Dances With Sled Dogs

You never know where you might find a secret to success. Sometimes you have to start by getting past common misconceptions.

The Iditarod, a dog sled race that covers 1,049 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, isn’t very popular among some in the animal rights community. Some activists claim that “…the Iditarod takes things too far, that in addition to incidents of animal abuse by mushers, the dogs are pushed beyond their limits. And, activists argue, there’s no telling what happens to the dogs before and after the race.”

It may be true that over the years some mushers tried to force their dogs to go faster and longer through abusive behaviors. But after reading accounts by the mushers themselves, and by seeing the start of this year’s Iditarod, I sense there is often a strong bond between many mushers and their dogs.

Anchorage start of 2009 Iditarod

Start of the 2009 Iditarod in Anchorage

A prime example of this is Martin Buser, a four-time winner of the Iditarod and the holder of the fastest race time ever (8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes, in 2002). In the book More Iditarod Classics, Buser spoke about the approach that gained him his first victory:

I never harped on negative discipline; I always harped on positive reinforcement. For a few years there was a lingering question of whether you could win with a soft-hand philosophy. Subsequently, that’s the new way. Our dogs run faster, last longer, live longer, and are happier the new way…At the finish line, only my dogs and I really knew how cool it was to be there the way we got there.

After Buser won two more Iditarods, his life became cluttered with the other responsibilities and projects that can be a by-product of such success. Then he got a wake-up call, by way of finishing 24th in the 2001 race. He realized that, while he had been doing all of the usual preparations and training beforehand, his focus was elsewhere:

I sort of forgot about the intuition and the closeness, and what had been cherished all of those years: the true camaraderie and intuition that I had with the dogs.

He responded by simplifying his life and getting back to that positive approach:

The whole season was for joy and fun…We did a lot of training that I had never done before. I made more loose runs than ever before, free-running the dogs, camping more than ever before.

That spirit carried on in the 2002 race itself. Buser’s philosophy was “If a guy goes to work happy, he does a much better job.” A case in point was his mandatory 24 hour layover, which he took as the first team into Cripple. Usually, a team’s dogs remain tethered together while they rest. Buser turned all of his dogs loose.

There’s not a lot of traffic, and there aren’t a lot of people. I stomped out a wider trench than normal. I just flaked out the straw and turned the dogs loose so they could be wherever they wanted. They could pick whomever they were sleeping next to, and they woke up and went to the sled and stole food and went back to their spot.

The people at the checkpoint couldn’t believe it. They would come to me and say, “Hey, you have a loose dog.” And I’d say, “I hope they’re all loose. I hope they didn’t chain themselves up.”

Even when the team encountered adverse conditions on the trail, whether breaking trail or pushing into a fierce wind, Buser’s dogs kept on flying. And in the end, thanks in good measure to his positive approach to training and racing, Buser and his team set the record for the fastest Iditarod ever.

Cim Smith and one of his leaders, at the start in Anchorage

Cim Smith and one of his lead dogs in Anchorage

We often hear talk of people sensing a kind of human energy: a team or performer is “energized by the crowd” or an artist is “energized by her latest work.” While we may not be able to explain it, we have a sense of what such talk about energy means. When we feel energized we are focused, alert, and motivated, feeling powerfully connected to an event, person or object with which we are relating. Conversely, at other times we will feel drained of energy from dealing with certain people or situations.

Those who have had training in certain fields – like yoga, martial arts, and occasionally psychology – may be particularly aware of this kind of energy. With enough training and practice, they may even be able to generate and channel it. The same can also be true of elite athletes.

A key factor in these situations is a sense of control. If we feel that we are actively involved in what’s happening and have control over our actions, we are more likely to feel motivated and energized. On the other hand, if we feel we don’t have any say in what happens and are basically doing what others say we should do, we are more likely to feel withdrawn and unmotivated. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience,” once observed:

“Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.”

At times when we feel uncertain about ourselves or a situation, we have a tendency to focus on gaining control of things. But this is hardly ever effective. At best we provoke resentment; at worst we inspire active resistance. In any event, we are setting things up for eventual failure.

Instead of striving for control, perhaps we should try focusing on inspiration and motivation. Instead of only punishing bad behavior, we might try focusing on and promoting positive outcomes.

If we remember to inject some “joy and fun” into our activities, we’ll do more than just achieve our best performance. We’ll also be able to bask in knowing “how cool it was to be there the way we got there.”

===Photographs from 2009 Iditarod by Dave Higgins===

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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