs are short and the dogs are still jazzed about everything. It is cool, but not below freezing, so I can be careless with how I dress. The risk of injury is low. It is daylight still at 6:30 p.m. October is when I feel that I am working with the best dog team in the world.


This year, I am planning on holding on to that feeling the entire season. Because, after all, the best dogs are the ones running in front of me.


Thanks to all the friends who have supported us in small and big ways so far this season, from those who sponsor dogs to those who pick up and deliver dog meds from the vet to those who chop down the tree snagged in the perimeter fence to those who send things in the mail like fleece neckwarmers and bungee shock rings. I may be the only one out there with the team, but it takes a village to keep us on the trail.


And, because it’s October, I’m starting to get some crazy ideas of things to add to the race schedule. But, for now, here’s the plan:


January: Eagle Lake 100
February: Wilderness Race 70 miler
March: Can AM 250

Willie Nelson Jr takes the lead with Aurora

Willie Nelson Jr takes the lead with Aurora

Sally Manikian