Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sled Dogs
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about our sled dogs and dog mushing.
1 - How many dogs do you have ?
We currently have 44 dogs. 40 sled dogs and 4 pet dogs ( well, some of our sled dogs live inside with us and some of the pets live outside with the sled dogs, so…they’re kind of all considered as pet dogs ! ) 35 of them are active sled dogs, the other ones are retired or “semi-retired”.
2 - Do they all have a name ?
That’s one of my favorites. Any person who owns or works in a dog sledding operation hears that one every day. I never get tired of it ! Well, except of course for the serious guests who’ve done their homework before coming and read our super nice Meet the Athletes page – well done guys ! They already know that YES, of course, they do all have a name ! And yes I know all of their names. Even my 5 years old daughter knows them. And they know their own names and come when called ! No, seriously, they do. Even in the super big kennels of 200+ dogs they all have a name. Actually much easier to remember than a tag number ! And no, I never run out of ideas to pick new names for the new dogs. For each litter we pick a theme, like here we have the Salmon litter, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly litter, the Astérix and Obélix litter, the famous mushers litter, the Breakfast litter, the Alsatian culinary specialties litter…The last one was to please my Alsatian boyfriend and in-laws and some names are so long and complicated to pronounce that they’ve been shortened a bit…Can you picture yourself yelling in the middle of a snow storm, Flammekueche, gee ! Flam is a much better name. Hope I will still be allowed to eat a delicious Flammekueche after such a sacrilege !
3 - How do you recognize them all ? They all look the same !
Yes they all look the same, like all the kids in a classroom would look the same to a person who does not know them. But these dogs are as different from each other as people are. Not only are they different physically but also mentally. They all have a name, a personality, a history. They’re all special. And when you spend all of your time with them, observe them and get to know them you are struck by how similar to humans those dogs actually are. If you take the time to observe them you will find the same personalities, the same behaviors, the same patterns that you will find in a human social environment. And as you will see with the next question, if you take a closer look they actually do not look the same at all !
4 - What breed are they ? They look so different !
Our dogs are alaskan huskies, which is not a pure breed. Lots of different breeds have been used to create those incredible top athletes, and that’s why they can look so different, even in the same litter. In their lineage you can find dogs as different as traditional nordic breed like the siberian husky or alaskan malamute for the cold resistance and endurance, sighthounds like the greyhound or saluki for the speed, pointing dogs like the German or English pointers and Irish setters for the stamina, and lots of other various breeds like black labs, border collies, german shepherds, St Bernards…as well as the traditional Indian village dogs and maybe some wolf or coyote once in a while !
During the Gold Rush any kind of dog that could be used for pulling a sled was enlisted, and most of those dogs came from down south, so the focus at this time was not yet to produce the super dog that we have today. The modern alaskan husky really started being selected when they started sled dog racing in Nome, Alaska in 1908, and especially when the first Siberian Huskies were imported from Russia at the same period. Those small but very efficient dogs surprised everybody and they contributed a lot to the creation of the modern alaskan husky. Alaskan huskies are the most commonly used sled dogs in the world today, especially in racing where they far outweigh their purebred competitors.
It can be surprising for an outsider as people usually expect the big, fluffy, blue eyed postcard dog and sometimes feel sorry for those poor little dogs who look like mutts. But believe me, as soon as the dogs start showing their enthusiasm and pulling the sled and running like maniacs you will forget your reservations and those amazing dogs will inspire you nothing but awe and wonder.
The reason we have alaskan huskies and no purebred dogs like siberian or malamute is very simple, it is just the easiest dog to find here, they are everywhere and all the mushers we know here have alaskan huskies, so we got our first dogs from friends who had puppies to give away and then more dogs from other friends and we bred them and that’s how we ended up with a yard full of alaskan huskies ! They are very easy going dogs, easy to train, close to people, and they do not run away like nordic breeds tend to do. That being said, I started dog sledding back in France with Siberian Huskies and I still love those dogs. I find them much smarter than alaskan huskies and much more calm and quiet too ! One of the big difference between the purebred and the alaskan huskies is that the alaskan huskies will give you everything, while the siberian will keep energy and not give a hundred per cent. Other traditional sled dog breeds include the strong alaskan malamute who can pull very heavy loads at a slow pace, the Canadian and Greenland eskimo dogs who are still widely used by the Inuits, the gentle, fluffy and noisy Samoyed and more rare breeds like the Chinook of New England or the Hedlund Husky.
