Sunday, October 26, 2008


“I’ve never French kissed a sleddog but I’ve been known to rub noses with a few of them.”
I thought that might get your attention. Anyway, someone asked me last winter what was the ideal number of dogs to have in your backyard and I truly believe that the answer would be “eight”. Now, a lot of you out there might not agree with this but give me a chance to explain. I think it would be a crying shame to start arguing about this in the first couple of lines of this entry, so let’s keep an “open mind”.

It is known that two dogs are powerful enough to pull a musher and his sled along and this for a fair distance. It is also said that the golden rule is that if you multiply the weight of each dog X 2, this should translate to the total load that should be transported by the sled. The closer you get to the maximum weight, the shorter the distance will be. In lain man’s terms, this simply means that if I hitch up the two smallest dogs of my kennel, “Snooky” the Barbie and “Gidget” the Midget, with their combined weight of “90 pounds”, they can easily pull one of my nieces who tips the scale at a whopping 110 lbs. However, if I stand on the runners at a “pre-training” weight of 230 lbs, we won’t be going too far and this in a hurry. But, if I double the number of dogs to “four”, then we’re in business. We can go exploring. We just have to keep in mind that you must limit the distance because common sense says that if you got out, the dogs must have enough energy to come back. So, the “math” is kind of simple. It is proven that six dogs can travel 30 miles, so then four should do 20 and two, well if you’re not in a hurry, they could take you as far as 10 miles. It’s a matter of proper conditioning.

So, if you enjoy the company of sleddogs and plan to go out there and do some exploring or even winter camping, then you should consider that eight canines might be the “magic number”. They will take you anywhere you want to go and truly satisfy that burning sense of adventure in you.

The reason I’m bringing the subject up is that the entire family showed up at the “Bunkhouse” a few Sundays ago where we had “Thanksgiving Supper” (for my American friends, we celebrate Thanksgiving in October). After feasting on turkey and all sorts of desserts, well we did what we do best on such occasions. We crashed on couches by the big wood stove and took the time to digest and relax. All my nieces and one nephew have been raised around domestic animals and were taught to love and respect these four legged furry friends. Since “Uncle Gino” is quite popular with them, especially since he runs sleddogs, the subject of getting into mushing soon came up. From the discussion they were having amongst themselves, it was obvious that they only saw the “glitter” associated with the sport. This got me thinking that maybe I was over-glamorizing this business of dog sledding. Also if I didn’t watch myself, I might end up promoting it to the point where some people might get the wrong impression and get into the sport without really knowing what was really involved. That might spell “disaster” as like we’ve seen too many times, at the end of the day, the dogs might end up suffering.

“Sleddogs are working dogs”. It’s important to emphasize this statement, so I’ll say it again, “Sleddogs are working dogs” Oh sure, a blue eyed Siberian husky is a beautiful sight and even though there exists so many other types of gorgeous looking dogs, they all have one thing in common. Deep inside them, they still walk around with that basic instinct and love to go out there as a “pack” and hunt. A lot of folks will argue that it’s because they love to run and others will say it’s because they want to please their masters and this is all fine. But at the end of day, there is one single major factor that motivates them and that’s the need to find something to eat. This is why the musher feeds them after a training session. The dogs associate this gesture as their reward for the “hunt”. Recognizing this basic need for eating is the foundation and a key element to train these fine athletes. After this is said, where do we go from there? Well, let’s just say that you don’t just go to your local pet shop and buy “eight sleddogs”. It’s just not the way it’s done. First, you have to establish two basic things. What do you plan on doing with them and do you have the room to keep these very active canines. This established, then you truly have to give yourself with a serious self-examination and see if you’ve got the self-discipline to take on such an undertaking.

