How WE raise and train sled dogs
Lots has been said and written about the topics raised in this section. Any training method is disputable, so are our methods for raising pups and training huskies to be first-class sled dogs. Sure, there are a number of ways to do this and we are constantly revising ours, but one thing stands; huskies can run and run almost endlessly if they are well trained.
This is how WE at Husky Holiday raise and train sled dogs for our tours.
If you are not used to these kind of dogs that power sleds along trails, you will probably be as surprised as most guests coming to our kennel to experience how loving these huskies are. Some of the first comments we hear regard the huskies' size: most people find they are a lot smaller than expected. And that they do not like the Huskies you can see in the Hollywood made movies. Then somebody pulls out a harness and the dogs' excitement about possibly being hooked up in front of a rig is beyond comprehension. Are we going? Am I coming with you? Please take me! Take me! These athletes are ready to move instantly with power, speed and endurance that moves us beyond amazement to absolute respect.
Behind this is a lot of hard work and a basic love, understanding and care for the animals. It all started hundreds (thousands) of years ago when the Eskimos pioneered breeding dogs for the purpose of pulling. The most frequently used sled dogs these days are the Alaskan Huskies. The web is bursting with information about Alaskan Huskies – multipurpose dogs with a great ability to run fast. These dogs have incredible endurance, allowing them to run the Iditarod in a single stretch -1800 kilometers/1100 miles from Anchorage to Nome, and covering some 200 kilometers or more per day.
For us, the puppies are the highlight of what we do.
We usually breed one litter of puppies each year. Selecting which males and females will breed is a source of many thoughts and discussions. In order to have the best breeding dogs we see the need to purchase dogs from kennels with the best possible long distance competition dogs.
During last winter countless visitors joined us for puppy walks which is great fun but also the most serious training you can imagine. The pups run free in the woods and over the fields in the deep snow. As well as enjoying themselves, they develop enormously in every respect during these months before we put them in harness.
Most mushers like to have the puppies in the spring/early summer, and so do we. It’s a time of year when we have more time to be with the pups before they go on to be trained like the other sled dogs during winter. When puppies are born in the spring, it gives the mother time to rejuvenate before the autumn training starts in August.
For us it is also nice to sometimes have a litter born in the autumn. A litter of husky pups brings a lot of pleasure to our guests. Few have ever experienced the joy of a pack of 4-month-old pups bounding around their feet while they walk through the snow. The final part of training before we put these pups in harnesses involves walking them on a leash. At this point we let them do the opposite of what most people consider to be good dog training: we let them pull on the lead. They do this automatically when their forward movement is restricted for the first time. We put them in harnesses at the age of about 6 months. If we have snow and guests here, we pull out the stand-up sled, which accommodates 3 helpers on the first run. We don’t make a big deal about this, but it is very useful to have some people around the first time. We put in 4-6 pups together with some of our veteran huskies and drive off very slowly. Pups normally have full power on the tug line from the word 'go'; running and pulling hard as if they have never done anything else. The first round is very short, usually about 2–3 kilometers, but after this it’s just a question of packing in as much training as possible to build these fantastic creatures into great sled dogs.
Feeding the pups is very important. Well, you can imagine the consequences if is not managed properly. When they are 2-3 weeks old, we start feeding them a meat and fish mix. Our feeding works well, and we stick to the same diet for the dog’s entire life. A blend of stability, high-quality food and good feeding procedures is the safest way to keep our dogs happy and out of trouble. This isn't to say feeding dogs is simple – on the contrary we see it as a kind of artistry to ensure they are fed individually to maintain their ideal weight and condition.
Huskies have a great ability to consume and digest large quantities of fodder when their endurance is tested. We do not, with the type of work the dogs carry out here, come close to reaching the 10,000 calories per dog/per day that they talk about in the Iditarod race. Amounts vary a lot during the season depending on work and temperatures, but to give an indication we think we use about a kilo of fresh meat, fish and dry fodder per day.
