What You’ll Learn

Quince Mountain, author of “Naked and Afraid” and a competitor in the Iditarod, was the keynote speaker at the NWPPA NIC conference. He shares points that utilities and broadband providers can learn from dog-sled racing.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What can sled dogs teach us about teamwork? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with Pioneer. I’m your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Quince Mountain, who is a sled dog musher and author. He’s our keynote speaker here at the NIC Conference in Anchorage. Thanks for joining us.

Quince Mountain: You’re welcome, Andy. I’m glad to be able to bring some sled dog propaganda to this year’s NIC. It’s part of the Alaska state constitution that every conference hosted here in Anchorage or even in the wider state, somebody needs to represent the state sport of dog mushing. So I’m here to do that for you. And part of that was true. The fact that I’m here to do it. It’s not really a law, but I do think it should be. These dogs, people like them, and they have a lot to teach us about leadership. But let me ask you, how do you think that we figure out who’s the lead dog?

Andy Johns: How do you think that y’all figure out who the lead dog is? I mean, is it the fastest? Is it the strongest? Best vision? I could see it a couple of different ways to go for it.

Quince Mountain: Okay.

Andy Johns: Are any of those right?

Quince Mountain: Well, those are all important things. Fastest isn’t as important because we’re talking about distances like Iditarod Race of 1,000 miles or Kobuk 440 race out of Kotzebue, maybe 400 miles. Yukon Quest, 500 this year. So these are longer distances. We don’t need a sprinter. We need a dog with real mental toughness and confidence. And they’re able to relax on the trail and eat on the trail and sleep and get what they need and just run a real consistent race. You’re looking for an ultra marathoner, not a sprinter. So fastest, isn’t it. And not really strongest because it’s not like totally a weight pulling event for them. I mean, when you divide up, you know, my sled and I all together weigh well under 300 pounds. When you divide up a sled that’s on plastic runners between 14 dogs, and they’re all pulling, I mean, for you to pull a little sled with 10 pounds of weight on it isn’t really very heavy. So it’s none of those things. But I think there is this idea like, you know, how much have you heard about alpha dogs? What do you think of that?

Andy Johns: Sure. I mean, you got the alpha and the beta. Yeah, with wolves or with dogs or any of that. A little familiar, probably not as familiar as you. A little bit familiar.

Quince Mountain: Yeah. So who’s the Alpha?

Andy Johns: The leader?

Quince Mountain: Yeah. I mean, I’m obviously setting you up here, but suddenly you’re looking at me like…

Andy Johns: And I’m obviously struggling.

Quince Mountain: Okay. Okay. No, that’s good. You’re not letting yourself go. It’s true, though. I mean, I think there is this idea, and I don’t remember which Disney movie or book this was. You know, that this sort of meanest, toughest dog is, you know, the one at the front of the team. And they all duke it out. And, you know, but the what I call I mean, I really call it the myth of the alpha dog has been debunked by the researcher who came up with the alpha dog idea in the 1970s. And the scientists said, wait a minute, you know, as scientists or want to do sort of checked over their work and corrected it and said, no, you know, we did this observational work. But it turns out that this alpha behavior that applies to dogs who are in captivity, which is to say that they’re under stress, does not apply to dogs out in the wild. And when we studied canines out in the wild, wolves, coyotes, foxes, you know, they’re actually a lot more collaborative than we give them credit for. So, you know, it’s funny, you know, people always will say, well, who’s the alpha? And, uh, I think that’s like a human concept that we use to justify various ideas that people have about power and who to be in charge.

Quince Mountain: But, you know, any of us who’ve been on teams know that if you’re not that person, that sort of bully person, when you’re in that group, even if you’re not the person at that bully leader’s kind of mercy or you’re not their target, you might be safe in a sense. They’re not paying attention to you, or they like you, or whatever it is. It’s still not a neutral thing. It’s still very stressful to be in a group where things could turn at any moment, where someone could just lash out at somebody. And, you know, there are certain people who call that leadership, you know, and they try to sort of control by this kind of unpredictability and and keeping their power. And they’re more worried about maintaining power at all costs than sharing it. And I think it’s unfortunate that that gets called alpha behavior and attributed to dogs, because dogs don’t tend to do that. I mean, they’re a lot more dynamic and social that we give them credit for. So when they’re out, I mean, they’re working together as a pack to get resources, to hunt, to care for their young, to establish territories, all these things.

Quince Mountain: And I’m not saying they never have disputes.

Andy Johns: Sure.

