Friday, March 25, 2005

Mish mash

One of the differences between my team and a top racing team, besides my limited level of experience, is the make up of my team. Dogs from many different backgrounds that are the result of several different breeding programs.

A top team will have more uniformity, because they will probably be related and have certian things in common that their owner wanted to bring out and conciously bred for and selected for.

There are many different styles of mushers and so many different styles of sled dogs.
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This is "Cruiser" he is my only purebred siberian husky. His is unregistered though. He is a smaller male, in the 45 lb range. Not particularly fine boned or well angulated. One oddity of his build is that he has extremely wide barrel shaped ribs like a show dog. Siberian huskies from lines that compete in the show ring often have qualities that don't have anything to do with performance. Somewhwere along the line sombody that competed in the show ring but never set foot on a sled decided that siberians need to have wide barrel shape ribs. This is actually false. The most efficient build for athletic perfomance is a narrow deep rib cage and a long back.

However Cruiser is a hard worker and pretty athletic, his odd mix of features points to his mixed show quality and racing background. He has some showlines in his pedigree as well as "Anadyr" and "Sepp-alta" which are racing kennels. He is friendly but also has kind of an independant personality. He is a focused worker and pulls hard.

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This is "Fir". He is the fastest dog in my kennel. He is from Terry Adkins breeding. He has a bone structure and hard muscle tone much like a greyhound. He also has a thin undercoat, though lots of long tough guard hairs. He has some tough sled dogs in his back ground from Herbie Nyokpuk on shishmaref island, but He most resembles what Terry refers to as "Canadian sprint lines" which probably do have some type of admixture of sighthound blood like saluki and greyhound, pointer, irish settr and other fast dogs. One thing about him that I notice is different from my other dogs is that he has a loud bark. I notice my more "old fashioned" sled dogs are less noisy and barky.

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This is Jack. Jack looks more like an old fashioned sled dog but is actually a throw back. Many of his siblings don't even resemble what many people would think of as a sled dog. Some are solid red or red and white with floopy ears like a lab, some aren't all that thick coated, either. He has a nice plush double coat and wolf like markings. Even though he has a stocky build like a frieght dog, he has hard muscle tone like a hound dog. Hard ripling muscles. His hidquarters are almost like a pit bull. This is his normal build even without conditioning. But conditioning muscles him up more. He is also a pretty fast smooth runner. His angulation is pretty good in the rear and his shoulders and not as well angulated. He has a very bold energetic outgoing personality.

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This is Ruger, even though he is an alaskan husky, and all alaskan huskies have some hound blood in the background, I am hard pressed to see any of it in him. He has a thick warm double coat. He has stiff upright ears, he is not particularly fast, though an honest hard worker. He is as strong as an ox but the quality of his muscle tone is different, more like a siberian, not pumped up like a hound dogs muscle.
I have never heard him bark and when he howls he sounds just like a wolf. He has heavy jaw muscles and strong teeth. His natural gait is a rolling "pace".

To me he looks like the original alaskan husky back when they were used not for racing but for carrying mail and running traplines, there are a few details I think are more refined though, he is small, only 55 lbs compared to these "mail dog" type dogs, and his bone structure is more refined and he has a sloping croup and a low tailset. He resembles a lot of iditarod dogs back in the eighties I think.
He is a really happy dog, very hardy and easy to care for, he wolfs all his food down
Tough feet and never had an injury.

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Here is Doppler. I have no idea of his background, but he is from Ross Adams.
He is my second fastest dog. He has hard hound muscle tone too and a short coat. He has a very deep narrow ribcage. This is a dog that is very easy to train, he is very sensitive and eager to please. I run him in lead with Jack butb they are total opposites. In some ways he reminds me of a siberian husky but is also very greyhound like. He is very agile and sure footed with really quick reflexes.

None of these dogs are really anything alike other than they are all sled dogs. They all have different builds, personalities and abilities, and I find I am learning alot from them.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

JJ is a still a "good boy"...

