Monday, September 14, 2015

The Worth of a Puppy

Very often, as visitors interact with our puppies, we are asked if we breed our dogs to sell the pups. We totally understand why people ask this question, given the nature of many other dog breeding "programs." And we actually love to get this question because the answer often surprises people: No, we definitely do not have puppies to sell them. We have puppies to keep.



As I have mentioned in previous posts, we give a lot of thought to which adults we breed and try to select for specific traits we think will be most suitable to our long distance racing style. Despite that careful breeding, though, puppies are still essentially worthless to everyone except their owner.


Because breeding Alaskan Huskies is still somewhat of a crap shoot when it comes to honing in on specific, desirable traits. Just because two adult dogs have traits you love, doesn't mean their offspring will. It can be hard to know if a trait has a genetic component, or is more the result of good training. Observing a dog's siblings, and their qualities, can give some clues to this mystery, although again, if all siblings were in the same training program, the mash up between genetics and training still remains murky. This is why it's hard to attach a high dollar value to a puppy. They may be cute, but until they can get in harness and really show their talents, you'd be betting on a mystery to buy one.

Standard - owned by Ken Anderson

June - originally from Lance Mackey

That's not to say that a pup with a quality bloodline attached to it, such as "Mackey" or "Seavey" won't fetch some amount of money -- trust me, it will. But even these accomplished mushers can get more money for a dog that is "proven," meaning it has finished a mid or long distance race. And typically, the higher mileage races like Iditarod and Quest correlate to an even greater dollar value, especially if the dog was part of a team that finished quite well in a particular year. Even if the dog is "old" (seven years or more), they can fetch a high price if they are still intact and can be used by their new owner for breeding. But again, ironically, those precious puppies won’t actually be worth much on an open market. 


We are writing about this now because we have yet another new litter of puppies to introduce! We are particularly excited about this crew because their parents are both exceptionally consistent dogs who have proven themselves year after year, as part of some of the best sled dog teams in the world. June, the mother, belongs to us now, but finished Iditarod with Lance Mackey in two of the years that he won that race. Standard, the father, belongs to Ken Anderson, who is a long distance racing “standard” himself. Ken consistently places among the top teams in Iditarod and the Yukon Quest and this big male has been crossing the finish line with him for years.
Despite their stellar parentage, these adorable puppies are likely "worth" less now than they will be as full grown adults. Although to us, of course, they are priceless. These fury beings embody our own hopes and dreams of crossing Iditarod and Yukon Quest finish lines, among the ranks of the greatest canine and human athletes to ever compete.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Sharing Moms - The Story of the Mines


The Mine Puppies were born in May, 2015. India's group (bred to Basin, from Brent Sass) came quickly and easily in the night. We knew they would arrive before morning, and of course, felt like kids on Christmas Eve. We were overjoyed to wake up early and meet seven new, beautiful, healthy additions to our kennel.

black spruce dog sledding

Spears' story is a bit different. We expected Spears to give birth a few days after India. She was bred to Carbon, also from Brent Sass. While her belly didn't get nearly as swollen as India's, we attributed this to the fact that she was probably just having a small litter. But over a week passed, and we started to doubt ourselves, and Spears. She was producing milk, but that could also be attributed to a false pregnancy. This would explain the small belly, too...


The average canine gestation period is generally around 63 days. At 70 days, we finally decided we were going to take Spears out of the puppy pen and put her back with the adult dogs in the yard. Jeff left for work, planning to do this when he got home. Then I finally saw the signs of delivery. Spears dug several deep holes in the pen, but couldn't seem to get comfortable enough to lay down for long in any of them. She turned her nose up at breakfast. She growled at my mom, in town for a visit, when she passed by on her way to the outhouse. At first we all felt relieved, and excited. Then we got nervous.

What if the pups had been inside the mom for too long? There was a real chance they would not come out alive. The thought saddened us, and we began to think of how we should let this new mom receive her quiet babies, if that's what they were to be. There was a good chance she would try to eat them if left alone. Should we allow that? But how would she feel if they were taken away?

