Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some Of The Most Common Myths Within The Sled Dog World

In my 20+ years of living, training and racing with sled dogs, I have met many different dog mushers and heard and seen many different methods and philosophies regarding feeding, training, and taking care of sled dogs.

Many of these methods and beliefs did not make sense to me when I was a beginner, and truth to be told, they make even less sense to me now, after years of experience.
I just never could quite figure out why would one wanna believe in something that clearly does not benefit the dogs, their health, happiness or performance.

After trying different methods, usually choosing a natural approach to my dogs, based on common sense and intuition mostly, and after following and learning from professional, dedicated and successful mushers, seeing them doing often the exact opposite of the beliefs that never seemed to make sense to me, I realized that there are simply many myths and misconceptions and many folks who chose to believe in them without trying doing something else.

So I have decided to write about a few of the most common myths and why they are myths.

1. If you train your dog as a sled dog, he should not be doing anything else (other activities)

The opposite is the truth. The wider range of activities you engage your dog(s) in, the better. The dogs will benefit tremendously from different experiences, and from doing different things with their team mates, their pack and – you.
It helps to create a stronger, tighter bond, which is the key for success and harmony.

The dogs will be more relaxed and less stressed not only with each other, but also with different situations they will learn about during those different activities. If they go for regular walks where they can meet other dogs (of other shapes, colors and sizes), they will be more social and won´t get surprised when they meet such a dog on the race/training trail. If they meet horses or other animals, people, traffic, same thing.

Different activities can help build the dog’s confidence. This can be extremely important with dogs who are born a bit timid or are shy for different reasons. Activities such as agility or hiking trips through various terrain are ideal for confidence building.

Clicker training can tremendously help strengthening the bond between you and the dogs, and will teach them self control (which is another crucial aspect for a sled dog, especially living in a larger pack), self awareness, and will broaden their „horizons“. I can report an amazing development of a sled dog, who, since puppyhood had been trained with clicker and introduced to multiple activities. The more, the better!

2. If you want your dogs to perform better and run faster, you should not let them run loose around, but keep them in kennels.

Everyone who does some kind of sport knows, that every athlete - human, equine or canine, will benefit tremendously from different stretching methods. That stretching will help against lactic acid build up in the muscles after a workout, that without moving, warming up and stretching before and after any kind of performance, the body is much more prone to injuries our muscles will get stiff and further exercise will be painful.

Relaxed body with loosened up muscles will allow the athlete run faster for a longer period of time and thus increase performance, instead the opposite believed in this myth, that the dogs will be short of energy, if they are let out to stretch, run, play and warm up. Regular free movement, playing and natural stretching will help increase performance, help maintain the muscles in top condition and make the dogs happier too!

Top world class mushers, either in sprint or distance racing sphere know this and let their dogs out of their pens or tethers, to run and play around the dog yard, where the dogs do a natural „active“ stretching, naturally warming themselves up for the upcoming performance, be it a training run or  a race.
It is equally as important to do so after their work, so they can loosen up and stretch out the bodies that worked for many hours, or performed at the top speed, preventing the lactic acid build up in their muscles and very importantly – preventing stiffening. Another important factor is that after a performance (especially after an extra tough one), if one´s planning a day off for the canine athletes, this day should not be spent just laying around in their houses, but a short, effective active stretching (and the best form is to let them run around loose and play) is in place. Many dedicated mushers also perform “passive stretching” and massage on their dogs and often get a professional chiropractor visit their kennel and work with their A-team before and after big races.

It of course all makes sense: Just try to sit all day long in the office, and then, without any warm up, go directly for a 5km run, then get back to your office chair. How does it feel?

Some mushers do not let their dogs run and play and naturally stretch out not because they are lazy, but out of fear that their animal athletes can sustain an injury, such as strains, sprains, fractures, etc. I have experienced this similarity among horse people. Fearing their show jumping or dressage horses will hurt themselves before a competition, many owners and riders won´t let the horses out in a corral or pasture, or even for a trail ride in the nature. But the truth is, that beside this being quite unethical (maintaining an artificial life for the racing animal, who is first and foremost an animal and needs to have contact with nature), horses and dogs that are being “protected” like this are the ones most prone to injuries.

The opportunity to walk and run over all sorts of natural obstacles and experiencing different terrain roughness helps their coordination, strengthens their ligaments and muscles and thus makes them tougher and less prone to injuries.

Yes, injuries do happen, weather it is on a race or training trail, or at home in the dog yard or on a walk. Dogs are animals, mushing is a natural sport and “things” can happen. But we have to realize that we are working with live beings and their quality of life, health and happiness are our top priority. They are not a treasured sports equipment that helps us get yet another medal, but treasured friends and partners whom we should respect and provide what they need, to our best ability and possibilities.