Today’s racing sled dogs vary widely depending on what type of race you want to do. Long distance racing dogs will be more husky like, while sprint racing dogs will have lots of pointer in them. They even created a breed specifically for very short distances, the greyster, a mix of German pointer and greyhound. They are a favorite for skijoring or two to four dogs sprint races. Here at Into the Wild Adventures we mostly have distance / trapline alaskan huskies but you will also notice a few short haired dogs looking like pointer/black labs, who come from sprint racing blood lines.
5 - Why are they so small / so skinny ?
People are often surprised by the size of the dogs, expecting big, sturdy 80 pounds dogs and cannot imagine that those frail looking medium size dogs will be able to pull them all day in the harsh weather and rugged terrain. Do not be fooled by appearances, as those dogs are tough as nails and you will be blown away by their strength, abilities and energy ! Our dogs average 40 to 60 pounds, with Cleo the smallest one weighing only 30 pounds and Bannock the biggest one 70 pounds. And you might notice that the biggest ones are not always the hardest workers, and the little ones tend to show increased energy to make up the difference !
Are they too skinny ? No, they are just in excellent physical condition for what they have to do, running several hours a day in front of a sled. They are actually much healthier than most house dogs. Nowadays we are more used to see overweight dogs and people and we forget what a healthy body condition is. But just picture a marathonian athlete and that’s what those dogs are, long distance running athletes. And sled dogs are definitely not starved, as one of the biggest qualities that mushers are looking for in a good sled dog is appetite. A good sled dog is a dog that will eat anything any time ! We have a few picky eaters here at the kennel and that’s really annoying and harder to put weight on on those dogs.
6 - What is the ratio of males to females ?
About fifty-fifty. It does not really matter. Depends on how many males and females are in each litter ! Both work as good and I do not have any preference. Especially since most of them are fixed.
7 - How old are they ?
Currently the youngest ones are 1 year old and the oldest ones are 11 years old, for the sled dogs. Speed the house dog is the elder at 16 years old.
8 - Do you have puppies ?
That’s another favorite. And people are always very disappointed when the answer is : no, we don’t have any puppy at the moment. Puppies are super fun, and there’s nothing like having a litter of pups, observing the mum taking care of them, seeing them growing, opening their eyes, starting walking, and playing and interacting with them. But the cute little puppies then grow bigger and bigger and become adult dogs who need lots of food, training, attention. Knowing that there can be as many as 10+ puppies in a litter and that we want to keep a reasonable number of dogs ( well, I guess lots of people would not consider 44 as a reasonable number of dogs ! ), we cannot have a new litter each year. We could of course let the dogs breed and just keep one or two pups in each litter and kill the other ones, or dump them at the shelter or get rid of them any other way, but we instead chose responsible breeding. Alaskan huskies are not a pure breed nor a rare breed and there are already more than enough of them in the territory, and finding a good home is not an easy task for such an active dog. I would hate to know that one of my pups spends his days in a crate or tied up with no interaction, or that his owners had to get rid of him when they moved ( which sadly happens quite often in the Yukon as the territory is not as dog friendly as you could expect and it’s a big challenge for a dog owner to find a place to rent that accepts dogs ). Some companies just borrow pups from other kennels for the summer season but that’s definitely not our philosophy, and I would rather explain to people why we do not have puppies at the moment, even if it means less visitors. We have a puppies only when we need to renew the dog pack and when some of the older dogs are going into retirement. And we keep all of the puppies, no matter how big the litter is. We do not condone puppy mills in any way.
9 - What is their life expectancy ?