In the feed plan we include something called watering. The dogs do not drink water on its own during the winter, but we give them a warm soup made of water and mixed meats every morning and most times after runs. It’s all about keeping the dogs well hydrated which involves teaching them to drink what we consider adequate at any time.
Husky dogs sleep outdoors all year round. Staying outdoors all day keeps them conditioned for going out on tours in any temperature. Inside their kennels they have a little hut for shelter which is filled with a thick layer of insulating straw on the floor. The size of the hut is kept small so the dogs can heat the interior with their own body heat.
Mid summer is a period of rest and recovery for the hardworking sled dogs. One cannot train the dogs in harnesses when the temperature is above 15 degrees celcius, in fact it should preferably not be above 10C. This warmer time can still be a positive one in which we carry out obedience and agility training with the dogs. We try to let groups of dogs run free in the dog yard for an hour or so every day. All while we look forward to cold and winter again
How do we actually train when we don’t have snow? We use a quad bike (all terrain vehicle or ATV) as a sled substitute during what they call the dirt training. With an ATV you are in the best of control of your team when you line them up in front of the machine. A quad offers possibilities for a very controlled training regime where you can let the dogs pull this quad very heavily, or give throttle and them run light and fast. One can even stop and give the dogs a break and some water en route without risk of the team disappearing.
The size of team we hook up varies. It’s not really important either. Just getting the dogs out training is the main thing. We are lucky enough to have almost unlimited forest trails available for training. Wildlife like bears and moose seem to keep out of our way.
We start very carefully after the summer break driving only 5-10 kilometers at a time, and only every second day during the first week. But we increase with a few kilometers every week until we are running some 30 kilometers before we are on snow in November. How fast do the dogs run? Well, the speedometer on the quad shows anything between 5 and 25 kilometers an hour, and an 18 kilometer run often takes us an hour and a half. We take the time to water and rest the dogs along the way. We also make sure we move the dogs around in the team, try new leaders and give the dogs a chance to pull on either side of the gang line. The plan is that each husky dog shall run 5 days a week, not rigidly, but the target is that all our dogs shall get a mighty lot of training before our tourists arrive at the end of November.
In the period of transformation from dirt training to snow-covered trails, mushers have a challenging time in late autumn. Temperatures can vary from quite warm during the day to an extreme low of -20 degrees celcius at night. We get some rain, sleet and snow which results in dangerously slippery ice-surfaces.
The conditions often require booties for the dogs in the fall. Their feet can get seriously damaged from running on gravel/dirt tracks without the protection of a little bootie. We need to use some booties during the winter also, and one might as well make the dogs used to putting on the damn things. And make our backs used to standing bent over dogs when putting on the same damn things. Dogs' feet don’t seem to have improved over the years, and using booties is better than using good feet as criteria for choice of studs. Or is it
Harnesses are important. We use 3 different types of harnesses, X-backs, R-X-backs and a type of tracking harness. We often have to run through mud, gravel puddles and water dams. We rinse and dry the harnesses after each training – if we don’t they are like sandpaper rubbing the dogs' chest and sometimes causing open sores. Ideally the harnesses shall be as good as new, kept clean and dry and fit the dog as perfectly as possible.
Snow is what it is all about in the end. When there is snow on the ground we put in as much training as possible, with as many dogs out pulling the sleds as we can every day. Over-doing it is hardly a problem for us, but we hear about it happening to long distance competition mushers who set high goals for themselves and their teams of husky dogs. The risk of getting injured or burnt out dogs is much bigger if you are unable to train steadily and build the dogs up gradually over time.
What would we like to do more of?
Train, of course. We would actually like to load the dogs up in the trailer and truck and go places for training. It would be good for all of us to get out from time to time. We will see. Training our team of mad hatters is in itself time consuming, but also very rewarding.
Please get in touch with us if you would like to come here to experience time with the happy hardworking huskies here at Husky Holiday.