Been receiving some pressure for another blurb (cough cough you know who you are) so coming at you live (not true) with another half baked attempt at explaining what I’ve been doing lately. My phone is a long list of unanswered texts or conversations that I started but forgot to keep going because well frankly I’m a jerk. A jerk that’s having more fun than is reasonable and knows she’s being a jerk but a jerk nonetheless. To all of you wondering “how’s Alaska?” I hope this gives you an idea.
It really bites waiting so long to write this because there is a lot to explain. If you’ve never been in a dog yard, read this part. Yes, there is a ton of crap. Yes, the other staff and I (there are four of us) scoop 70 dogs at least 3x a day. Yes, I like doing it (wait, what?). Scooping requires you to interact with every single dog. It’s the best time to teach them to pay attention to me and what I want. I believe how well you do this follows you outside the kennel and helps you on the trail. The kennel is set up in rows of dog houses with each dog on a 3 ft swivel chain close enough for the dogs to interact but not start trouble. This perturbs people sometimes. Why not have all the dogs free range in a fence? If we wanted a college frat party on our hands, sure why not? What I’m getting at is the dogs are on chains because we can make sure everyone gets a fair meal, prevent a fight between dogs still intact, and avoid accidental breeding. It also allows us to move quickly and interact with each dog individually. It’s mikes goal to exercise every dog once a day. Some days it happens, some days it’s too hot, some days something else comes up. But, dogs that didn’t run today are first on the list tomorrow. The main difference between these dogs and your dog is these dogs are bred to be athletes. Mike likes speed, drive and willingness to please. Consequently, these dogs are more energetic and forward driven than most companion dogs. Secondly there are 70 of them. This creates an entirely different dynamic than the environment between you and your pup on the couch.
Next, let me explain what I generally do. In the summer, mike does Iditarod kennel tours. Folks on big cruise lines hold a puppy, learn about the Alaskan husky while watching us hook up a team and mike leave for a run and return. A second presentation in the theater building that mike has built (sidenote: he’s built nearly every structure on the property besides the original house which he jacked up and rolled 40 foot on to a new foundation) goes into detail about the Iditarod. We have between 1-3 of these a day. In the morning, I snack dogs on the thin side, scoop, water, and then go into the puppy pen to feed the puppies. We have 13 from two litters and are expecting 4 more litters before the summer is over. I handle each one; their paws, tails, ears, body, head. I give them a good scratch. I coo how cute they are, what good puppies they are, la te dah. Shortly after, I help harness and hook up a team on the ATV. One of the teams (mostly 2-3 year olds), I drive and Thomas goes with. The other Thomas drives and I go with. If it’s a cool day I hook up the UTV, we put on a 12 dog gangline and we hook the pups of the year up, mike drives them. Should we have a tour we hook up a more veteran team with some of the younger dogs mike thinks are ready to go with the big guys. At three we feed, water, and scoop again. Some of the pups of the year I work with individually. It’s easy for them to get intimidated going to the gang line. If you imagine the noise of a metal head banging rave hybrid concert, you’d be getting close to the chaos of the dog yard when we start hooking dogs up. Every dog is running circles, barking, jumping, snapping, wanting to get put on the line. The easiest way to prevent young dogs from balking is repetition of a positive experience. So I’ll take one at a time, put them in harness, hook on a leash and take them to where we hook up and run them in and out of the yard. I get them used to things they’ll be seeing on the trail for the first time like the river that’s no longer frozen, the rutted muddy ground that’s no longer hard. I like this one on one time with them off-chain. There are a few dogs I initially found really annoying, but completely changed my mind about after I ran them a few times.
Summer in Alaska, has no snow. Thus we run the dogs with the ATV. Long distance mushing doesn’t require the dogs to pull a ton. It’s not a weightlifting competition, it’s a marathon, so when we run them we maneuver the four wheeler to keep them from pulling excessively and teach them to run around 10 mph steadily. Certainly, we use the brakes to slow them down because they will go much faster if allowed. It’s mostly straightforward, ‘Gee’ is right, ‘Haw’ is left, ‘Woah’ to stop, ‘Easy’ to slow. Experience makes all the difference. It is the half second too early or too late that you give a command that matters. It’s anticipating what the goofball is gonna do. Seeing your leaders tire or lose focus. Knowing what’s a normal gait for each dog. The hardest part about it is learning to observe all these things at once while operating the machine in as smooth a way as possible. Can I ease up when the leaders are going up a hill and then give it enough to get me up the hill without losing speed? Can I accelerate steadily around a turn and swing wide enough to keep the dogs out of the bushes and not be late on the turn command for the immediate left? We only run them a few miles in the summer and always take them through a river crossing if it’s hot. As fall rolls around, the game changes completely and they run much longer distances. Between September and March (the start of the Iditarod) they will have run roughly 4,000 miles.