Quince Mountain: But, you know, it is a lot more complicated. And I think that, you know, in teams when when we work with people, if you can create an environment where the person on the team who’s the sort of biggest outsider or the least, well, you know, the one who might be might have trouble fitting in. If they can be kind of called into the group and the group can kind of embrace them and work around it and you can all work together, it makes everyone more productive, not just that person. I mean, but we think of that one person like, oh, we’re devoting a lot of resources to this one sort of person who slower or not getting it or frustrating me for this various reasons or shows up late or has this bad habit. And I’m not saying, you know, don’t pay attention to the micro things, but having an environment where you don’t retaliate, where you have a lot of clarity and structure in your communication, you’re meeting people where you’re at, that will make the whole group more productive and safer. It is not just for that one person who’s sort of at the bottom of the heap because there shouldn’t be a bottom of the heap.

Andy Johns: There you go. I think that it sounds like that applies both for a sled dog team when you’re talking about four legged team members or when you’re talking about two legged team members, you know, the office setting or whatever it is. Through your talk today, and Quince did present at the the NIC, he was, like I said, the keynote speaker. Pioneer was happy to sponsor the book that he was signing for folks today. The book is called “Dogs on the Trail,” and I assume it’s available for purchase for folks that that want to go out on the Internet and find it to buy it.

Quince Mountain: It is. And, you know, I think it’s a pretty cool book. A lot of photos. It’s a kind of coffee table book, but it is a primer on dog sledding. It follows a year in the life of our dog sled team. Because people were always saying, well, what do you do with these sled dogs when it’s not winter? And it’s like, we don’t, they’re not snowmobiles. We don’t just put them in the barn and not think about them. They do stuff all year. Well, well, why can’t we show people what that is and what better way. You know, and this is a conference full of communicators, so it’s been kind of cool to bring that answer to that question here and say, well, you know, we just thought, show don’t tell. Here’s what the dogs are doing all year. Those races that they’re in for a couple of months are a part of their year. But that’s not the whole story. They have a lot going on and throughout their lifespan, from puppy hood to retirement and beyond, they all have a role in our kennel at home.

Andy Johns: So what you guys are missing, since podcasts are in an audible medium, you’re missing the dog pictures that we all got today. I know that was that was really popular with the folks in the session, being able to see the pictures of the dogs. But what are some…

Quince Mountain: Should I send you some audio? Wait, let’s splice in right here. Okay, leave it. I’m just going to send you some dog howls. We do some little howls. This will be like an after dinner howl coming up, and they tend to howl for 30 to 45 seconds, usually not more than a minute. Like about 20 minutes after they eat, and they howl after after one group of dog leaves. When one team leaves, the team remaining at the kennel will kind of do a social howl. And when a team returns from a run, they’ll often do a social howl shortly after, and that’s their singing. They’re really into that. And sometimes, you know, my wife or I will try to start a howl, and I mean they do it, but you can just hear the criticism dripping from their voices, like the haiku. I mean, they have beautiful voices, and I don’t and I, you know. Well, anyhow, so we’re going to just splice in.

Andy Johns: We’ll splice it in here. Yeah. If you send it. I wrote down the timestamp, if you send it over. We’ll just hopefully you guys have enjoyed hearing some nice dog sled howling in the background. So, getting back to it. So if we’re talking about more parallels, what are some other parallels, and I know you shared some of them today. What are some other parallels that you have seen from working with your team out on the trails that folks may see working with their own teams of, you know, two legged folks back in the office?

Quince Mountain: Well, a big one. And I mean, it’s just hard to overstate how important for the distance racing we do, you know, going 1,000 miles, going 500 miles, even if it’s an expedition, not not a race necessarily, right? But whatever it is, whatever kind of project you’re setting out on with your team, the team can’t always see the final goal. They haven’t always been where you’re going, but you are, you know? So in that sense, you need to lead and with dogs, you can’t tell them in words. Okay, Pepe, I need you to go. They all want to run like they’re running their first base, like they’re sprinting. And I need to say, we’re not going to go 16 miles an hour out the gate or 25, but I need you to go like nine, ten miles an hour. We’re just going to take it easy because we’re going to be jogging for like hours, you know? And so you need to learn to give the team cues, and it’s really just building trust. They need to know that you’re never going to ask them to do anything that you haven’t given them the tools to do. So that even when they don’t believe that they can do something, they just sort of know reflexively that if you’ve given them the task, they have the tools to achieve the task.

