Part two of our series on puppy training: Birgitte Næss Wærner shares her thoughts on training and puppies. Næss Wærner is a renowned limited class sprint musher turned long distance musher. She owns, together with her husband Thomas Wærner, the 2013 Finnmarksløpet champions at Berzerk Kennel i Torpa Norway.
By: Barry Siragusa. Photo: Barry Siragusa
What do you think is most important when thinking about harness breaking puppies?
Set things up for success.
Socializing puppies from when they are born is the first step. All puppies born here at Berzerk Kennel are allowed to run loose on the property from the day they are born. The mother goes on a dog house outside the kennel, and the puppies are allowed to follow us around loose, which makes them use to being handled.
Have you ever had problems? Such as adult dogs around the puppies?
We have never had a problem. The puppies are outside the kennel, but even inside we have not had a problem. The puppies do start to roam after a while. Once they get big enough to start visiting the neighbors, then we put them in a puppy pen. Usually that happens around 3 months, but some are already needing the puppy pen at 8 weeks.
Do they stay in the puppy pens then until they are harness broken?
As we approach harness breaking, we put them on chains. We leave them there for a minimum of three to four weeks. They get use to being attached to something, so it is less of a mental impact than being suddenly tied in their front and back. Once they have learned how to step over the chain, they have learned how to step over the gangline.
What about people who have their dogs in pens?
I always recommend putting them on chain to people, even if they have their dogs in pens. At least go for a walk with the puppies on a leash.
Do you harness break your puppies or loan them out for the season?
We have not had good experience loaning out puppies. So they stay with us. It is always me and Thomas that harness break the puppies. We think it is very important to be there for that. It gives us a good connection with the puppies. We also have a lot of experience doing it. We have harness broken many times with hundreds of puppies and we have never had a puppy that we couldn’t get to go.
How old are the puppies when you harness break?
I like to harness break puppies when they are around 6 months old on a sled. I like the sled over the ATV because the sled is quieter and — I think– less stressfull for the puppies.
What does the first run look like?
For the first run we sometimes put a puppy and an adult together on the gangline. Puppies harness broken next to each other tend to puppy-fight the first hook-up so we run them with an adult. It is important to make sure the adult running next to the pup is stern without being too hard on the pup. We always run four sturdy adults at the front of the team and then the puppies go behind.
How fast do you run them the first run?
The first 200 meters I run very slowy. So slow that you could almost walk next to them. There is always someone who doesn’t pull the first meters. I want to give them time to start moving forward without stress. Once everyone is moving forward, we usually run about 1-2 km’s. I like to let them relax and get into a rythm during even those early runs. They usually relax pretty quickly. I think that goes back to the early socializing. They already feel safe with us so they relax.
Do you run them short the whole season?
By the end of the season the puppies will be running 25-30kms. We harness break them around christmas time and try to get between 50 and 70 hook-ups before the end of the winter.
That is a lot of hook-ups. Why so many?
I think that the puppies benefit from many hook-ups. They start the next season way ahead of puppies who have been harness broken and then run once or twice a week. They already have some experience then. We take the puppies and camp with them during the spring. Sometimes just for a few hours. We will start a fire and get them use to settling down. It is great. I love that part of training.
Do you have any parting advice for us who are harness breaking soon?
The first season is stressful. We have several dogs on our A-team that did not look as good when they were young. Young dogs can get tired, they eat poorly, they get thin and depressed. Then the next season the do great. Have patience. I get an idea watching puppies how they will look later in life, but they can still surprise me!
Birgitte Næss Wærner has been running dogs for a long time. By her own admission she has trained hundreds of dogs and harness broken most of those. Birgitte is a former champion limited class sprint musher with multiple ISDRA Golds to her credit as well as holding the track record at the LNAC for 10 years. Birgitte and her husband Thomas run Berzerk Kennels in Torpa. Thomas is the 2013 Finnmarksløpet champion, and this year it is Birgittes turn. The goal is Iditarod 2015. For mer info click here.