Remember, owning a dog team is a long term commitment that will change your lifestyle, completely. Because of this you must be prepared to dedicate many hours a day towards their basic upkeep and exercise. Let’s dissect this for a moment and do some again “simple math”. If one was to take the time to show some desired affection to each individual of your “eight dog team”, let’s say a minimum of five minutes for each, one would have to realize that it would take at least forty minutes to do one single round. Considering that these are living and breathing creatures, they need to be fed at least once a day and doing these chores will take at least another thirty minutes. In my case, I choose to feed them twice, once in the morning and again late in the evening. This gives me the opportunity to make sure that they always have fresh water and gives me time to interact with my dogs. This “paying attention” to the little details shows. From their viewpoint, I belong to the “Mob” and they accept me as one of them. I believe that here lies another of the “corner stones” to a successful dog team. The musher must spend the time with the dogs so that this bond of trust establishes itself between them and him. Oh sure, there are other methods to get the dogs to run for you but that’s a totally different story. Let’s just say that I’ve seen methods out there that shouldn’t be, but are. Picture a bunch of underfed slaves rowing in the belly of one of these Egyptian galleys to the cadence of a beating drum. We’ve all seen the movies. Remember what happens to one of these slaves when he doesn’t keep rowing. You’re right. Some “goon” soon shows up and whips him into submission and even to death. It’s no big deal, Cleopatra has lots of slave so he’s easily replaced. I will never venture to say that the mushing world is one where all the animals are mistreated but don’t be fooled. Those iron fisted individuals do exist. These archaic ways of beating on the animals to get them to perform will only instill fear and mistrust. They will never develop that needed sense of loyalty and only associate being hitched up with pain. Trust and loyalty are the two elements that you need out there to survive. I faced an embarrassing situation last winter that brought the point home. After stopping and waiting to see if a fellow musher and her team were following, my dogs jolted forward without me expecting it and they took off, leaving me stranded in the middle of the trail. “Oh shit, now what?” was the only thing that I could muster up as I watched them go around the bend at full speed. I shouted to them to stay and whistled for them to come to me. Really, there wasn’t much else to do and I did this more out of desperation than anything else but anyway, when I walked around the same bend, here they were standing there, waiting for me. They all had this look on their faces as to say, “Next time, may we suggest that you hold on to the steering bow”. It turns out that this wasn’t a fluke as I’ve had my shares of crashes and spills. Although the reasons as to why I’ve lost my team are different, the results are always the same. So far, it seems the dogs want to stick around and wait for me. I wonder if all who read this stuff have this privileged rapport with their team or do they face the bleak prospect of being left stranded in the bush? Just something else to think about, I guess.

Of course, we all know that if it goes in, it must eventually come out, so expect to “scoop the poop”. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. This sweet honey of a deal will take close to another 30 minutes. So if somebody is keeping tabs, we’re way past two hours spent just on the upkeep. Did I mention that this is a “365 days” routine and as such, we see all four seasons go by. Heaven forbid that I’d forget to note the burden it becomes when you head out to the barn in the middle of winter when it’s a balmy – 30 degrees Celsius. You reach for that frozen water bowl and shove it into your water bucket to thaw it out. Let me tell you, when your fingers start tingling and this after the second bowl, then you question yourself as to why you got into this “mess”. “Hey, if you want to dance, you’ve got to pay the fiddler.”

Then comes the training. In my team’s case, we enjoy taking off and this for long distances. Subsequently, we have to build the mileage up, starting from runs as short as two miles, to eventually reach a possible plateau at the end of the winter for stretches extending up to “fifty miles a pop”. The “eight dog” team can easily do these treks but they need to be conditioned for the challenges. You just can’t expect your average “couch potato” to do marathons, if the poor guy doesn’t get regular exercise. You must have a vigorous training schedule and have the time to take your dogs out. This is another element of running a successful dog team. Oh beware if you fail to run them. The dogs will let you know what they’re all about. If dogs are kept at the end of a chain for any length of time without proper workouts then they store all this penned up energy. When dogs get bored, there is nothing they won’t do. While some will annoy your neighbors with their barking and howling, some will dig holes, trying to reach China. Others will chew anything from pieces of wood to their own legs while some will continuously try to escape. They get very miserable and if they are given half a chance, will take out their frustrations on one another. If that’s not bad enough, if they stay inactive for any longer periods, then they get totally depressed and that spells bad news. The challenge to bring them back up to speed then becomes enormous. A lot of folks “full of good intentions” will often here give up and abandon on their mushing career. Remember those poor slaves we talked about a bit earlier, now not only are they chained up and going nowhere, they are now just existing being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Oh by the way, not wanting to forget to mention the prospect of possibly rescuing some of these fine animals, this could be a good occasion to get into the sport without spending too much money. Just something else to consider.

