Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How our Dogs learn on Iditarod - Part Three

Part One of this series talked about our sled dogs learning from their pack mates.
Part Two
talked about them learning from their experiences.
In this final post of the series: "How our Dogs learn on Iditarod - Part Three" we look a dog's most obvious educator: their musher.

Nacho and Aliy try to keep it calm at the Race Start; Olivia looks back for guidance; Chemo gets a pep talk.

Of course, a pack or a team must have a leader. In the world of dog mushing, that alpha is the musher. He or she is the pack leader. The musher makes all of the decisions for the team. The dogs expect this. No leader would ever put the decisions of the pack in the hands (or paws) of the team. That's how indecision, turmoil and arguments come about. The leader also needs to make smart decisions.

Aliy talks to Bruce Lee about her race strategy during a rest stop; The musher must take care of the dogs and they will take care of the musher.

Overall, there needs to be a complete and thorough understanding between leader and team. The biggest failure a leader could make is an unwise decision which causes the pack to loose confidence. That would be catastrophic.

This blurb is from Aliy's 2012 Trail Notes:
"This understanding consists of respect and love. It might sound cheesy but, to me, dog mushing is a fine balance between respect and love. I know what my dogs need, I know what they want, and I know what they will do for me. That’s where the respect and love come into play. I must respect their limits and abilities and only then will they continue to love me and do whatever they can to please me. I need to know exactly what I can ask from each individual dog. They are my teammates, my buddies, and the bottom line is this: their love and respect is my only mode of transportation through 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness."

At SP Kennel we have some musher guidelines:

  • Have fun. (This might sound silly and some dog mushers will surely scoff at this statement. But fun, to us, means: you stay positive, you smile and you always encourage your team. This creates an upward competitive cycle. SP Kennel is not a military Boot Camp. Our dogs were raised and trained in a positive, happy environment. Don't change this just because you are racing.)
  • Have high expectations. (Yes. We actually do want to win.)
  • Play no favoritism. (Every dog on the team can effect your race's outcome. Keep that in mind.)
  • Enforce Team rules. (During training there were rules that the team understood and expected. These need to be upheld during the race. The dogs know and respect these rules. A musher must never change the rules half way thru the race regardless of whether he or she is tired, cold or miserable. A musher must stay true to their team.)
  • Deal with problems quickly. (Bad things happen in life and certainly on the Iditarod. When there is a problem, fix it. Don't dwell on negatives. The best example of this is dropping a dog. It is never easy to leave a dog at a checkpoint, but sometimes it must be done. Out of respect for the team, make the decision and carry on. The team will be together again at SP Kennel after the race.)

All in all, there is a lot of pressure on a musher. As there should be. For goodness sake… everything comes down to the choices that he or she makes.

I was watching the Iditarod Insider videos from the 2015 race. I saw quite a few mushers mentally coming to terms with the decisions that they had made for their teams… good or bad… or wrestling with decisions that they were trying to make. I'm sure that with my true insider's perspective to the race, I had a different interpretation of some musher's strategies and race plans. But, overall it was great to watch the mental mindset of a musher during the thick of the 2015 Iditarod competition. And I will admit that I laughed outloud at a few videos, sadly some of them featuring yours truly!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Spring Kennel Clean Up

Spring in upon us in Two Rivers. The trails are mushy, the fields are muddy and the south facing slopes are dirt.
More than anything this means…

Spring clean up is here!

The first few days of snow melt always brings us grand surprises: finding treasures that were buried in the very first snow on October 4th. We try our best to deal with these surprises quickly or at least before the final spring melt. We find it is best to feed the 50 pounds of hidden turkey skins or 30 strips of beef snacks before they thaw completely. The dog dishes, feed buckets and coolers that had leftover frozen meals need to be cleaned before the thaw as well. Nothing like washing several hundred dishes at once. Anyone have a very large, commercial grade dishwasher in Two Rivers? No… that means we need to stretch the water hose out again. ('Tis the season.)

Tidbits that seem to appear out of the thawing snow pack are dog booties, hidden dog toys and chew bones. The booties need to be dried and sorted along with the 2,000 used booties that came back from the Yukon Quest and Iditarod. (That will be an ongoing summer project!) But, the dog toys and bones are happily uncovered and thoroughly enjoyed by the pooches. We hope to resupply all the dogs with fresh bones later in the spring.

