What do the dogs do in the summer?

It's important that the dogs remain in shape year round to avoid fluctuations in their physical abilities -- which ultimately reduces the risk of injuries during exercise.  But with the summer months being so warm, and there obviously being no snow, how do we keep the dogs in shape?

 

We provide a number of activities for the dogs to help keep them stimulated both physically and mentally.  Since Siberian Huskies are known to be a breed of devious behaviours, mental stimulation is just as important as (and some times more than) physical stimulation.  We always try to avoid the hottest parts of the day when the dogs are engaging in activities, to avoid them over-heating.  So most activites are done before noon hour and/or after 4 pm; except in the case of swimming, which is done during the afternoon.

 

Free run time provides both.  The dogs are allowed the chance to run loose together with a few of their buddies and interact as dogs -- just like an off-leash park, except that they're in a fenced enclosure.  This allows the dogs to stretch their muscles out, run, fetch, play, dig, jump, and do anything else that they fancy.  But at the same time, with the addition of other dogs in their space and around their toys, the need for tolerance, patience, and obedience becomes necessary.  No, we don't let loose dogs that we know absolutely do not like each other.  That would be setting them up for failure.  But we do make sure to challenge the dogs by providing them with new play mates, new toys, and new situations where they have to learn to share and get along.

 

On an individual basis, we practise rally and agility courses with the dogs.  Rally is a course of 'stations' set up, where at each station to have to perform a task that relies heavily on basic - advanced obedience concepts.  The level of obedience we do at each station is normally relative to each specific dog's training level.  This is an excellent way to re-inforce and teach basic obedience in a fun and mentally-engaging environment.  Agility is a course of obstacles set up that challenges the dog to move quickly on its feet, respond to verbal and visual hand signals, and stretch/exercise all muscles of their body in a physically and mentally challenging state.  We consider agility to be a step up from rally and can only successfully do a complete course with a select few.

 

In small groups, we take the dogs swimming at the lake.  We usually go to a more private area so the dogs are not distracted by too many people.  Many of the dogs, surprisingly, actually enjoy swimming, and go out quite deep.  Others, not so keen of the idea of getting wet, will just wade as deep as their stomachs.  Still, this provides the dogs with a day out, the opportunity to swim and wade, and a warm summer afternoon to frolick and play.

 

We also do cani-cross with the dogs.  Cani-cross is cross-country running with a dog.  The dog runs in harness, while attached to a long leash that is attached to a belt around the runner.  We normally only do this activity in the early mornings or late evenings as it's purely a physical activity for the dogs.  There's little mental stimulation in it, as it's really just playing on their natural instinct to run.

 

Ensuring that the dogs are both mentally and physically stimulated through out the year is important to avoid injuries to the dogs and keeping them out of trouble!

What is 'Soup'?

Soup, slump, mush, mash, gravy, stew.  So many words, one simple explanation.  What is soup?  Keeping the dogs hydrated in the summer time is easy: leave out a bowl of fresh water everyday and the dog will drink when it needs it. 

 

But what about in the winter?  With temperatures so cold, we couldn't possibly leave water out full time and expect:

  • a) it to last all day in liquid form; and
  • b) for the dogs to want an icecold tasteless drink. 
  •  

Can't they just eat snow?  No, relying on the dogs to gain all of their hydration from the snow is not a healthy or humane option.  The dogs can burn a lot of calories in the process of melting the snow, warming it to body temperature, and then absorbing it (which will actually reinforce the body's need for MORE hydration).  These precious calories can be better put to use to keep the dog warm, to encourage a healthy appetite, and to spend out on the trails.  Besides, would you eat an ice cream or popsicle when you're standing outside at -20?

 

So how do we keep the dogs hydrated in the winter time?  By providing scheduled watering sessions through out the day incorporated into their daily routine.  This is what 'soup' and 'souping' is.  The water should be warm for easy absorbtion, well-flavoured to encourage the dogs to drink it when it's provided, and normally includes added vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and pre/post exercise shock reducers.  The general rule is that each dog requires 1 litre of water each day; just as humans require 8 cups of water each day (2 litres).  But this rule applied to a dog that is not living outdoors, is not spending calories to keep warm, and is not working at an athlete's level.  An olympic athlete drinks much more than the average human, and the olympic athlete understands the many benefits to being well-hydrated before, during, and after exercise.

