Saturday, January 31, 2009

Daddy's Little Darlings....

The inspiration for today's post comes from Kyle Belleque's Nushagak Kennels blog. In a post title "Let Working Dogs Work Part 2; Who's Your Daddy..."Kyle discusses some of the finer points of responsibly breeding working dogs, and presents the example of a breeding between his dog Bing, and his bitch Lucy.

I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast a bit, so I'll offer similar information on my first, and probably only breeding. Kyle and I share the philosophy that only those dogs that are likely to perpetuate traits that can improve the breed or type should be bred. I am unlikely to ever again have a dog that is so gifted as my 'main man', Torus.

During last year's Yukon Quest start banquet a Purdue certified canine behaviorist and my very good friend Janece Rollet suggested to Kyle and I that we might want to consider breeding Torus to Lucky. Torus is an amazing dog, and I had frequently told anyone who would listen that I'd clone him if I could afford to. Meanwhile, I was already familiar with Lucky's progeny, as my dogs Rose and Nels were whelped by her.

Kyle was staying at my place while doing some work in town, so he gave Torus a very thorough once over. Maybe even a twice or thrice over. We discussed the idea at length and came up with a plan. Kyle would send Lucky to me over the summer for breeding and whelping, we would share the litter half and half, and Lucky and Kyle's share of the puppies would head home as soon as they were weaned.

I LOVE it when a plan comes together, and our plan came together very nicely. Kyle was able to bring Lucky up during a work trip to Fairbanks (he lives in Dillingham, a long way from anywhere else). She stayed through the summer and gave us a beautiful litter.

As a truly lucky coincidence, Janece was up for a visit in July, when Lucky whelped. Janece's help was absolutely invaluable as they started their lives, 'cause frankly in spite of my research and planning and preparation and all that - I was rather clueless. Seriously, just a few days before Lucky whelped Kyle said "Hey, relax man. Lucky knows exactly what to do."


Physical Characteristics: Runs at about 65 pounds, which is on the light side for my team of historical types of huskies. He is long-coupled but stocky of build with a deep chest. Torus sports an excellent double coat that is impervious to weather to the point that he prefers to sleep outside of his doghouse even when the temperatures are 40 to 50 degrees below zero. He has tough feet and has never had any major veterinary issues of which I am aware.

Working Characteristics: As a working dog, I like to describe Torus as the consummate professional sled dog. He is a no nonsense, bullet-proof gee/haw leader with a distinguished racing record, especially in middle distance races noted for difficult terrain. Always hard on his tug line when in motion, and takes full advantage of opportunities to rest. Torus is very calm in harness, to the point where one might question whether he really wants to run or not. He never pounds lines, but the moment you call him up he slams into his harness and keeps the tugline as tight as a guitar string. He’s a very intelligent dog and never seems to forget a trail that he’s run on in the past.

Other Considerations: Typical of long distance racing huskies, Torus has an excellent appetite. His laid-back, calm temperament makes him very easy to handle in both mushing and nonmushing situations. He is neither overly friendly nor overly shy with people, but is willing to lead a team for anyone, whether they are people he’s known a long time or total strangers. He interacts with other dogs appropriately. I’ve never seen him start a fight, but he is willing and able to stand his ground when pressed.

Genetic Background: Whelped from a Susan Butcher bitch by a Rusty Hagan dog, Torus is a bit of a genetic throw-back to earlier times, and is considerably larger than either of his parents. His siblings are all working sled dogs, some leaders. Progeny from an earlier breeding are also good sled dogs with at least 1 leader.


Physical Characteristics: Larger dog, about 75 to 80 pounds. Rangy being both long coupled and long legged. Smooth, double coated girl with very feminine features. Another very healthy dog requiring minimal vet care. Rather dainty, compact and tight feet.

Working Characteristics: According to her owner, she is a very hard working dog who runs exceptionally well in lead and is very responsive to the needs of her musher. I only ran her once, on a Sacco cart, but she proved that she is undaunted by unique situations or gear and once she ‘figured it out’ she was hard into the harness the entire run.

Other Considerations: Calm, easily handled, affectionate dog. She can be described as a “sweetheart”. She enjoys human attention and interacts very appropriately with other dogs. Lucky has a good appetite and is inclined to gaining excess weight of overfed. She is confident when confronted with new or unique situations. Progeny from earlier breedings have been consistently good sled dogs, some showing considerable leader potential.

Genetic Background: Originally whelped in Will Forsberg’s kennel. Other details are unknown.

The Litter

The Lucky / Torus litter was whelped on July 24th, 2008. All 6 puppies were of uniform size with no apparent physical abnormalities. All but 1 were black with markings similar to Torus. The ‘odd ball’ puppy is a beautiful brown sable very similar to her mother.

Each puppy received neurological stimulation exercises based on the military’s “bio-stim” (aka 'Superdog') project of the 1970s for the first 13 days of life. An instructional video on the exercises performed on these very puppies can be seen below:

They received daily handling and a variety of habituation / socialization exercises through weaning. They were vaccinated according to the 2007 ASAVA vaccination guidelines.