From inside the mobile home, I watched her squat, and push, hovering her tail over one of her deepest holes. "She's not going to lay down," I thought. "She's going to drop that pup right into that hole." Quietly I walked outside and approached the pen. Spears and I have a good relationship. She didn't growl or puff up at me, but I kept my distance (at first). It's often hard to be both respectful and curious! I was looking for life in those puppies.

When he finally came, he was HUGE. I knew immediately he may be the only one in there because he was the size of three newborn puppies combined. Spears did indeed drop him into her hole, and he lay there entirely motionless, completely coated in a thick, mucus-y sac. Spears went to work quickly, licking and tugging at the sac. I felt impatient for her to lick the sac away from his face; eager to see his body move as he inhaled, or hear him make a little puppy squeaking sound. Finally she pulled the sac away from his mouth, very gently with her teeth, and he took a breath.

Red at 8 weeks

By this time, India's group had been dubbed The Mines, taking their names from existing mines, proposed mines, and mining districts in Alaska. There's Knox, Kenzie, Pogo, Pebble, Polar, Forty and Ambler. And Spears' puppy (yes, there was only one) ended up fitting into this theme nicely, too. We named him Red, for his beautiful color, and as a nod to the Red Dog Mine in northwest Alaska.

Forty and Pogo

Both Spears and India were doing a fabulous job with their young pups. But two things were clear: Hyper-personality India was going to have her hands full as an inexperienced mom with seven little ones. And also, even-keeled Spears was underwhelmed by her single responsibility. So we tried something we hadn't before. We took India's two smallest puppies, and gave them to Spears. As we suspended our hands above her nose, clutching the puppies, it was a tense moment. We wondered if she would snatch them and tear them to pieces before we could stop her. But she didn't. She sniffed them, and nuzzled them, and when we lay them at her belly, next to their new brother, Red, she licked them and encouraged them to nurse. From that day on, Spears has raised Polar and Pebble as her own, and Red's close bond with each of them is touching.

This mom-sharing took on new levels of wonderment as the puppies grew older and everyone started to play and go for walks together. While aggressive at first, the two moms eventually learned to trust each other and share their babies, each nursing whomever happened to wander over!

Here we come! Red leads the charge.
White puppies are Polar and Pebble. Grey puppy is Kenzie.

These days, the pups have reached their 8 week mark, and do not need to nurse any longer. But they still do -- now all from Spears. India has had it with sharp puppy teeth and is happy to be back in the adult yard. Meanwhile, the puppies all live together in one pen now, and Spears is in another. But twice a day, the pups and Spears enjoy a walk in the woods around our property. They love to attack her for milk when they get thirsty, and she still seems to enjoy it, too.

Super Mom!


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Copper Basin 2015 - Musher Summary

We made it home from the Copper Basin awards banquet early this morning, and after a few days of rest the dogs are all looking perky and rejuvenated. We had really a great race and a lot of fun. It was awesome to be back in a race, and I am super proud of our 6 of 7 finishers that had never raced before.

Here is a quick synopsis of the Race:

Glennallen to Chistochina- 50 miles of soft trail that starts by leaving downtown Glennallen and running along the Richardson highway heading north. After about 12 miles we veer off this trail and begin making our way east towards Red Eagle Lodge. At this point we follow old section line and power line trails, and make our way through thick spruce forest. The trail conditions tend to be pretty soft and sugary as these trails are not often used except for this race. In fact, the whole race this year was pretty soft and slow due to the warm weather (it was snowing and 25 degrees at the start, and only got warmer from there). This run was pretty smooth considering the amount of passing that goes on as the faster teams work their way to the front and slower teams fall back. We came in 19th after passing about seven teams and getting passed by the same amount. The dogs looked great on this run, but I ended up dropping Stoic due to a sore tricep on her right side.