 

The same principle applies to our canine athletes.  The dogs at M.U.S.H.E.R.S. are souped a minimum of 2 hours before morning exercise, between each tour, after tours, and (on really cold nights or after a tough day) again before bed.  Each of our souping sessions provides the dogs with 1 litre of water.  So on any given day of work, the dogs are drinking in excess of 4 litres of water!  We flavour our water with meat dust (created when we run the dogs meat through the saw -- similar to saw dust from wood), an electrolyte, eggs and egg shells, bacon grease (always a favourite), and water from our boiled vegetables.

 

Ensuring proper hydration provides the following benefits to the dogs:

  • increased stamina and endurance
  • increased muscle development
  • increased joint movement
  • decreased muscle strains/sprains
  • decreased risk of injury
  • decreased risk of post-exercise shock within the immune and digestive systems

 

So what is soup?  Just one of the most important ingredients in a healthy and exuberant sled dog!!!

Our Trails

When we first purchased our property, there was little more than 2 km of usable trails through out, and a number of them had been grown over.  Over the last decade, we have spent countless hours increasing our trail base.  Luckily, during this time, we were able to find a number of trails that had been put in years ago and had grown over to thick that they were barely visible.  Opening these up had increased our trail base to about double.  But as of right now, we operate on over 10 km of trails.  Every year that number changes, as we find and open up new trails.

 

Our trails run over a variety of terrain from sand, to bed rock, to marshlands, to flatlands and hill tops.  This variety provides the gentle relaxation of dog sledding to our more nervous participants and the exciting 'whoo' factor for the dare devils!  Our longest trail, from start to finish, is 1.6 km; while our shortest trail is about 200 meters.  Our intricate trail system provides many trail loop options that are ideal for our tours as we can customize the tour path based on the capabilities of our participants.

 

We are currently contemplating the option of adding additional trails scattered through out the property.  Some of these trails may be used full time, while others may be used as small connectors between larger trails or for the more experienced drivers.  Since trail work is a big job, sometimes the start or completion of a new trail can take a number of years.

 

Grooming is completed with our snow machine and a drag-behind, home made groomer.  The groomer is made of 2X6 wooden planks, is over 8 feet long and approimately 4 feet wide; and has a large metal blade that cuts off the top layer of the trail.  Grooming the trails can get tricky and complicated, depending on: (1) current snow conditions and temperature at the time of grooming; (2) expected snow conditions and temperatures of the upcoming 24 - 48 hours; (3) the depth of the snow base on the trails; (4) and a few other smaller factors.  There are occassions when we use one of two other smaller and lighter groomers.  To completely groom all of the trails, on an average winter day, can take approximately 20 - 30 minutes; and almost twice that long when grooming in heavy snow and/or wet conditions!

Dog Houses

As many of you may already know, and for those of you who don't, the dogs sleep outdoors full time.  Many are shocked to learn that the large white plastic barrels are actually the dogs' houses!  It has been common practise in the world of mushing to use plastic barrels for houses as opposed to the standard stick-frame built wooden castles found for your average pet.  But which is better?

 

The answer to this question is not entirely clear, as better is a relative term to the intended use and goals of the musher.  In the last ten years, we have tried a number of different housing options for our dogs and have come up with a number of pros and cons for each.  Of course, this is normal with any practise; and so the choice to use plastic vs. wooden dog houses comes down to individual preferences.

 

Let's take a look at the houses we originally used: stick-frame built out of wood.  These houses were 4 feet long, two feet wide and two feet high.  Inside was a divider wall at the half way point to create this house into a home for 2; thus furthering the matierals and providing a smaller space to keep the dogs more comfortable in the winter. The flat roof provided an excellent tanning bed for the dogs during the day time, while the 1-2 inches of overhang on each side prevented rain and snow from getting in. The roof was also on hinges, to allow us to clean the houses, remove old bedding, and provide fresh bedding.  On average, these houses were only about $20 each to build and were physically and visually appealing in the kennel.  We stained them dark brown the first year, and then decided to paint them bright blue.  They were attractive.  We then put them on a raised base made from pallets.  The raised portion provided shade underneath.  But with the dogs jumping on and off of them so often (as the flat roof was an extremely popular aspect), the frames would wiggle loose.  We then found, that even with drain holes in the bottom, the bedding was freezing to the floor of the house in colder temperatures; thus creating an uncomfortable and unsanitary environment for the dogs -- particularly on warmer days when the damp underlaying of bedding would begin to decompose!  This moisture also caused the wood to begin to rot, requiring repairs to the house.

