Leadership Lessons from Huskies in Luleå

The dog whimpered at her, his eyes looking longingly at her as she continued to set up the team for the sled run. From a distance she caught his call and looked up, then she walked over to him. As she got closer he jumped up, tail wagging excitedly, she grabbed him kissed his forehead and pulled him into her shoulder where he bore his head snuggly. The bond between a dog and their handler is something magical.

You have two choices when winter comes, run as far away as you can from it (destination of choice in Sweden, Thailand) or get as deep into winter as you can. We chose the second option. This was the reason we got ourselves to Luleå – dogsledding.

While dogsledding is today seen by the majority of the world as a sport or winter activity it emerged as a vital means of transport in the wintry North. Dogsleds were used to transport items and food stuffs around the Arctic circle, much like how horses were means of transport in more hospital climates.

Dogsleds are pulled by Huskies, specifically Alaskan Huskies. Alaskan Huskies are not a species of dogs but a functional group of dogs bred for their function – serving as sled dogs. As our husky rider described, “these dogs are bred for skill not looks.” They are chosen from the winners of the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska which began as a way to find the best sled dogs and later evolved into a full fledged competition.

These dogs are therefore life savers, and the bond they form with their handlers is something to behold.

We signed up for a 1 hour husky trail ride. It did not seem like much, but was enough time to get the experience of a lifetime. We later found out that longer rides (or even Arctic camps) while offered are typically not desirable because the humans paying for these tours usually cannot handle the weather, “most people underestimate the cold and overestimate their ability to deal with it.”

And those dogs were ready to go, it took some time for the handlers to prepare the dogs. But it was during the preparation period that the trip started paying off. Dogs like humans have different temperaments. While these dogs are bred for their physique, they are not necessarily bred for behaviour.

The animals were ready, they were getting restless, the handlers went round and looked at each animal in the eyes. I was told never to look animals in the eyes – the huskies clearly never saw aggression that I was told animals saw. They were ready for a run, they were excited for a run.

It was time to go.

And off we went.

I learnt some great lessons from the human-dog interaction and ride itself:

  1. There are 2 sets of alphas during a ride, the sled rider and the lead huskies. The initial ‘getting-to-know-you’ dance is a competition between lead huskies and human to see who is the real boss.
  2. Alpha huskies are the most calm under any situation, never really getting too excited or crazy. They don’t bark to get attention, they just get on with it and have others follow.
  3. The alpha huskies have to be the first in the sleigh set-up before any get added on.
  4. Alpha huskies lead from the front and have influence over the others in the team.
  5. Alpha huskies are both bred and built up. Bred because an alpha husky tends to give birth to other alpha huskies, built because an alpha husky needs to progress slowly to the front of the sled.
  6. If one husky decides not to run, the whole sleigh stops.
  7. Huskies need constant feedback and rewards on how they are performing.
  8. All dogs have a preferred direction, some sway right others sway left, the key to get a good and fast sleigh running is to make sure the dogs are arranged in a way that aligns. Right sided dogs, who like running left and vice versa cannot be placed on the opposite side.

Alpha lead huskies
Most of these ideas have some of business management research that further proves this point too. It was phenomenal to see the same leadership ideas articulated by ‘experts’ practiced by canines.

“I need to go off and help the sled rider in front, so I need you to help me with the breaks,” called the sled rider to me.

A young husky in front was acting up, like children do, and had refused to go on running.

“Okay press really hard here,” she instructed. I got off the sled and pressed, once again she stressed, “press really hard.” After a while I was on the sled with my feet breaking 10 dogs and their leader from running. The sled dogs saw their handler running forward and wanted to to give chase. Their tug almost threw me off my grip, it took all my body weight and more creative balancing (lean backwards alot) to stop them from going off the track.

“Memphis, Matthias, sluttet!” I called out, maybe it was the strangeness in my voice but the two alpha lead dogs actually stopped and turned back. Maybe it was pity for a novice trying to keep the sled moving but the dogs stopped running. “Duktig Matthias, myket bra Memphis”, I called, relieved they calmed down.

The dogs may have calmed down, but I’m sure it wasn’t me. For the duration the handler was helping the others, there was a clear alpha in the dogsled… it wasn’t me.

It seems like forever by the time the handler came running back, and I couldn’t wait to hand over the sled to her. She was way scrawnier than I was, clearly the rapport she built with her dogs was more than one of physical force but genuine trust.

“What did you guys do to the little husky?”

“Hug her, took her out of the sled and then put her with the other people on the sled.”

“So she got a backseat view of the sled today.”

“Yeap and she looks much happier to sit at the back today.”



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