...Even though she is a girl. I ran the dogs on my little track today, and found myself calling good boy to all the dogs now and then for encouragement. I ran Doppler, Jack, in lead and JJ and Cruiser in wheel. I think JJ didn't mind being called a good boy.
They all did well. Doppler is to the point that he knows commands and when he wants to go the way he wants to go instead of the way I want him to go, I know.
Where he wants to go is up the logging road on a 12 mile run and not just around in circles on my 40 acres. The problem is the sled is in bad shape. But it's good for little runs around the track. This is what I will be doing as winter winds down and the snow goes away. Its a good time to work on training.
Tuesday, I will be going to Duluth to visit the Steads. They are a couple that are well known siberian husky breeders and racers. That should be a lot of fun. I am especially interested in taking a look at some of their kodiak line siberian huskies.
They said they still have plent of snow and will take me out on a run. Should be fun.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Understanding Fir

We had a warm spell and a lot of the snow melted and then we had a cold snap and now a lot of the standing water turned to ice. So most of my trails are composed of ice and bare patches of frozen mud. Not the greatest conditions for sledding, though I might still take the dogs out. My sled is getting trashed. It was a cheap sled to begin with and I have pretty much knocked the tar out of it. It flexes like a sprint sled, even though it is a stiff unflexible toboggan. Its a Tobogan built from a kit that can be purchased online for $ 250.00 then shipped and assembled. I bought it when I bought my dog trailer. The owner of the trailer didn't know who made it but I did. She was selling it for $300.00 and it was several years old. I tried to explain to her that it is only worth about $100.00 but at the time no one was selling any sleds online for that cheap that I knew of, so I bought it for $200.00. It may have been worth 100.00 but that doesn't mean I could get one for that much at that time. It came with one extra runner plastic. I have used that and now one other runner has worn down to the metal and I am tempted to order some new runner plastic, but wonder if the snow will last long enough for me to get it. With my luck I will sit around for a few weeks waiting for it to arrive and then once all the snow is melted the runner plastic will arrive.

So I have decided to run until my sled gets destroyed and then that will be the end of the season for me and next spring I will get a new sled.

So anyway, I decided to walk Fir today, on a leash. I have a special leash that hooks
one line to the collar and one line that I hook up to a harness that I put on the dog. That way he can pull hard on the leash, like sled dogs do, and not throttle himself. The pressure is spread out by the harness just like if he was pulling a sled.

Fir is a dog that has not been run much at all this winter. He is a dog I got from Karen Land, along with Doppler and Fir. Fir led 500 miles or so of her iditarod team last year.

I can't relate to this dog. I basically bought him becsause he was a trained lead dog, but I never could get him to lead for me and then early in the season he got in a fight with Ruger and sprained his ankle, for month he limped and hopped around but now seems to be fully recovered, but I just have not run him.

He has kind of an odd personality. He is very hyper and a little skittish. He is affectionate, but petting him makes him more hyper and bark more. Usually a dog will bark to get you to pet him and then when you pet him he will stop and let you pet him.
Fir barks more after you pet him and then gets more riled up while you are petting him. He has a little wiry grey hound like body and a short harsh coat. He sems to have mostly wiry guard hairs and not much undercoat, so when you pet him you feel mostly rough feeling hair, hard muscle and bone, plus he won't hold still and has this annoying bark. So really this is the only way I have interacted with this dog all winter, that is, by petting him, and even that is not enjoyable. Before he got injured, he wouldn't listen to commands from me at all. I was running him with JJ and he picked right up on her turning around habit, but never helped reinforce her when she was listrening to commands. Sometimes one lead dog will be a little confused and then the other will pull or nudge the other dog in the right direction. Fir didn't do that. He also requires more food than all my other dogs even when not being run.

So basically, I have this dog I don't particularly like, then he got injured. Now he's OK but hasn't been run all season. So basically selling him would be very hard.

People don't flock to newbies running dogs their first year to buy dogs, especially if the dog has other features going against it like just coming off an injury.

Another ironic thing is that most mushers, at least racers, value speed above almost everything else and this dog is very fast. Probably the fastest dog I have. He is also a decent worker.

Maybe some racers would think I have romantic unrealistic notions of what a sled dog should be, But I figure why not have dogs I like? They are my dogs. I am the one running them and caring for them.

So I walked Fir today to see if I could get to know him, understand him and bond with him a little. Nothing.

I can't figure him out and the more time I spend with him the more he bugs me.
I just don't like hyper active skittish little greyhound like alaskan huskies. I was thinking about my other dogs and why I like them, because of this.