Quince Mountain: If they don’t, you’re going to come in and make sure it works out. But you’re not like micromanaging. You’re not. And this is somebody came to me and shared that they were a little surprised by this, but that it was helpful. A newer musher starting out will tend to want to encourage their dogs vocally. And you know, good dogs. Come on, you can do it as they’re going up a hill, you know, as though we’re sort of at a baseball game encouraging a teammate to round the bases or something. But if you think of, you know, the experience of these dogs working to pull that sled up a hill or something, something kind of challenging, and they’re hearing your voice, hearing your voice, but then now your voice is tired, or you’re doing something else, or your focus is taken away and they don’t hear your voice. That becomes a cue, right? They become reliant on it, and you are over communicating with them. And they need to learn that when they do hear your voice, do hear your feedback, it means something. So I might say no words, not one thing for hours.

Quince Mountain: And then I might say, “Gee,” which is turn right or “Ha,” but they hear it. And that is actually kind of relaxing to them, as funny as that sounds. And I’m not saying I won’t give them praise or walk up to them or stop them or, you know, maybe we get to the top of the hill, and we take a little break, and I go give them pets or a fish snack. And they sort of know that they’re off and that that’s the time. But, you know, then when we really need to dig in, and they have a question for me or they’re unsure of themselves, and I say, “Hey, let’s go,” then it means something. You know? But you can’t do that all the time. And it was funny to to hear this woman say, that is exactly you know, she said, I have this new manager, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re over communicating, and it’s driving me up a wall because I don’t need praise for every email I send. It makes me not trust the praise. And then when it’s not there, what did I do wrong? So, you know, that’s something to think about too.

Andy Johns: Yeah, that’s real. And that communication is where I was going next. Because communication is such a big deal in terms of a business organization and utility and also on a dog sled team, too. And, you know, with your support crew, all that, I mean, it’s such a big part of it, no matter what you’re doing, is that communication.

Quince Mountain: Well, and on every level, right? And then on a I mean, there’s the level where the dogs in are communicating with one another. And because they don’t have great English and I don’t have great dog, their English is probably better than my dog. But, you know, I communicate through these routines, and they learn what to expect. And they know that if I grab this certain bucket, I’m probably coming with water. And if I grab this other thing, I might have some fish in my pocket. And if I am pulling out the harnesses, it’s time for a run. And they’re all barking and excited. And if I don’t have the harnesses with me and I have a shovel, I’m just coming to scoop the kennel and they’re not barking and excited. They’re just, hey, happy to see you. Very quiet. You know, all these ways that we communicate, and they know. But the other kind of communication that really makes our team possible in kind of a meta way is we have a really dedicated group of fans who has made what we do possible. Now, we’ll always have dogs. We’ll be able to care for our dogs and so on. But as far as traveling around the US and Canada doing the kind of racing we do, I mean it’s a really expensive proposition, and we’ve had the joy and wonder of all these sponsors who are so happy to be a part of it and make that happen, you know. And that’s people on Patreon, giving our team BraverMountain Mushing.

Quince Mountain: It might be $2-3 a month. It might be $10 a month. And then they get these cool, I think, mailings a few times a year. You know, they might sponsor a dog for a little more. And so that, you know, a large number of people contributing enables us to do what we do. And then they’re a part of the story, and they they go to work and, you know, have something to talk about because they’re like, they have a dog team, you know, that they truly made possible. And this is, you know, at the risk of getting long, but it relates to what you all do here because I see utility contractors, people doing communications, Pioneer stepping in to do communications for people who may not have their own comms team or may need resources to consult with, you know, and helping these co-ops. And it makes a big difference because we need to be able to communicate like what people are paying us for is to be a part of something, be a part of our team.

Quince Mountain: We’re not a charity. They’re not you know, the value is that they’re a part of something, and it’s a community. And so we need to be able to send photos when we’re out on a trail or videos and so on. And yet we’re always in these rural areas where we do what we do. And so, I mean, it truly has come to like our home where we are has a utility that’s, you know, the power was recently out for eight days when we were told it would be 3 to 4 hours, several times. You know, so you see that breakdown in the communication. Then we’re losing our meat. We’re losing our power, and also losing our ability to communicate with our fans without going somewhere. Now I realize storms happen, but how you communicate about them. So then we go to this dog camp where we started training over the winter. It’s in a more rural area, and we were up in Michigan a few weeks, and they have fiber Internet. They have the fastest Internet I’ve ever had. It’s like, well, why is this happening in this more rural area? And, you know, sure enough, they have this communication co-op. Hiawatha, I think Hiawatha Telephone, I think it’s called.

Andy Johns: Yeah. Up in the U.P.

Quince Mountain: Yeah.

Andy Johns: I’m familiar.Yeah.

