In The Trenches

Mushing Lessons

Published on July 7, 2021 Back to blog
Me on Dallas Seavey’s Champion Iditarod Sled (wearing some of his gear, too.)

While traveling in Alaska with my wife and kids over the last few weeks, it was virtually impossible to skip over any chance to interact with dogs. My kids (and, if I’m being completely honest, my wife and I) missed our dogs, and constantly needed some “furry-love.” Fortunately, there are plenty of husky kennels open to visitors in Alaska, as mushers (dogsled drivers) seek the income and human interaction for the dogs.

After visiting three different kennels, we certainly got our fill. And, in the process, I learned quite a bit about dog sledding and what goes into building a winning team. Two of the kennels we visited were run by multi-time champions of the Iditarod (a 1,100 mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, over remote snow covered woods, tundra, lakes and rivers; during March, when temps are as low as -60% F and the sun only shines a few hours/day).And, although most of the team members have 4 legs and a tail, the key tenets of creating a winning team apply very much to business teams. Here are my key take-aways: 

1 – Trust your leaders. Most every sled dog team has two “lead dogs” at the front of the pack, often in front of another ten or so dogs and, of course, the musher. When traveling at 10+ miles per hour on snow and ice in cold and darkness, you need to trust those front dogs to think on their feet (paws) and make smart decisions, beyond the musher’s commands. Otherwise, you could end up at the bottom of a freezing river, caught in 10 feet of snow, or potentially, lost in the middle of nowhere. 

2 – Take good care of your team. I was amazed at how much of the musher’s job is actually spent taking care of the dogs. On the trail, mushers are 100% responsible for their team’s care (aside from vets who help with more serous medical issues). Feed them well (sled dogs need about 10k calories/day). Give them rest (the dogs generally need an amount of sleep equal to their running time). Show them love, and always put them first. (The mushers massage their dogs’ muscles, feed them snacks, share words of encouragement, give them hugs, etc.)

3 – Know your place. Being a musher doesn’t necessarily require elite athletic skills. The dogs are the real athletes. Aside from calling out directions to the dogs and staying on the sled (and not falling asleep), the musher’s job is to have a strategy, make a plan, prepare for what may lie ahead and, as previously noted, take care of the team. Each of the dogs has their place as well. The pack leaders lead the way. Right behind them are the swing dogs to help with the turns. After them are the team dogs to follow along and maintain the set pace. And, in the back, the wheel dogs have to pull the most weight to get the sled moving.

4 – Be kind to your competitors. While the mushers I met were incredibly competitive, they also shared the importance of looking out for their competitors during races. They (and their dogs) are typically the only ones on the routes in these incredibly harsh conditions, and things can go wrong. It was heartwarming to hear many of the stories of mushers helping one another out of potentially disastrous situations – even when it compromised winning the race. It reminded me of how those in the Boston advertising community came to my support years ago when my partner, Mike, was battling cancer.

5 – Hold on tight. When I asked 4-time Iditarod Champion, Jeff King, what happens if/when he falls off the sled, I was surprised by his response. While he shared many stories, in short, he said the dogs just keep on going. As much as they love him, they will just keep on running unless he can somehow yell a few commands fast enough to get them tangled up. (Just staying “whoa!” doesn’t work.) Ultimately, the mushers need to move at a pace they can handle. Otherwise, they risk being tossed. (Alternatively, if you can’t keep pace with the dogs, it may be time for a new musher.)

While the musher life is definitely not for me, I was certainly inspired by their leadership, perseverance and love/care for their teams (not to mention their ability to withstand the cold). And, similar to the mushers, I feel fortunate to have a team of people who love (and are great at) what they do, help and care for one another, and are driven to be a winning team.

Jeff Freedman
CEO/Managing Partner
Small Army | Finn Partners

PS. Congrats to the Small Army team for recently being named by DesignRush as one of the top Digital Marketing Agencies in Boston.