My two favorites are Ruger and Jack. Two pretty old fashioned type dogs. Tough dogs, yet very outgoing and friendly. They also look like huskies not like a saluki or some type of hound. They are energetic but not what I would call skitish. They don't have little twig like bones. Everything about them is tough and durable. They don't have a bird like metabolism and a short coat requiring tons of food.

Basically what they are are siberian huskies. Those are the main characteristics about them that stand out. They aren't pure bred of AKC registered but what I like about siberian huskies I like about them.

So at least I know what I like. Probably the next dog I buy will be a siberian husky, which won't be for a while.

What I should do with Fir is run him next year get him in shape race some races with him and then try to sell him. It's not his fault, I don't like him. And now that I own him I have responsibility towards him to take good care of him.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Strix Nebulosa!

I went on a 12 miler today. The logging road got covered with snow and the loggers were gone. So I figured I would take five of the dogs out on a 12 miler on the usual route I had been using before I built my training course. I have really been proud of Doppler and Jack. They have been learning so well. I thought I would reward them and myself with a nice long run, giving us a chance to see some scenerey. It was a beautiful clear day today.

I hooked Jack and Doppler first and they held the line out, standing in place like little troopers, while I went and hooked the other three dogs up one at a time. I put Cruiser in point right behind the leaders, there by himself. Next I hooked up JJ and Ruger in Wheel. They are a really good pair in wheel, steady seasoned hard pulling veterans.

As we took off I was fiddling with the snow hook and not paying attention, and Doppler and Jack hung a right onto the training trail through the pine plantatation, as far as they knew it was just another training run. So I called "Good Gee" not letting on that I was goofing off and not paying attention (It's good for an officer to maintain an a good example to the troops).
I figured we would run a few loops of the training trail to brush up on commands since the dogs hadn't been run over the weekend. They executed very well. There was hesitation on one turn but after I stood on the break a few seconds they soon sorted things out and were off in the right direction.

Then we took off up the logging road. I had 80 lbs of salt in the sled and stood on the runners up the hill. I wanted to give them a good work out. Everyone was working really hard and running smoothly. I am impressed with cruise especially, he is always pulling his butt of and straining in harness. Great work ethic for a yearling.

Well we crossed the intersection, and headed into the Wildlife management area after passing through a section of snowless gravel (wreaking havoc on my runners).

Doppler did somthing that really annoyed me. He tried to dart off the trail after a snowshoe hare. But at the sound of my voice he stopped that foolishness. A little farther down the trail, I noticed Doppler wasn't the only would be predator looking out for game, On a branch above the trail we saw a Strix Nebulosa! Great Grey Owl!
What an awesome sight! It was enormous. The largest Owl in North America, bigger than a great horned owl! It looked bigger than a bald Eagle in the Body. It turned its hear around 180 degrees following our trajectory as we passed under it and down the trail. It had a magnificent presence about it. These are Super predators and very rare. I was really blessed to see one out here.

The dogs picked up on my excitement and sped down the trail. They didn't miss any turns and part of the trail was blown over. We hadn't been here in a month, and part of the trail runs adjacent to an open feild was totally obliterated by drifting snow. It apeared as though I was asking them to head out into an open field. Jack hesitated at first, but Doppler charged right a head orienting self as if by memory. I was very impressed. We ran about a mile of this obliterated trail through the open feild and then came to the familiar opening in the trees, there we picked up a snow mobile track carved into deep snow on the dirt road. WE then followed that to the main gravel road and then I guided the leaders into a 360 at the intersection and then headed back the same way.

The only criticism I have with Doppler at this point is that he slacked off with the pulling on the way back at times when the going got slow, but he seems to have some really amazing trail sense. He also seems very in tuned with his environment. At times some coyote tracks would come onto the trail and Doppler would be very interested in their scent, but when they veered off into the woods he knew enough to jeep moving ahead.

When we got back, Doppler and Jack still wanted to turn off into my pine plantation and run some more loops around the training trail. They did this just as we were approaching the dog yard even though I called out "on by" Ruger and JJ would have none of this and but the breaks on and helped stop them so I could face them the right way. Even though they had missed the last turn on a nearly perfect run I was impressed with their boundless energy and enthusiasm.