Each dog house was packed full of straw throughout the winter months. This straw has since been dragged around the yard and now adds to the muck and yuck. So a full day must be put aside to rake straw and clean out houses. Dog bowls need to be checked for any winter puncture holes. It will soon be the season when water can actually be left outside and not become an instant ice cube.

(L - R) Treasures in the melting snow; Wasn't that straw supposed to be INSIDE Mac's house?; a little late in the season to use a sled for clean up.

The winter dog gear needs washing and sorting. Our dog coats, wind jackets, leggings and blankets were used a lot during the two very cold 1,000 mile races this season. A long day at the laundromat is imperative. Why not wash the musher's gear as well? Perhaps we'll even be invited back to the races next if we don't smell like an end of the season dog musher.

It is the time of the year when a dog musher wonders… is it the end of this season or the beginning of the next? Hummmmm.

The exit trail from the kennel and across the field looks different but gorgeous in the Spring.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The "Five" Pups Video

Here's a video of the Clyde and Chica puppies at 9 months old:
Five, Ernie, Ginger, Rodney and Scooby.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How big are they now?

The five puppies are 9 months old. They are sassy, fun filled and energetic.

The "Big Boys":

"Five" is the biggest fellah weighing in at 50 pounds. He has a big head, big feet and a big cuddly attitude. Five is a sweetheart and will jump in your lap should you sit down.

Five has a thick blonde coat like his dad's. His nose has a nifty pink stripe down the center.

Five was very excited when first put in harness. The first time was confusing, but he "got it" after 1/4 mile of stopping and going. Since then, Five has run in a dog team paired with Willie several times.

Five enjoys playing with rocks so he has been moved to a wooden platform just behind his Mama in the yard.

"Scooby" is no slouch, weighing in at 49 pounds. He's not quite as 'big-boned' as Five. He has a racy build and is nonstop movement.

Scooby is the glamour guy at SP Kennel. He looks like a husky and acts like a husky: pretty and proud! He spends most of his time trotting around with a bone or rawhide in his mouth.

Scooby got the concept of being a sled dog as soon as he first left the yard in a harness. After that run, his enthusiasm got the best of his manners and he chewed, jumped and basically went crazy during the next few hook ups. Scooby was paired with Izzy, a gal who can 'hold her own'. Scooby has a lot to learn about being a sled dog, but pulling hard and running are not on that list.

"Rodney" is a sensitive sweetie. He weighs in at 48 pounds although his very furry coat makes him look quite a bit bigger. He has pretty markings on his face and silly floppy ears.

Rodney also loves to chew things. His constant companion is a green-centered chew toy (now minus the green center!)

Rodney gets along with everyone. He was the strongest puppy in harness from the beginning. His eyes were straight ahead and he pulled like a pro. We were able to switch his running partners with out him even noticing so, he was paired with Nutmeg, Dutch and even his brother, Ernie.

How Big are they?
The 50 pound mark at 9 months of age is quite large for an SP Kennel dog. But, while these three boys do seem big, especially in comparison to their cousins Chipper and Sandy, they aren't quite as large as their half-brother, Mac. We couldn't find weights for Mac as a 9 month old pup but, at one year of age Mac weighed 61 pounds. At the Iditarod start in 2014, Mac weighed a whopping 71 pounds. And he looked GREAT!

The "Smaller Side" of the family:

"Ernie" is a sleek and fast little guy. He weighs in at 41 pounds and looks good! He is the spitting image of his uncle Beemer. He has a cute little button nose and a gorgeous build. He resembles the 'ChaCha' side of the family.

Ernie is high strung and likes to run. He and Ginger are best buddies in the yard and play constantly!

Ernie was a bottle rocket when he was first put in harness. There was no slowing down and certainly no stopping. He wore himself out on the first run. Ernie ran in harness paired with Chemo and his brother, Rodney, the next few training runs and calmed down just a little.

Ernie was constant movement in the garage. We were sorting post Iditarod dog booties and his nose never stopped sniffing. Can you imagine the "stories" that he smelled from 1,000 miles of Iditarod booties?

"Ginger" is sassy, loves people and is quite sure of herself. Her build is similar to her mother's: stockier and solid. Her ginger-colored coat is still a stand out in the dog yard and only Scout has a similar hue.

"My belly doesn't feel so good."; One month later: Ginger and Biscuit "play".

