6 Things You’ll Learn From Working With Dogs In The Arctic

After working with dogs in the Arctic I've realised that the furry companions teach you to learn, reconfigure and stretch your brain and self in ways I thought they never would.

By: Elley Metcalf

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I currently work as a dog handler and outdoor guide in northern Norway and Sweden. I first thought I would learn most from the people and environment I’d find myself in, but as it transpires it’s been the furry four legged companions that I’ve spent hours each day with that have been my main tutor, allowing me to hone skills and behaviours that I think all round make me a better person. Here's 6 of the most prominent:

Helge is what we call a 4 legged jumper, meaning when he's excited he'll literally jump up and down, over and over, until someone comes and pays him attention.

1. Patience

This first appeared quickly when starting to work with dogs. Ultimately, just like humans, dogs can be unpredictable, stubborn, and sometimes lazy. When I say patience, I don’t just mean patiently waiting for a package to arrive, or patiently waiting for paint to dry, I mean prolonged patience with a situation that is making you want to shout or scream (or both). When a dog wouldn’t comply, it was interesting to see how quickly I would turn to this annoyed inner narrative, but I soon realised that patience and a smile made the situation a whole lot more manageable for the both of us! I think that situations that would have irked me before now don’t stress me one bit. Screaming baby in my arms? No biggie. Screaming baby in my arms, woman shouting at me, 30 huskies loose and a bulldozer about to knock my house down? Well, we’d have to see about that one. 

Out on the trails, doing what they do best!

2. Hard work ethic

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is a phrase that perfectly describes how huskies work. If you want to see hard work, have a look at 6 huskies pulling 2 adults for 40km through varying trails and terrain. When you’re tired, you’ve been up early working and it started to get dark at 2pm, looking down at these dogs who are working so hard for you quickly puts into perspective the manner in which you go about that work. I find myself puffing after running 20 metres back in the deep snow, never mind 40km! There’s so much motivation and enthusiasm in watching the dogs work and I throw that into every outlet of my life, whatever I end up doing.  

3. Body language and communication

We’ve all read articles or heard about how much of an effect your body language can communicate when interacting with other people. The same absolutely applies to dogs, maybe even more so because you don’t speak the same language! Keeping your body language neutral, open and friendly is vital when working with them, and the same goes with people too. If you have your head high, shoulders back and smile on your face, the dogs pick up on this quickly, and will respond to you with the same (most of the time). Communication is both verbal and non-verbal, and I try to communicate the same as what my mouth is saying with my body also.

Ranta and Alit looking intensely at the food coming their way 

4. Effective solutions

This is the number one skill I think my brain has improved on since I started working in the Arctic circle. With changing weather conditions as quick as you can blink, thinking on your feet and being ready for anything a situation might throw at you has become second nature. This also closely ties in with patience and keeping calm, because it’s impossible to make effective and rational decisions when your brain is in a mode of panic. If you’ve got a storm rolling in and the dogs are not concentrating, the very worst and most dangerous thing you can do in that situation is succumb to the pressure and panic. Panic leads to irrational and hasty decisions, which can lead to dangerous outcomes. Being able to keep your cool and think about practical solutions is a skill I can only get better at.

Turning the team round on a 25km training loop, an 18 dog line!

 5. Preparing, planning and organisation

I’ll admit it. I didn’t clean my room as many times as I said I did, or do my washing as often as I should, or sent birthday cards always on time. That’s just the kind of person I am. But there’s something about living in conditions that can quickly turn into survival conditions that makes you highly prepared, planned and organised for anything the environment wants to throw at you. Not knowing whether you’ll arrive at a cabin in -5 or -25 definitely makes you think ahead, forward plan and think about every outcome. Kit lists, to do lists, going over things twice, three times, four, it’s all a day in the life in the Arctic because it’s necessary. Even if my room might not be any more organised, my mind certainly is!

6. Enjoying the moment (and life in general)

So you've got out of the dog yard, the air is cold and dry, the trails are smooth and all you hear is the sound of the dogs panting and the runners gliding underneath your feet. This is my peace. Even if there's 101 things to do back at the kennel or at home, sledding asks nothing of you but to be present and to interact with your immediate surroundings. When you're out on the trails it feels like it's just you, the dogs, and the rest of the world. If it's one thing the huskies have reinforced my opinion in, it's that where we can we should always be sponges to our environment, and to enjoy every moment of it as best we can. There'll always be washing to be done, or meetings to be had, but not always will there be the exact same scent in the air, or the exact same shade of blue in the sky. 

Schjelle and Roy leading the way on an afternoon tour


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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.