Marche, or How Teams Work.

On the trail in Northern Canada "Marche" was the word that translated as "Mush" and was used to drive the dog teams that once were the only source of power in the frozen North.

What was not translated was the original meaning of the word "Marche" which was the French imperative, "Walk".

Not run, not hurry up or go faster, just walk.

There are in fact only three orders that the dog team understand, "Stop", "Go" and "Take it easy".

I was lucky enough to take a dog sledging tour in Canada with "Snowy Owl Tours" under the careful guidance of Connie Arsenault.

She began the tour by introducing us to the dogs with an attention to detail born of a genuine respect and care for her teams.

She explained how the team worked.

All the dogs are attached to the sledge by one common line to which each dog is attached by a separate harness, the direction of this line is the direction the sledge will take and each animals effort could be gauged by his alignment to the direction of travel of the sledge.

Connie talked about the importance of selecting the correct dogs for each team. The positioning of the dogs in the team is determined by their size, level of courage and willingness to perform.

Connie explained,

"When we are laying out our dogs in a team we have front to rear, Lead dogs, point dogs, swing dogs and wheel dogs.

In an eight dog team of four pairs the first pair are the lead dogs. They are not the strongest but they have the intelligence, focus, character and speed that allow the other dogs to follow. If the lead dog does not lead, the team will not follow and the sledge will go nowhere.

Next are the point dogs, the apprentice lead dogs who are usually yearlings.

At the back of the team are the wheel dogs, these two are the power house of the team, strong and un-dramatic. They take their direction, then putting their shoulders to the traces they get the job done.

In the middle is the schoolyard, the swing dogs. This pair will usually consist of a young dog and an older dog, perhaps an old lead or wheel dog who is getting on in years and has been replaced in his principle position by a younger more capable animal.

His usefulness is not over, strength is not the only commodity in the team. The old dog in the schoolyard or swing position now has the job of bringing on the younger dog through his example and experience. He in turn responds to and gains fresh energy from the enthusiasm of the younger dog.

These eight dogs will comfortably haul three people all day, or they will equally happily fight and play in the snow.

These eight individuals make up the team. The driving is done exclusively by praise and recognition.

Praise for the team effort, and for the individual.

Connie explained the significance of our position relative to the team. We were part of the team but like the dogs, we still had to earn the right to be there. Unless we were prepared to jump off the sledge and give them a hand when they needed it, they would lose respect and stop pulling. That included helping out by pushing when going uphill and holding the sledge back so it didn't overrun the dogs when going downhill.

Our job was not to tell the team what to do, they already knew what that was better than us. Our job was to provide the physical and verbal support that they needed to tell them that their efforts were appreciated.

There are no passengers on a sledge.

Connies reason for making this explanation was because she cared for her teams and did not want us to annoy or upset them through accidental mishandling or abuse.

There was a worried question, "What happens if we get it wrong?" I could see the picture this man had in his mind, him hanging on grimly while his baying team headed for the horizon at top speed out of control. Connie saw it too and knew the answer perfectly.

She told us, "If you are in charge of a team and you get it wrong, the team will cease to function.

This means they will stop pulling in the same direction and therefore be incapable of tearing off towards any horizon, but they will let you know long before that, that all is not well. All you have to do is watch for the signs they will give you"

She said "The first thing to understand is that these are working dogs. Dogs who get so excited at the prospect of pulling that at the beginning of the day when they are fresh they will at times go too fast."

If you stick to the three instructions they know and understand, "Stop", "Go", "Take it easy" and give them the support they need then they will do their best for you.

If you confuse them with unnecessary or contradictory orders, or you shout at them, they will stop working as a team. They will take their weight off the rope while keeping it taut to make it look as if they are working, or they will simply wander off line and start eating snow or fighting.

The first sign of this in the team is when the dogs start to look over their shoulders at the driver.

Normally the lead dog is the first, he turns round while still pulling and in his eyes you can see what is in his mind. He is saying "Just let me know what you want, I will do it" or "We are doing our best why don't you get off and help instead of doing all that shouting"

Unless you pay attention to these first signs the breakdown of the team will follow.

Connie told a great story but we were impatient to set off up the trail behind our teams.

I was paired initially with a guide, she started the dogs, stopped them and told me when to jump on the brake.

The whole of the rest of the time she spent praising the team and the individuals.

At first I thought that she was making too much of this support and puzzled at the meticulous way she named each of the dogs and encouraged them, returning again to give praise for the whole team. initially it sounded like overkill and I could not see any effect.

What I really mean is, the team just did what a dog team was supposed to do. They did not make a fuss, they pulled together in the same direction and kept their eyes to the front, except to occasionally acknowledge with a glance our guides words of acknowledgement, as if they knew that she also needed to know that her efforts were appreciated.

There was a lot of shouting and noise coming from the Sledge behind us. They did not have a guide and we had to keep stopping to allow them to catch up.

Our guide had her hands full trying to pour an equal amount of attention and care on the team behind us who were clearly not enjoying themselves at all and needed help.

It was then I realised that what she was doing was a physical thing. She was not just being "Nice" to the dogs, she was providing the fuel that the team needed to work.

Without the support that she was providing for our team, the team behind was falling apart.

The more the team ceased to function the more the drivers shouted and cajoled and instructed. That was exactly what Connie had told us would stop the team from functioning, and she was exactly right.

At the halfway point some of us changed sledges and I found myself with the team that had been behind us for the journey out. One of the drivers on the outward leg also stayed with that team.

We set off to a chorus of shouts and cries all intended by the driver to motivate and push the team to greater effort.

It was apparent that this confusing set of signals was not doing the job, the dogs were turning around and looking at us, they weren't pulling and the sledge wasn't moving.

More shouts were added and the driver launched into a litany of the faults of the team and how it really was spoiling the day that we had such a bad team.

I remembered Connie's words and suggested we try something different.

"Why don't we just save our breath and see what the dogs will do on their own".

The driver stopped shouting.

With a spoken "Hike up" (The modern version of saying "Mush") the dogs pricked up their ears, faced the front and started pulling.

We didn't give another order to the dogs.

They knew where they were going.

We helped going up the hills by scooting or running alongside and we braked going down.

The rest of the time we spent providing the team with the fuel they needed to do their job. "Good puppies, Good puppies, Well done Misty, Good boy Laredo, Well done Midnight, Good girl Mexico. Good boy Butch, Well done Sundance, Good girl Cinders Good boy Butte. Good boys! Good girls!.

And just once I caught a kind of a backward glance from Laredo, he seemed to say, "See, that's how you do it", and then he was back to his job of keeping up with the sledge in front and looking after the youngster at his shoulder.

The reason for telling us how to make the teams work was not because Connie Arsenault had heard a theory about the principles of leadership and wanted to try it out.

The reason was because she races dog teams. She races dog teams the same way they have been raced for hundreds of years, and she knew that this was the way to win.

Peter A Hunter, Author of "Breaking the Mould",

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