Ginger is 100% healthy now. She went through a phase of not eating well and then she simply stopped eating in late March. After several Veterinary consultations and extensive x-rays she underwent exploratory gastrointestinal surgery. The crew at North Pole Veterinary Hospital discovered a intestinal intussusception (more info here). They were able to remove the overlapping area, sew the intestinal back together and give her a chance to heal. Ginger is now 4 weeks post surgery and looks fantastic. This is a condition that may or may not occur again. We do not know the exact cause.

Ginger has not run in harness yet. We believe that she will heal completely and will be as excited as her brothers when Fall Training starts in September. Currently she lives right in front of the house where she is monitored closely. Her brother, Ernie, is her best buddy. She was allowed in a play pen this week and was very excited to hang out with Biscuit for much of the day. (Biscuit found her: entertaining; yet slightly annoying.)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Kids" Letters

In our busy lives and in this day and age of instant messaging, texts and emails it seems to be somewhat of a dying art to get an "old-fashioned" letter.

That is why we enjoy this time of year so much - we receive so many of these "old-fashioned" letters written by youngsters. It is truly entertaining to read their letters, look at their enclosed photos of themselves, their families and of course, their dogs. Reading these letters is often a "reality check" because kids are honest and forthcoming in their assessment in our races.

We reply to every letter we receive with a return envelope. Although it takes some time, it is a fun few days for us.

We need to extend a BIG thank you to Pleasant Valley Store/Trailside Mail for sorting all our mail!

Our Post Office box was full today!

It is a post-season boost to receive a letter from someone who has been following the Iditarod and is so enthusiastic about the race and our kennel. The effort some of these kids put into decorating their envelopes or drawing a picture is humbling.

Here are the stand out quotes this year:

  • "I think you are the best musher in the United States of America." - from Ohio
  • "We like how you took your breaks and you did pretty good for a girl." - from North Carolina
  • "Please remember that you're awesome." - from Maryland

If you know a youngster interested in our kennel check out these two pages that will hopefully be of use: our Students and Teachers page and our Dog Mushing Basics page (NOTE: the Mushing Basics page isn't only for students!!).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How our Dogs learn on Iditarod - Part Two

Sled dogs learn from their "pack" or their team. But they also learn, like us, from their personal experiences.

The Black Team that Allen raced in Iditarod was our "young" team. In total, 8 dogs -- or 50% of the team -- were rookies to the race. They had never gone 1,000 miles. Therefore, they had no previous personal experiences to guide them this distance. With these youngsters it just takes time and patience. And each dog learns at their own rate.

Many people focus on the "running" part of a race. Yes, this is important. What speed is the team traveling? Or how fast did the team run from checkpoint to checkpoint? But, actually, the "resting" part of the race is more important than the "running". And with a young dog, the "rest" will often determine the speed of the "run".

Why is rest so important? A dog, like a human, can grind through a work day whether they had a good night's sleep or not. How many people go to work on very few hours of sleep? You can 'power through' the day, barely keeping your eye lids open. But, when you are tired, you don't really want to be at work and honestly, it's simply not as fun or productive! We never want a dog to think "Hey… this isn't fun!" And in order to actually make it 1,000 miles, a dog needs to be productive.

These photos are taken in Manley, only the second checkpoint of the race. At every checkpoint, the teams are allotted one bale of straw for bedding. Veterans Iditarod dogs love straw. It is cozy, warm, they can roll in it, sleep in it, hide in it… Straw is their signal to rest. And veterans know that resting is important.

(L - R) The Veterans: Beemer and Boondocks snuggle together; Lester has sweet dreams in his straw bed.

Rookie dogs don't always understand straw. Should they sit on it? Play with it? Pee in it? Eat it? It's all very confusing. They think "Shouldn't this straw be in my dog house? Hey… where is my dog house!?"

(L - R) The Rookies: Junior plays with the straw as Allen doles it out; Commando sits in his straw and watches birds fly overhead; Chipper embarrasses herself by falling asleep while sitting up.

These guys obviously have a lot to learn! Allen reported that most of the youngsters finally got the hang of resting by mid way through the race. Early on he had to manually lay a few of them into their straw beds for them to sleep. Chipper was the slowest to learn. She didn't want to go to sleep because "she might miss something exciting!" At the halfway point, in the Huslia checkpoint, Allen said the entire team finally understood: rest means rest. If you look at the team's rest time at that checkpoint you'll see that Allen choose to stay several extra hours -- simply because they were all sleeping so well. It was an exciting moment for the team!