 

So from here, we moved to straw bale housing.  We purchased a number of straw bales and stacked them together to create a house that was as wide and long as one bale.  The design was very much the same as the wooden houses, where by a center divider wall created two houses instead of one.  The bales were pinned together and a sheet of plywood was placed on top to create another canine tanning bed.  These houses were actually incredibly well-insulated (as we all know straw is), and were warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  They were nearly entirely air tight along the walls and seams, thus preventing wind and rain from getting in.  Before we set up enough of these for the whole kennel, we built just a few on some of the older dogs to test the theory.  They worked great!  Until we used them for our younger and more energetic dogs.... who thought it would be a great idea to tear the bales apart with their teeth and paws!  SO scratch that idea!

 

We then tried the barrels.  Most mushers lie the barrel down and cut the end off of it to provide an opening.  We've actually done things a little bit differently.  We have them laying on their sides, but have cut a 12 inch square along the length of it to provide the door.  This door is at the halfway point of the barrel, because we actually use our barrels in two ways depending on the season.  The barrels have a wooden frame built around them to keep them from rolling away and are elevated off the ground by a pallet.  A sheet of plywood is placed on top to provide the ever-so-famous tanning beds.  When it is warm out, the barrel is on its side.  This provides the dogs with ample space to spread out within their house and allows up about 6 inches of bedding height before it starts to fall out of the door.  But during the winter, the barrels are stood up on one end and anchored down to the pallet.  Now, we have about 12 inches of bedding height and the dogs curl up inside of their houses.  This method keeps them warmer.  The drain holes in the barrels work perfectly, the bedding rarely gets wet, and it never freezes!  It is easy to remove the old bedding, even easier to add fresh bedding, and several times a year the barrels are completely emptied and sterilized using apple cider vinegar and a garden hose!

Why Huskies?

Dog sledding now takes on many shapes and sizes, with so many different breeds participating in a number of variations of sledding.  With so many variations and options, we're often asked why we use huskies for sledding (even though we do have a few other breeds).  Our answer always relates back to the history of the Siberian Husky.

 

The Siberian Husky, originating from Siberia, was a breed that was selectively bred for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the dogs needed to be strong and self sufficient.  Since the tribes were incapable of providing for the dogs, the dogs had to provide for themselves; living off the land and developing an exceptional prey drive.  Hunting sessions could be far and few between in the winter months, with no guarantees of a kill, so the dogs therefore needed to be able to able to survive off the least amount of food.  The tribes often moved their camps according to seasonal and weather patterns, and the dogs were relied upon to assit in the relocation by pulling the gear on toboggans.

 

Additionally, on extremely cold nights, the dogs were bought indoors in the camp to keep the smaller children warm.  This meant that the dogs had to be very friendly and could be trusted to get along amongst each other and with all manner of people.  Aggression was diminished through out the breed to discourage any accidents happening within the pack and amongst the tribe members; mean while the pack tendencies were increased to ensure surivival of each of its members.

 

Lastly, the dogs had self-sufficient adaptations that would allow them to be comfortable in a variation of weather conditions.  Their outer fur layer (called guard hairs) are a protective layer of fur coated with oils the deters dirt and moisture from accessing the insulating layer of fur.  This layer also protects against wind, rain and snow.  The inner layer, much like the down feathers of a goose, are an insulation layer that provides warmth in the harshest conditions.  The husky grows long hair in between its toes to protect the pads of its feet, and has short ears to reduce the risk of frost bite to them.  One of the most interesting things about the husky's insulation layer is that they have the ability to shed (blow their coat) the insulation layer as the temperatures warm up to help regulate and maintain their body temperature in fluctuating weather.

 

So we choose to run huskies because we live in Northern Ontario where the winters are cold and the summers are hot; where the spring is wet and the fall has a variety of weather conditions.  We run tours with a variety of human personalities, so we need to have friendly and personable dogs.  We accept a lot of rescue dogs into our kennel, therefore, the dogs that we do have must be friendly and accepting of new members of the pack.  And lastly, the Husky is an intelligent and comical breed that brings a lot of joy and happiness to our lives ... and we want to share it with you!