While the oldest sled dogs we currently have are 11 yo, alaskan sled dogs can easily live to the age of 14 to 16, sometimes longer. They are some of the healthiest dogs you can find, thanks to their selection based on aptitudes instead of appearance and the lack of the genetic issues that affect some purebred dogs, and also thanks to their healthy lifestyle : lots of exercise, high quality food, life in the outdoors, and lots of mental stimulation.
10 - When do they retire ? What happens to the old dogs ?
It really depends on each dog. Our oldest dogs who are 11 are still running, not as much as the young ones of course, but they still enjoy going out for a half day. Some mushers ran the Iditarod ( a 1000 miles sled dog race in Alaska ) with 11 yo dogs, and maybe even older dogs, in their team, and finished it. But some of our younger dogs like Ash who is 9 or Sockeye who is 7 are retired because they just don’t really show any desire to work anymore and cannot keep up with the other dogs. They just let us know when it’s time to hang up their harness ! The oldies get a well deserved retirement with us, some of them will prefer to stay with the pack, some others will find a place on the couch inside the cabin or will just hang around loose. We’re also building a new oldies retirement pen that should be finished soon. Our old dogs have a spot for them at our place until the day they show us it’s time to let them go.
11 - Do you have a favorite ?
I would like to say : “No, they’re all my favorites. I love them all the same. ” But it would not be true. I do have some favorites, and some who are definitely not my favorites. Hooch, Croc, Ielo, Marius, Saber, Tally are some of my favorite. All are nice, calm, shy, cuddly and hard working dogs ( except for Saber who is not hard working at all ). Never fighting, never giving any trouble. A dog like Chinook who is completely hysterical, barks and screams like a maniac, the worst chewer I have ever seen, and doesn’t really care about me, is definitely not my favorite. Bannock is a bully and I hate him when he decides to attack a dog for no reason, but he is also my best back country lead dog, and I love him when I can rely on him to find a trail buried under deep snow or when he knows exactly where to cross a lake in the middle of a snow storm. But even if I have my favorites, I treat them all the same and I still love them all !
12 - Do you breed them yourself ? Do you sell puppies ?
Out of 40 sled dogs, 22 were born in the kennel, in 5 different litters of 1 to 8 dogs. 6 dogs were given to us as 2 or 3 months old puppies, and 12 were given to us as adult dogs. We did not buy any dog, but if you consider the cost of having them fixed, it is not that cheap at the end. All the puppies we got were from unwanted accidental breedings. 8 of the adult dogs we got came from a sprint racing kennel where they could not be competitive enough, 2 came from a tourist kennel I used to work for, and the other two from other local mushers. We do not sell any puppy or adult dog.
13 - How do you keep them from breeding ? How do you decide which dogs you breed ?
Most of our dogs are spayed or neutered. It is the best way to avoid accidental breeding and dog overpopulation. All of our 4 pets are fixed. Out of our 40 sled dogs we currently have 4 intact males and 5 intact females. ( 5 of them being 1 year old puppies as I have not decided yet which ones of them will be fixed ). Contrary to some beliefs, spaying/neutering does not alter the dogs physical abilities, stamina or motivation. Some of our best racing dogs are fixed. All our dogs are back to their normal life the day after the surgery and we never even use dog cones. We only keep intact the dogs that might be used for breeding purposes later. It costs between 300 to 400$ to have a single dog fixed so that’s a lot of money when you have 40+ dogs, but I much prefer that solution over culling puppies which happens a lot in poorly managed kennels. And not knowing who the pup’s dad is… We select the dogs who will breed based on performance, stamina, conformation, behavior and genetics. And we obviously do not keep intact males and females in the same pen so we can decide when and who will be bred !
14 - Are they friendly ? Can we pet them ?
Yes they are very friendly. Even too friendly probably, as most of them have not learnt how to behave like a well trained house dog and will jump on you to be the first one to be cuddled. Be ready to disappear beneath a flood of dogs starving for affection ! Being working dogs does not mean they should not get love and attention, they actually work much better when they’re shown affection. You’re definitely encouraged to pet them as much as you want !