10 December 2013

Meet the Musher: Al

Meet Al Magaw.  Al makes his home in the outskirts of Salmo, B.C.  He is a retired painting contractor, and is now a full time dog trainer.  

What dog powered sports have you been involved with?

Dog sledding, including racing, training, and recreational sledding - I've also taken part in weight pulling contests done some skijoring, bikejoring - I've been part of and conducted seminars on skijoring and mentored many people on the art/passion of dogsledding.

How did you first get started in the sport?

Our local village decided to have a media challenge dog sled race as part of the Winterfest activities - I was publishing the local weekly newspaper and so I sponsored a team to represent my newspaper - I'd never been up close and personal with a dogsled team before - that team impressed me so much that I wanted to try it myself - I gathered up some dogs from the dog pound, along with 2 or 3 dogs that were given to me by the musher I had sponsored for the media challenge race - once on the runners behind my team of mismatched mutts, it seemed like I had "done this in another life" - the first race I went to with my pound dogs, I had the 2nd fastest team of 35 teams in the 5 dog class - if I wasn't hooked before, I certainly was after that first race

When did you know you were hooked on the sport?

After that first race - it became something I could not not do.

What happened from there?

There was no support for mushing here at all in the beginning - I had to build my own trails through the bush, train my own dogs through a hit and miss process - more likely it was the dogs training me rather than the other way around - I designed and built my own sleds, again through a hit and miss process until I came up with a design that suited me - I made experiments with breeding until I had a line of dogs that did their job well and had dispositions that worked well with mine - I read what ever I could get my hands on and paid attention to what my dogs were telling me - in 2000 I made the top 6 mushers in Canada, with points taken from the 3 races I was able to attend, rather than the best 4 races counted by the other top Canadian racers, and was named to Team Canada for the 2001 World Championships - today I mentor others who want to get involved in dogsled sports - I do behaviour therapy with dogs with behaviour issues, such as aggression, separation anxiety, aggressive possession issues, excessive barking, and obsessive behaviours, etc


What is your favourite activity to do with your dogs?

I enjoy pretty much all aspects of working with dogs, but if I had to choose one favourite thing, it would be when I take 6 month old pups for their first run in a team - I love watching how quickly instinct kicks in - very often the pups hit their harness as the team leaders take their first step as we leave the start chute - the pups leave the start chute as puppies and come back showing the confidence of young sleddogs, and still bouncing and barking in the excitement of the run!

Besides mushing, what else have you done with your dogs?

I've done obedience training for my own dogs and other's dogs - I've taught some of my own dogs numerous tricks - I also do therapy training for dogs with behaviour disorders - I've learned over time that dogs that have learned well established boundaries are very adept at learning new things to do on their own that can be very helpful in a variety of ways – for instance, I have a small pack of formerly problem dogs that now perform as therapy dogs for other dogs that have many of the same problems that mine had at one time - they are an important part of my therapy program

Tell us about your current dogs.

I have 38 sleddogs ranging in age from 7 months to 13 years - 10 of the sleddogs are retired from steady "employment" - 5 house dogs.
One is an old dog (15) that I saved from being euthanized by the SPCA - it had been "rescued" by them and charges were pending against the owner last I heard - his age and condition were such that the SPCA didn't want to take him on, so I signed the papers and my helpers and I decided to sponsor the sweet old guy - he's enjoying life now - much of his time is spent sleeping on my couch - 4 other house dogs, 3 of whom came to me with serious behavior problems
"Ebony" the 91 lb black lab/rottie was the most vicious dog I've ever come across - completely out of control and eager to attack man or beast - I had to use a 1/4 sheet of plywood as a shield to be able to safely feed, water, or clean his pen - after a period of time, the shelter he came from and I agreed, the best permanent home for him would be right here - he is now one of my most valued therapy dogs.
"Jerry", a german shepherd, was another dog with aggression issues towards humans ( especially children ) and other dogs - like it was with Ebony, the shelter that Jerry came from and I decided that here was the best permanent home for him - he is also now one of my therapy dogs - Jerry's best asset is recognizing when another dog is about to do something wrong and warn it, and me, about the problem.
Abby, a border collie cross, is the most recent addition to my therapy pack - she too came from a shelter with her own set of problems - when the shelter and a previous long term foster home saw how well she was fitting in here, they urged me to keep her  Abby brings a joy of living and a never tire playfulness that is needed in my therapy program.

I know you have a special place in your heart for Tara. Tell us about her.