So here I am, preaching that the right number of dogs is “eight” and I have twelve of them in my barn. Go figure. Well, you have to understand that in this “neck of the woods” there is no such thing as the SPCA and people seem to accumulate dogs as if they were collecting “Hockey Cards”. Not only must we realize that not only are they “Man’s Best Friend” but that sleddogs have been part of Canada’s history for as long as Canada has existed. So somebody’s got to do something to help them. Besides, it would appear that I have a keen eye for good specimens and am a strong believer in genetics. For example, if the parents ran the “Yukon Quest”, chance are good that the puppies will be born with similar work ethics. I’ve got three fine candidates in the kennel that suggests this theory to be true. “Grizzy”, the mother had been purchased by this particular musher and had quite the impressive racing background. Through irresponsibility, the dog was allowed to breed twice and if not for my intervention, the puppies would have ended up like their siblings, on the manure pile. From the first litter, I picked up “JR”, who without a doubt turned into the “one” that I depend on to take the team through “thick and thin”. He’s my main leader and simply loves to run in front. The second batch to arrive, were simply left to fend for themselves after “Grizzy” escaped and hid under a shed. As this was her second litter within a year, she was written off as a sleddog and this musher’s plan was to destroy the entire family once he put his hands on her. I had had the occasion that fall to train this guy’s dogs and knew both parents. “Grizzy” and the father “Irving”, a tall lanky individual were both hard working, always there, team dogs. When he told me what he wanted to do, I had mentioned to this musher that it was a crying shame to put them down as the parents were excellent dogs. “If you want the bloody things” he had said, “you catch them and take them home.” I approached this project as another mission but as she knew and trusted me, it took a matter of twenty minutes to retrieve them from their hiding place. When I loaded that cardboard box containing “Grizzy” and her two day old pups in the back of the jeep, she had this calmness that said that she knew that her kids were in good hands. To make a long story short, out of the six young ones, four were adopted. Two went to good homes where today they run to their hearts content. The other two, well, they were adopted by one of these guys that was “full of good intentions” but didn’t have the time to take good care of them. As a result, they would escape from his yard on a daily basis and terrorize the neighborhood. This went on for the better part of last summer and after chasing and killing seven cats, they were put to sleep. The reason I’m mentioning this is just to again stress the fact that these animals never lose that basic “killer instinct” and that they need to be worked on that regular basis. As for the two I kept, “Snooky” and “Sox”, well, don’t be fooled by their small size. They’re “firecrackers” and are just great to have on anybody’s team. It’s just happens that they’re on mine. The story on the mother, unfortunately did not necessarily have a happy ending. After she weaned her kids, I started giving her proper exercise and within six weeks she was in fine running form. The previous owner got wind of this and showed up on my front steps. All of a sudden, he had changed his mind. Apparently, he had not given “Grizzy” to me and if I wanted her, I would have to pay. It’s not that I wasn’t ready to pay the asking exorbitant price of $700.00, it was the principle behind this. The guy had reneged on his word and this did not sit well with me. “When you help somebody out through hard times, it’s sometimes nice to see that favor returned.” It’s not that I was expecting anything but in my books, people that respect one another don’t “screw each other”. If you don’t have any integrity, then you aren’t worth “spit”. Up till then, we had a history of being friends and that day when I brought the dog back to this guy’s yard, it was over and this for good. He attempted to sell the dog to some other individual but she would not work for him so she was deemed useless, brought to the woods, shot and left there for “coyote bait”. Fran keeps reminding me as to how good of a dog she was but as I keep telling her, “we can’t save them all”. This was blackmail in its purest form and if I would have bent to the demand, I would only have encouraged this sick practice of raising dogs as “slaves”.

So I guess if one was to draw a conclusion from this “rant” it would be safe to say that if you’re going to take on the responsibilities of “leading the pack” you should consider that it’s quite the commitment. Simply ask yourself one single question. “Am I up to the task?” If your answer strays to the doubtful side, maybe you should think of finding something else to do. Just something else to consider….

Oh by the way, training is going fine and “Alaska” is probably pregnant. And to think I’m trying to promote responsibility. Oh well, I guess I’ll go and do what I do best. I’ll build an extension at the “Howl-A-Day Inn. More to follow folks… Got to go and feed the dogs.

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