The experiences that the Black Team members had during the 2015 Iditarod will mold their future as sled dogs. While walking through the SP Kennel yard this Spring, these now Iditarod Veterans look different and act different than only a few short months ago. Each dog processed the Iditarod differently but in the end, they all learned the most important lesson:
And better yet… they all want to know: When can I do it again?!?

(L - R) The 2015 Iditarod Start: Bug-eyed Commando and crazed Driver can't control themselves; Siblings Kodiak and Junior leave the starting chute in lead.

Monday, April 13, 2015

White Mountains Spring Camp Out

Sunset in the White Mountains National Recreational Area just north of SP Kennel. The youngsters enjoyed the gorgeous evening scenery.

Last weekend Aliy went on a spring camping trip with Ryne and a few young mushers from the neighborhood. Aliy decided that since it was a learning trip that the SP Kennel dog team would be predominately youngsters. So, the team was: Lydia, Nomex, Tinder, Spark, Torch, Hotshot, Cayenne, Champ and Coal.

The teams mushed 20 miles through the mountains to a BLM cabin, camped out all night and mushed out the same trail the next morning. It was very hilly and absolutely gorgeous. There was even time for an Easter Egg Hunt before they mushed out!

(L - R) Cayenne wonders where her dog house is; Nomex and Hotshot relax 'butt to butt'; Champ, Lydia and Spark patiently wait for supper.

Friday, April 10, 2015

SPK on Whitehorse TV!

Remember back in February when Aliy's YQ300 team were at vet checks in Whitehorse and we mentioned that Aliy and Mismo were interviewed for local station NorthWestTel Community TV's "The Dog Show"? The show recently went to air so check it out below. There's lots of shots of the team at the start line also.

Make sure you stay on for YQ Head Veterinarian Nina Hansen's interview. It's really interesting AND Nelson, Dutch, Beemer and Mismo make cameo appearances!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

How our Dogs learn on Iditarod - Part One

Sled dogs learn a bit differently than some other dog breeds and varieties. That is because sled dogs still live and function somewhat in a "pack". (Although "team" might be a more politically correct term.) In saying that, I think our dogs learn a lot from their pack members. And this year, as I look through the recent Iditarod photos, one example has become very obvious.

Mismo and Mac run in perfect sync just before they crossed the Iditarod finish line.

The Iditarod Red Team was mostly a veteran squad. With the exception of Nelson, every member had been on the 1,000 race before. But, there was still an opportunity to pair up extremely knowledgeable veterans with relative newbies. So, during Iditarod, I decided to pair the 'big dogs': Mismo and Mac.

Mac, as many people know, is a highly talented, very confident, somewhat aloof, fantastic sled dog. Fantastic might even be an understatement. But, Mac was once a young novice and he learned the ropes just like Mismo is doing now. Mismo is happy, always ready to go and wants to please. I paired the two about half way through the race. My hope was that Mac would influence Mismo during the second (and more difficult) half of the race. In Sebastian's photos, from Koyukuk on, you can start to see the pairing -- often one or two positions up from wheel.

In the beginning the pairing went fine. I think that Mismo was still confident and strong on the Yukon River so they just ran together as a steady even pair. But, the run over to the western coast is always challenging. This year wind was very fierce and the sun was high above our heads. We even passed two unexpected dog teams that were camped just alongside the trail. This is an area that front runner Iditarod teams have quit before, so seeing those teams was emotional.

I noticed Mismo lean into Mac periodically after that and check in with him - nose to nose. I think novice dogs do this when they are unsure of a situation. If their partner barely acknowledges this nose touch and keeps working, that's basically telling the novice dog: "It's fine buddy. This is normal."

The conditions got much worse along the western coast. When we left Unalakleet the wind was extreme -- gusting to 40 mph. Mac is not a dog who will panic, just like his mother, Chica. They are steady, smart and unwavering. This helped Mismo stay completely calm when we came over a ridge and into a whiteout blizzard. We had lost the trail, but found Mitch Seavey and his team. Mitch and I took turns watching the both teams so that the other could search for the trail but never lose sight of the dogs. Our dog teams had to remain calm, stayed lined out in the fierce blowing snow and not panic. I am sure that Mac helped Mismo with that. After quite a bit of time and deliberate searching we found the trail again.