Lucky and Kyle’s share of the litter left on September 20th.

The puppies remaining in the Stardancer kennel were exposed to the widest range of circumstances that could be created throughout their first four months of life. They were introduced to a clicker (for operant training) at 8 weeks and quickly learned a variety of cued behaviors. In November they were introduced to the harness and the concept of pulling through a series of short ‘canicross’ runs with their musher.

The puppies first ran with a team in December, for Lynn Orbison. Lynn reported as follows:

Orion had the most trouble keeping up, but all three pups found themselves going faster than what was "comfortable" from time to time throughout the run. I spent most of my time on the mat slowing everything down to keep them happy and safe.

In the first 100 yards, Cassie was flawless, Orion was confused, and Capella got worried. By the end of the first half mile, Capella was hard driving, and Orion and Cassie were both happy and goofy. I did quite a bit of stopping and starting to give them practice. They took off happily after even stopping for just a few seconds. They all three lined out like little pros...although each of them ended up tangled in the lines with their neighbor once or twice during the run. We probably did about 2.5 miles. I went into Swenson's field and cut it short by going haw in front of the woodcutters place...we took a haw onto the midline trail and then haw again to head straight toward Swenson's yard. I stopped everybody on that straight-away so they could stand and look at Swenson's yard barking at us. Then I called them up and called for the gee and we turned toward home nicely. The pups balked a little bit with the big dog yard sounding off behind them, but they did remarkably well.

Oh, I forgot to mention...Cassie learned to poop on the run! That's right, she decided she needed to poop, and we didn't stop for her. It wasn't pretty, and it certainly wasn't perfect, but she did it, and she dug right back into her job as soon as she was finished!

Edie was just agog on the machine behind me watching these perfect BIG puppies...Randy said he didn't believe that this was really their first time in harness in a team! I'd explained that Swanny and had them in a harness and taken them out individually on foot...but that this was their first group mushing adventure. They get it!

The puppies second run with a team was on January 25th. That run was documented by video recording, which can be viewed at All three puppies ran very well that day as well.

Their third team run was this morning. Here is how I recorded the record in my training journal:

Saturday, January 31st: Puppy Run – 1.5 miles. Home to public trailhead and return. Freshly groomed powder on packed and groomed trail, small section of groomed but punchy powder. -12 degrees at start and finish. Toboggan sled with 40# weight for training.

Max speed 12.8 mph
Average speed 9.8 mph

7 dog team

Torus (single lead)
Daisy & Cassiopeia*
Jethro & Capella*
Gump & Orion*

Although training is a part of the process, the overriding objective of these little puppy runs is to show the children a good time. We do everything we can possibly think of to make the runs as much fun as possible for the puppies, so that when they get into that crucial ‘yearling’ season they are eager to join the team and learn their trade.

Part of making it fun is hooking them up beside older dogs that are able to tolerate puppy antics to a high degree, correct puppies appropriate but not overly harshly if necessary, and that can model the types of harnessing, hook up and running behaviors we want to instill in the young ones.

Today was the third team run for these three puppies, who are still only six months old, and it was awesome to behold. Stephanie Littlewolf brought a small team over to run with me today, and helped me handle to get puppies to the drop line and harnessed. The puppies were so excited that they were difficult to harness, but once their harnesses were on there was no chewing or other unwanted B.S.

Hooked to the line, Capella was overly excited and got tangled in her lines pretty severely. It took a bit to get her untangled, but she never panicked or even showed signs of being frightened. When I walked back to the sled Torus got his head in gear and lined the team out nicely while I pulled hooks and prepared to pull the quick release. I called them up and we were off like a freight train.

On launch I was hard on the drag mat and even dragging the bar brake a bit to keep their speed down. That kept all the puppies hard into their tuglines. All three were running and pulling like champion sled dogs. It was truly beautiful to watch.

On the ‘haw’ onto the main trail Orion proved a better wheel dog than Gump, trying his best to pull the nose of the sled out away from the inside of the turn. It’s good that he was because Gump wasn’t offering any help at all.

On the soft, punchy part of the turnaround loop Cassie got off into the deep snow at the side of the trail, but corrected very quickly without me having to stop the team. The moment she did sheslammed hard into her harness again, apparently having the time of her life.

On the return trip down the powerline trail Cassie got onto the wrong side of the gangline. I stopped and watched her, and as she ducked I was able to cue “duck under” even as she was doing it, introducing a new cue into her repertoire.

The entire run took less than 10 minutes, but it was probably the best 10 minutes of the R&R.


So - does this mean we met our breeding objectives? Maybe. All of the signs are positive, but they are only six month old puppies. They have a lot of miles to run before I can judge their abilities as sled dogs. That being acknowledged, all the early indicators seem to suggest that there ain't no mittens in this group.

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