3. Taking sled dogs for walks will destroy them as sled and pulling dogs

This is one of the most ridiculous statements I´ve ever heard. Dogs are not stupid. Since they can learn that leash and walk are not work (and can be taught to not pull on a collar), they also know when it´s about pulling and work. They get so over excited about their upcoming run, once they are hooked up in the team, that their natural instincts take over and all they wanna do is run and pull. You can never take out the desire for this passion they are born with, away from them, by taking them for walks or doing other activities. My dogs run perfectly loose on dog shows on tiny string leashes, which they could break in two whenever they desire. They can come on call, when I call them out of a group of 20, in which they play. They know self control is in order, when their dinner is coming and they sit patiently waiting for their portion. But the minute we put a harness on them and start hooking up, they get crazy. The excitement of what they love, what they were genetically coded for, takes over. They will never lose it by doing other things or being taken on walks.
Again, same as in myth nr.1 and 2, these statements are often made by lazy people, not entirely dedicated to their dogs and their needs. It is so much easier to just let the dogs sit in their kennel all their life, and take them out only for a training run or for a race.

4. Sled dogs don´t make good pets/house dogs

I was quite upset when I read this in a newspaper article once. It was in connection with re-homing sled dogs from a kennel that no longer wanted/or could have them. I have also heard this from a few dog drivers, who were reluctant to make the effort to search for new homes for their retired dogs or dogs that did not fit in their team. This is very disturbing thing to say. Why? Because retired sled dogs actually can made wonderful pets!

There are hundreds of former Iditarod, or world championship sprint dogs, or dogs who worked their entire lives giving rides to tourists, who are placed each year to new homes, and together with their new owners live happy, harmonic lives.

Dogs retired from the work in dog team are often much less destructive than a puppy or an adolescent husky. They are grateful for the possibility of more comfortable life, for the possibility to sleep on the sofa, while waiting for the human to come back from work, and don´t pull the life out of you, when you take them for a walk, ski or bicycle trip.

They are social dogs, who spent their lives among other dogs, and usually adapt fast and well to the new life as a companion, even in households with other pets or small children. It is all about trying it out, talking to the dog´s previous owner about the dog´s mentality, personality, temperament and preferences, and choosing the right dog for the right home. You can always find the suitable former sled dog that will fit in your life and will make a wonderful pet. And the same way you can find a suitable, responsible and loving forever home for your retired four legged friend. You just need to give it a try.

I am preparing another article about the myths and misconceptions among sled dog breeders and buyers, regarding acquiring of adult or older dogs, about when the puppies should leave for their new homes, etc. Stay tuned! J

And finally, myth nr.5: If you want your sled dogs to be healthy, they should not be eating raw meat

I was shocked to hear this opinion from mushers, whom I thought were serious in this sport. The most common reason for this misconception seams to be the fear of bacteria in meat. Raw meat is a natural diet for the canine family for thousands of years and their organisms are perfectly „designed“ to utilize meat and all the important essential nutrients it contains. Sled dogs are the canine athletes who need loads of calories to perform at their best ability and potential, and to stay healthy throughout their entire life. Kibble (commercial dry food), no matter how advanced and specially designed for working dogs, is not enough and meat needs to be the essential part of the healthy diet for these dogs.

Be it the exhilarating spring racing or the extreme „ultra marathon“ long distance racing, pulling heavy sleds with tourists or on expeditions, sled dogs need meat and preferably raw. Raw form of meat provides the essential enzymes, which are destroyed by the cooking process and are not present in commercial dry food (unless added after the baking process, which only a very few brands do – unfortunately, none of them is available in Europe).

Dogs that run the longest race on Earth – the Iditarod could never complete those 1700km in severe weather and conditions, if they were only on commercial pet food.
Even the best dry foods contain more carbohydrates than dogs really need (and that high performing dogs can utilize as energy source). Sled dog´s body will use energy mainly from fats that need to an integral, essential part of their diet, supplemented in form of meats, fish and oils. This is supported by long time sled dog nutrition and performance studies performed by world´s best dog intuitionalists and veterinarians. All this is explained in detail in these two excellent articles:  Is  High Fat The Key To Winning Back-to-Back Distance Races? by Donna Marlor and 
Rendering Sense Into Feeding Fat by Arleigh Reynolds, PhD., DVM.

It is a well known fact, that dogs fed naturally live longer, healthier lives with less skin problems, sensitive stomachs and other issues, so typical in these „modern times“.
Many dogs with serious health conditions and diseases such as cancer, liver or kidney failure, strive and improve on natural diet, consisting partially of raw meat with specific natural supplements.

I could write about nutrition and myths connected to it, forever. But it is a topic for some other time J


Finn said...

Very informative! I am learning a lot from you!

Giacomo De Stefano said...

Thank you Katerina. Your blog is so enriching, and beautifully written too. A Gesamkunstwerk.

I am trying to learn more about the sleddog world, hoping one day to live with my dogs in the North. After a life spent living around mountains and boats. Old wooden boats.

I will ski all the length of Norway this winter and I will do it with no dog unfortunately. But I want to meet and interview mushers, and learn.
My trip is on beware.org (the project is called Man on the Snow). It is about traveling with low impact on the nature, promoting sustainable life and new and old respectful way of living on this planet, on water. Fresh, salty or frozen.

I will be honored to meet you if possible. I don't know when, and if I will make to the North, but if I ok I will write a message to you.

Best wishes

Giacomo De Stefano