As we continued our race up the coast, I noticed Mismo acting more and more like Mac. In Koyuk, Mismo was almost cocky when the spectators flocked around the team. He was certainly gaining confidence. The two of them rested together in Elim and didn't leave each other's side for the next 150 miles. They were the strongest dogs in the team, pulling us up the mountains outside of Golovin. Then both of them enjoyed the kids that came to pet the team when we passed through Golovin village.

The final run from White Mountain to Nome was great for the pair despite a few challenges. There was some deep overflow that we side stepped. Then the run through the notorious 'Blowhole' (about 40 miles from the finish line) was extremely windy with gusts up to 35mph. But, in comparison to last year, which I am sure Mac remembers, this year's situation was practically easy. Mismo picked up on this feeling and he now has complete confidence in windy situations.

Our run from Safety to Nome was in the middle of the day and their were spectators and fans everywhere. There must be thousands of photos of Mac and Mismo working together the last 22 miles. I have picked out a few photos that show how in tune these two dogs became. It's really spectacular!

Mismo and Mac: Look how their legs are in perfect stride in both photos.

Mismo and Mac stand identically for their snacks; They even lay down the same!.

These last two photos are the best. Because no matter how much Mismo learned from Mac, he just couldn't get the hang of sunbathing in Nome!

Yes… I agree, we need some larger airline kennel in Nome next year!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Dog Log Hits Two Million Views!

Wow! The Dog Log hit two million views late last week; that's amazing!

Thank you all for your interest in our dogs and our lifestyle! We love sharing it with you.

The very first post on the doglog was back on February 14, 2007 and last week, over 2,000 posts later, we hit this incredible milestone.

We always enjoy looking over our stats page to see what posts got the most views and where in the world our audience is.

Clearly most of our audience is from the USA but check out where else our readers are.

Tell us in the comments below where you are reading this from.

And, thanks again!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

ID: Thanks Mrs Swenson's Class

Before the crew left Two Rivers on our way to Nome we received this wonderful blanket in the mail from Mrs Swenson's second and third grade class in Watertown, South Dakota. They made it as part of their measurement unit especially for our dogs. Right at that time we were packing our bags for Nome so it made it out there with us!

Izzy enjoyed her blanket very much! Thanks Mrs Swenson's Class!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Daisy Wins Final Fan Club Draw

Congratulations to Ashley from California and Daisy from Two Rivers!

Ashley wins an SP Kennel travel mug and Daisy gets extra treats!

Daisy is part of the eleven "Fire" litter yearlings who start on their first year as "proper" racing dogs next season. Daisy ran in the Two Rivers 100 at the start of this season in the first of many races for SP Kennel. She has always had a good appetite and as a puppy was one of the biggest and more robust. A good appetite is a great trait for a sled dog! She had a great season and we just can't wait to see her progress further as she grows and matures.

This was the final Dog Fan Club draw for this season. We want to sincerely thank you all for being part of our Dog Fan Club and hope you had fun following your favorite dog(s) this season.

Keep an eye out at the start of next season when we will open the dog fan club up again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The "Five" Puppies In Harness!

Springtime is not only a chance to take the adults and yearlings on some fun runs before the trails disappear; it also means we get to run the puppies for the first time!

We took them out in small groups and we rotated a bunch of adults in the front of the team including Chica, Olivia, Woody, Nutmeg, Viper, Scruggs, Chemo and Lester. We decided to run the puppies in our regular half-harnesses and without necklines to give them a chance to show their stuff!

Scooby and Rodney were the first to run and it took them only to the end of the driveway to get the hang of it. They are the two biggest puppies and they quickly looked like they knew what they were doing. They both pulled hard for the entire two mile run.

Scooby (closest to sled) and Rodney (next one up) "giving it heaps"; Five and Ernie (closest to sled) getting some encouragement from Aliy: "This direction boys"

Ernie and Five were next to go and Ernie almost resembled a gazelle "pronking" by taking huge leaps on all four feet (google "pronking" if you don't know what I mean) and Five had a little trouble at first deciding which way he should be facing. After a few quick stops and lots of positive encouragement by Aliy they figured it out and were pulling hard and straight by the end.

Apologies but we didn't manage to get any footage of Ginger, she didn't get to run today. She's a gentler girl than her boisterous brothers and she is a great looking, well put-together dog. We'll try to get some next time.

It never ceases to amaze and excite us the inherent desire in the puppies to run and pull. If anyone ever asks "how do you MAKE them pull?" they have obviously never seen a husky puppy in harness for the first time. You can't MAKE them pull, they just DO!