Updated: Jan 7, 2022
In this post I'll be sharing different commands for harness dog sports, along with some tips for training some of them. Commands are the first place you want to start when training your dog (along with getting them used to being in harness) to set them up for success on the trail. If you have a young dog, it is never too early to start with these basics so by the time they are ready to run they will already have the commands nailed down.
There are many commands used and every team will differ slightly. Do whats best for you and your dog so you can communicate most effectively. When I'm out cani-hiking and going down steep hills I will often have my dog heel or walk behind me so I'm not being dragged down. This is something many mushers wouldn't think to or don't need to train their dogs for while in harness, but it works wonders for us as we explore many places with rough terrain. Many people will make up their own commands and ways of communicating with their dogs and that's something I love about mushing. There is nothing saying your dogs must know xyz. As long as you are safe and having fun, that's what matters the most!
With that being said, when you get onto busier or more technical trails, are running in new places with new smells and experiences, having that communication with your dog is essential for making it enjoyable and a good experience for you both. If your dog isn't yet great with directional commands, practice with them more before going top speed on a trail with lots of intersecting paths. If they are frequently making sudden stops to sniff and pee, go back to basics, as basic as structured walks with mushing commands tied in so when you bring them bikejoring or skijoring you don't have to worry about making a sudden stop to avoid running into your dog. Start slow. Build on the basics, then add in speed and other challenges once they're ready to set them up for success. This will create a happy and confident teammate as well as happy human!
The dog is pulling into the harness with tension on the line standing and waiting to go. This is important to ensure the line is clear from under the dogs legs before taking off. This is also a popular first step for training a dog who may not naturally take to pulling as they learn that pressure in harness is a good thing. I always stress that this is one of the most important commands you should teach any dog who will be running in a team setting. Lead dogs must have a solid line-out to prevent chaos down the line by turning around and causing tangles. The lead dog must keep the centerline tight so the rest of the dogs in the team stay in their place and don't tangle with one another while stopped.
Why is "Line-out" important?
I have seen a team take off while dogs were tangled and stepped over the centerline. When the musher gave the command to go, the centerline became tight and the dog whos leg was over it became injured and it affected that dog for the rest of its life. Safety is always my top priority so I always stress that every dog should have a solid line-out weather running in a team or solo as it is the mushers responsibilty to ensure all lines are clear and dogs are ready to go.
How do I train Line-out?
All you need is a harness, flat lead, and stationary object to anchor the dog to. Reward for putting pressure into the harness. The end result will be the musher calling the command from behind with the dog pulling into the harness without the musher needing to step in front. This is best done in short and fun sessions so the dog can stay engaged. When out on the trail your dog will likely be very excited to run, but ensure they are in a proper line-out before giving them the go ahead. Another way to train this is by having someone up ahead on the trail and once the dog is performing the action, associate the command, then let them run. You can slowly build up the time they're in this position, restart every time they turn around and break the command. Eventually they'll learn they they don't get to start running until they are in a proper line-out so will eventually begin doing it as soon as they're hooked up.
Ginger in a "Line-out" keeping the line tight waiting to run. Ginger is wearing a Non-Nansen Stick Harness.
Gee (Right) & Haw (Left)-
The commands to make left and right turns. Gee and Haw are the words traditionally used and recommended so if your dog is ran with someone else's they are essentially speaking the same language, however you can use whichever words you'd like.
How do I teach Gee & Haw?
The easiest way to teach this is by adding the verbal cues to everyday walks. Right before making a left turn, call out “Haw”. Eventually the dog will associate the command with the action. You can test it by calling the command and seeing if they will make the turn. If they don't make the turn by themselves, just guide them and eventually they will understand. Taking a trip to a park with lots of intersecting paths is a great asset when teaching these. Just spend 15 minutes taking lots of left and right turns. Most dogs take around 3 sessions to understand, however every dog is different so don't worry if they need more time. Don’t forget to praise when they’ve done it correctly!
What if my dog already knows left and right from agility or another activity?
Then you're already there! You can even keep the same command word. If they haven't used these words on walks or trails then take a walk as suggested above and they will quickly understand it translates to trail adventures as well.
Gee Over (Right side of trail) Haw Over (Left side of trail)
Simply moving from one side of the trail to the other. This is helpful when passing others on the trail. This is a great one to teach once they've grasped Gee and Haw.
Gee Come/ Haw Come
This is calling the turn and dogs back to you. Helpful when running on an out and back trail or if you have to turn around at any point. This is often done from a stopped position with dogs in line out. If you have a large team on a sled it may be best to secure your sled, walk up to the leader and guide them back, have them stop and wait, then go back to your sled. This is one you'll want to teach after your dog knows their left from right and understand the command "come".
On by (Go by upcoming distraction)
This should be called as soon as you and your dog see a distraction ahead. Used when passing other people, dogs, or other distractions you may encounter on the trail. You’re telling them to continue ahead past the distraction without stopping.
How do I teach "On by"?
This can be started on everyday walks by calling the command and maintaining speed or speeding up past the distraction. A mistake often made is calling on by then slowing down or stopping. Don’t stop, keep going! Walk or run on by the distraction! If it's another dog you're passing, don't let your dog go up to the other dog when this has been called.
I've always found it interesting teaching reactive dogs. A pattern I've seen quite often is once they understand pulling and have been taught the commands, they will not react to other dogs on the trail. I've experienced this with my dog as well as many others I've had a hand in training. When they're focused with their job they often become "all business" and won't even bat an eye at what usually makes them react. So if you were wondering... YES this can be a great activity for reactive dogs! Especially when training with a group of other focused dogs. The translation of on by in harness to everyday walks is almost seamless once they've got it.
Leave it (Leave the distraction)
A basic obedience essential! This can be used if your dog is getting ready to engage with a distraction. Suddenly come up on a squirrel or other furry animal? "Leave it!" Leave it alone! Does your dog want to stop and pee on every other tree? As soon as they seem interested "Leave it!".
When it comes to using both on by and leave it, I find it most effective to use on by for things we can see ahead so they have a moment to recognize what we're about to pass, then leave it for things we're suddenly right on top of. You can do whats best for you and your dog. Some use only on by, some use just leave it, others such as myself will use both.
Easy- Slow down. This can be taught on everyday walks and with obedience training.
Woah (Stop)- One of the most important! This can be taught on everyday walks and with obedience training.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many commands out there, and each team will vary by which they use, and what they call them. They are the basis of everything you do with your dog in harness. Walk before you run! Start with the commands before barreling down a trail at top speed so you can both be successful. Basic obedience is also a huge part of the foundation that will help you to work as one.
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