Quince Mountain: And incredible customer service. Incredible service to begin with. I don’t know how they got out there to do that. It seems, you know the people I talked to, it has been very affordable. And so and those things are going to, you know, in the next few years as people are doing more work from home. I mean, that makes a difference to who’s going to live in the area. Like, how long can we keep our team in an area where we have no ability to communicate? And I wonder, you know, you all listening to this work on messaging, how much are you working with, you know, rural development people and counties and downtown development people and so on to, you know, there has to be somebody, I’m sure, tracking the economic impact of all this. But, you know, for our little dog team and our two person business, I mean it has a tremendous impact, the utilities.

Andy Johns: I believe that. So the last question I had for you, going back to our previous discussion, I was reading on the plane on the way up here a book that was, uh, it was talking about nonverbal communication and how you can say something to somebody. But if your body says something very different, they’re going to perceive your body language more so than what the words you say.

Quince Mountain: Oh, tell me about it.

Andy Johns: Dogs would seem to be the the ultimate experts in nonverbal communication. What have dogs taught you about nonverbal communication that you feel it works on humans, or has changed the way that you communicate with other humans?

Quince Mountain: Okay, let me back up and say, I’m autistic. I’m face blind. I have prosopagnosia profoundly, so I cannot read facial expressions, and I had to learn to even have them. I grew up with a flat affect. And so this is like really hits home for me, Andy, because I watch a political debate, for example, and I try to be, I try to always question my own judgments and assumptions and not. And I’ll be like, who really, quote unquote, won this debate? You know, and often the answer will be so clear to me who performed better, who had the better answers. And to everybody else in the room, it’s like the answer’s the opposite. And I’m like, what did I do wrong? And they are seeing these signals off the face or in the body language of how the person looks. And I’ve also had to learn like, I can’t tell who is traditionally good looking or not in this kind of facial structure, facial symmetry way that’s important to people. And so I sometimes I thought, why is it, why does that guy, why does everybody? What am I missing? And what he’s saying is so interesting, and everybody he gets called on all the time in school likes him, but I don’t understand it.

Quince Mountain: And then I find out, you know, he’s got these model good looks, but I couldn’t tell. And so, I had no idea. And so in some ways I’m saved from those biases. And it doesn’t totally apply to me that I’m reading the nonverbal communication, but in other ways. And the main thing that the dogs have to teach is like they study us all day, or they sit there and watch so much and they’re great conservers of energy. And when it’s time to hunt, they will spring into action when it’s hot and hunt. And they’ll go for that mouse or whatever it is, or that fast chase. And when it’s time to travel, they’ll jog along and travel, but when it’s time to rest, they all rest really well. And they’re watching, and they’re watching out in the distance, and they’re watching us, and they’re figuring out patterns. And I think they are like the greatest students of human psychology. I mean, you know, move over Freud or whoever. And so Esther Perel, you know, they know a lot about us, and they often know what I’m going to do before I know it. So it’s been pretty cool to see. But I like to think that I, as a person in communications and as an autistic person who’s had to kind of hack my way through some of these things and learn in a way that’s intentional and not just sort of absently without trying, sort of knew the signals other people are picking up on. You know, there’s a way that that’s become a good thing for me because, you know, you do learn to watch people and observe detail. And often that can lead to things that other people might miss or that might be telling details. So, you know, you might if you’re in communication side in particular, you know, think like a sled dog in the sense that like you’re waiting and watching. Wait, wait and watch. We’ll look for patterns.

Andy Johns: I think that’s the title of the episode right there. “Think Like a Sled Dog.” So I appreciate that.

Quince Mountain: I love it. I hope to do so. Well, Thank you, Andy. It’s been so nice to talk with you and thank you, Pioneer, for bringing us here and these books. And I got to meet, like a lot of you all who are doing work that, you know, is hard and not always, people aren’t always thanking you like they might if you take someone on a sled dog ride. But if it goes wrong, they’re upset with you. And, you know, I feel for you. But if I don’t go to my job, you know, the world doesn’t end. But what you guys are doing is, you know, a basic need for people, and you’re working in that and around that. And so I really appreciate it. And it’s been cool to be a part of it and see it. And also this conference, the NIC Conference, like what a warm and interesting and weird group of people. I’m going to have FOMO as I head out today cause I…

Andy Johns: Oh, Fear of missing out.

Quince Mountain: Yeah. There’s like 20 people I feel like I could talk to more here, so and you being one of them. So I’m glad we got a chance to connect and thank you.

Andy Johns: Yeah. And you guys may have heard a few of the folks in the background here throughout this. Like we say, usually it’s not, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance. So but we’re right here. Glad to be at the beating heart of utility communications in the Northwest this week. He is Quince Mountain. He is, not only a dog sled musher, but also an author. We appreciate him joining us. My name is Andy Jones with Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.