Then there is "Tara", a Groenendahl Belgian shepherd - she first came here from another trainer with a relatively minor behaviour problem that the trainer was having difficulty overcoming - Tara is the most intuitive dog I have ever dealt with, more so even than some of the wonderfully amazing collies I've had in the past - she can tell me more about what's inside a dog when it emerges from it's owner's vehicle in 30 seconds than often the dogs own owner can tell me in an hour long interview - Tara makes me look like I know what I'm doing! At times Tara will see problems about to happen before I can and know what to do to help the situation - she's been known to give a nose poke into a dogs ribs that was about to be aggressive to another dog - she'll run shoulder to shoulder to lend confidence and support to a new dog that is shy or frightened - when a sleddog gets loose and is not coming when called, she'll grab it by the collar and turn it towards me, or if puppies running loose in the field are getting to close to the road, she'll run out to them, invite them to play with her, then lure them back to the kennel - occasionally in the evening, when I'm stretched out in my chair, she'll stretch out in my lap, laying on her back, and have a nap with me - such a gentle, smart, intuitive dog!

Your dogs are so beautiful, and they perform well.  Tell us about the line. 

My dog's trace back to John Ruud blood lines in the beginning as well as a little silvery looking female with indistinct ancestry who was very quick, but unreliable in her performance - my first cross was with a pure bred dalmation who was as tough headed as Minnie was soft headed in hopes of getting dogs as tough headed as their father and as quick as their mother - the cross was surprisingly successful - then I made crosses with the John Ruud lines- ( worked well ), a cross with Geo Attla's "Whitey" ( didn't work so well ), then over the years, crossed in some greyhound blood and added in some saluki bloodlines - in the last 15 or so years, I crossed in some "Burner" blood lines ( Reddington, Carson, Saunderson ) and that has worked out very well - the dalmation, greyhound and saluki content is down to about 1% now, but the dogs are still quick to condition ( dalmation ), have the greyhound rear quarters and carry above normal red cells in their blood - ( an attribute of alaskan huskies and the saluki ) my dogs are quite distinct in their appearance and carry a strong family resemblance to each other

Have you noticed a change in the relationship with your dog since you started? Have you noticed a change in the dogs relationships with each other?

I notice changed relationships with all of the dogs that come here for therapy - it still impresses me how quickly a bond between a handler and a dog develops with guidelines are established - it seems to be a relief to the dog when it no longer feels it has to be in charge, that someone is looking after it rather than the other way around - 36 years ago, when I started with my sleddogs, it surprised me how quickly the new dogs bonded with me after they were run in my team - the dogs consider that the driver is one of their pack - the bond is as strong as the one a pet owner has with their family pet, but different in the way that a team mate on your football team is different from an old friend, but still as strong a bond.

What do you look for in a new dog?

I look for a variety of things in a new dog - because I have a fairly solid kennel now, a lack of any one thing would disqualify a dog from my buying it - some of the things that would lose my interest in a dog, in no particular order, are -- type of coat - a coat needs to be short and dense - a dog with no undercoat is as undesirable as a dog with too heavy a coat - bad feet - it doesn't matter if a dog can run 100 miles an hour, bad feet would prevent it from finishing a race, let alone get it through a season of training - size - not too big or too small - not under 40 lbs for a female, and not over 55 - 60 lbs for a male - big dogs often tire too quickly in a longer sprint race and small dogs may lack the power needed in limited class sprint racing - a high set tail indicates poor rear extension - a dog with less than the best extension "may" be able to run as fast as a dog with good extension, but is more likely to tire more quickly and is more prone to injury over time - front shoulders should have good angulation, also to prevent injury - hound crosses often have straight(er) front ends but make up for that fault by having a more flexible spine than other types of dogs - a short necked dog is more likely to have a choppy gate than a smooth running long necked dog - smooth = efficiency of motion - less tiring for the dog and the rest of the team when it doesn't have to deal with a bouncing gangline - proportions - a racing dog should have good long legs, with a correspondingly long back - attitude - even the fastest dog can cause you problems or lose a race if it's aggressive to other dogs, in it's own team or other teams - I want a dog that is friendly, but not too friendly - a standoffish dog is fine - a shy dog can also be a problem - more than one shy dog has become lost and never found again when it got loose in a strange area - of course you are always looking for the kind of confidence in a dog that could allow it to become a leader, but even the shyest dog gains confidence when it's part of a team - I'm also looking for the type of personality in a dog that gets along well with my style and personality - that's a very personal thing, hard to describe, but one of those things that you recognize ( feel ) when you see it - you also want a dog to have speed and endurance, a desire to run in a team, and the joy in running that makes spectators ( and drivers ) smile!

Tell us about a perfect run!

A perfect run would be one where I never said a word except perhaps a directional command - one fast enough that sweat is running down your spine in -10c weather because you were working so hard just to stay on the sled in the corners - where the moisture in the dogs breath covers the team in frost, where the silence is unbroken except for the swish of the runners as they glide on the snow - where sunlight makes bars of light on the trail as it shines though the trees, preferably with the odd puff of snow falling from the tree branches where it landed during last night's fall of powder snow - a run where 10 of my white and gold huskies are running, heads and tails down, driving, shoulder to shoulder as a well matched, hard working, fast, unified team - a run that makes you feel glad to be alive - one where on one hand you are glad to be alone in the wilderness with your team, and on the other hand, wishing you could share the glory of the run with others!

That sounds beautiful! Thank-you for sharing this with us!