It is a good feeling reaping the fruit of our labor this winter with an nearly seamless run on a beautiful day. What my two leaders need now is some conditioning and hardening of muscles, basically just miles on the trail and I think we will be ready to race mid distance next year. With some goof fall training and some more reinforcement of commands and some new training situations we will be ready. I also want to go on some winter camping trips.


During this last, Yukon Quest sled dog race, there were two mushers I was rooting for most of all. They were Blake Freking and John Schandelmeier.
This is because of the values I believe they represented. The value of doing more with the dogs you have.

There at one time was a conventional wisdom, that in order to win, what is needed is an enormous pool of dogs, with several litters produced a year, in hopes of whittling down from this pool, the best 15 dogs or so to put together a team. Breeding and putting together 100, 200 or more dogs. Culling all but the best.

By culling I don't neccessarily mean, euthenizing dogs, though historically this is what happened. I think it happens less and less, but even if dogs are passed on to beginning mushers or even pet owners, there is a glut of dogs created. Too many unwanted dogs.

I think this problem is exacerbated by multi-generational expirimental breeding programs. For example buying a pure bred greyhound or pointer, with the hopes of producing a cracjerjack team, three generations down the road. What generally happens is the first generation cross is hit or miss, a few stars created and other dogs that are worthless as sled dogs. Then the second generation will have more success. For anything other than a sprint race though, you need a quarter or less hound dog.

So really what justifies bring all these unwanted dogs into the world? Winning a race? For Sprint racing, this approach has had the most success. Today, the top sprint teams resemble hound dogs more than huskies. It is truly amazing what these dogs can do. They reach new heights of speed and endurance every year. These however are very specialized dogs. Sprint racing is a very specialized format that varies greatly from other forms of mushing like winter camping, expeditions and even long distance racing.

How this effects distance racing is that distance races are above all a race, and people want fast dogs. So commonly what mushers do is incorporate the best sprint dogs into their breeding programs and produce houndier faster dogs. These dogs also need more care on the trail. They aren't as naturally suited to the rigors of traveling long distances and sleeping out in the snow. They need coats to keep them warm and heating pads and blankets when they sleep. Their feet are not as tough and many need to wear booties for the entire duration of the race.

The trade off is the hope that this extra care won't take away from the superior speed of the dogs.

A different approach is to breed faster siberian huskies. This is Blake Freking's approach and the approach of the mushers that mentored and came before him.
Careful long term breeding programs. Not massive breeding programs, but litters that produce a higher success rate of good dogs. Dogs that are bred tightly, have less variation and more predictability. These dogs all have good coats and feet and sled dog ability. This will get passed off to their offspring.
Over time, testing breeding stock in harness and only breeding proven dogs, there is an increase in quality of dogs.
Also siberian husky mushers have not as many dogs to choose from, there are few racing quality siberians out there, and the ones available are expensive. The cost comes from various genetic tests that are done as well as the AKC registraition costs. In addition to that the dogs have great aesthetic appeal with their natural beauty. Also there is not an expectation of overnight success in breeding siberians.
The results of breeding two relatively fast siberians will not be as great as breeding a husky to a saluki for example. So a competitive racer will focus on training and conditioning to bring out the best in their dogs.

Now John Schandelmeier, is not a siberian racer. He races rescue dogs. Alaskan huskies that were dropped from other teams. He started a program called the "second chance league" he hopes to pass on the idea that all dogs deserve a second chance.
That dog you are thinking of cutting from your team might just need a second chance. A little more training, might bring out its ability.

The idea of "throw away" dogs is what he is fighting. This is a problem with all dogs not just sled dogs.

There are no doubt other mushers with these same values. Many mushers can be sucessful with small kennels and limited breeding programs aimed at the highest return and percentage of success. Also there is no doubt, that many of these mushers with huge breeding programs expirimenting with other breeds have improved the athletic performance of the alaskan husky sled dog. I just think that perhaps there is a little too much focus on exciting new crosses, and achieving success by the large multi generational breeding programs involved. . I think there can be aproaches to winning that rely more on training what you have and bringing out the best in them. Not cutting dogs every year and buying more dogs to get an competitive edge, but spending more time in training, perfecting the dogs you already have.