Chistochina to Meiers Lake- 75 miles over multiple water crossings and a small mountain pass. This run is notoriously tough due to the topography and the minimal winter travel on this trail. We leave Chistochina and make our way through more black spruce for about 25 miles. The trail is pretty level at this point and the dogs can usually move pretty nicely through this section. My team did not quite keep the pace I was looking for mainly due to the warm temps and the heavier than appropriate meal that I fed in the checkpoint. After about three hours, though, we start to get above tree line and through some of our first water crossings, which helped to cool off the dogs and get them into a more fluid rhythm. We have really put our a focus on hill training this year, and our home circuit really sets the dogs up for excelling in hills. Climbing the "knoll" (about 800 feet of 35 degree ascent), and the continuous rollers after this hill were no problem at all for the team. Of course, with everything, what goes up must eventually come down. After about two hours of running at high elevation, we start to drop back down the other side of these hills. And when i say drop, I mean DROP. I don't think I have ever been more out of control on a dog team before. Some of these downhills were three to four hundred feet of trenched out, 45 degree descents with two feet of sugar snow that had no base to use the brake or drag for slowing down. There were times where for a few seconds we were probably going close to 22 miles per hour. YIKES! The dogs rolled through this area, but I ended up loading our hardest worker, Beaver, with another sore tricep (a pretty common injury in soft snow and steep downhills). The last 30 miles of this run follow the Alyeska pipeline, and has a nice firm base where the dogs can move pretty easily and make up time for some of those slow slogs through the deep snow. We got into Meiers Lake at about 6 a.m. after traveling for just under 8 1/2 hours over 75 miles.

Meiers Lake to Sourdough- This 45 mile section is one of the more hilly sections of the race. Leaving Meiers at about 1 p.m., we run across the lake and immediately start climbing and are soon above tree line. This portion had some of the best weather on the race (the freezing ice/mist let up for a few hours, and I was able to get a couple miles of good visibility and enjoy the terrain). After an hour or so of up and down, we drop back into the forest, and run along a small creek through one of the tightest trails I have ever driven. I remembered this section from my previous Copper Basin in 08, but it was still amazing we could make it through with no problems and an unbroken sled (the trail is so windy in places that you literally cannot see beyond your wheel dogs in places as you try and avoid 18 inch spruce trees just waiting to destroy your sled). These trail conditions serve to keep the musher wide awake, and the dogs get a thrill out of racing through tight turns to see what lies ahead. The remainder of the run to Sourdough is pretty smooth and travels across a few lakes and swamps and finishes on the Alyeska Pipeline into the checkpoint. Because Alaska has so many vast areas of rough topography, many mushers and rural travelers use the pipeline, power lines and old mining roads to make their way across the state, connecting from one to the other with small, rough trails used only in winter.

Sourdough to Mendeltna- (85 miles) My plan throughout the race had been to examine my team and our run time on the way to Sourdough, and make a decision as to whether or not I would stay at the checkpoint based on the run. As I saw the lights of Sourdough after about 4 hours and 45 minutes, and struggled to look at my watch while riding the drag with two feet, I made the easy decision to blow through the checkpoint. While this sounds straight forward, in theory you just sign in, sign out and keep running, there are a few other factors at play: As I pulled in, I needed to leave George (one of our yearlings) with a sore knee. He had been having trouble with this injury on and off for a few weeks, and the race was going to be an experiment as to whether he would hold up for the distance. A little bit of stiffness had shown in Meiers after resting, but he stretched out and seemed okay. However, as we picked up speed on the last few miles of the run into Sourdough, I could see that he showed the slightest sign of favoring it, and did not want to risk having to load him in the sled on the upcoming 85 miles to Mendeltna. Also, because I was planning on resting on the trail, I had to grab some of my provisions in the checkpoint before pulling out. So, upon arriving into Sourdough, I had a lot on my mind. The first thing that a team must due when arriving into any checkpoint, is to sign in and show the required gear traveling in the sled (cooker, ax, sleeping bag, etc.). As I went through the sign in process, I made it very clear I was going through, and only needed to leave George and grab a few things. It took a few reiterations for this to sink in, but then it seemed to click, and I filled out George's paperwork, gave him to Katti, grabbed my food and gear, and left the checkpoint. Everything in Sourdough is very spread out, so we ended up making three stops in total to first sign in, then grab gear, and then grab straw and leave George. The dogs were alert, though, and had no problem with the multiple stops, and left the checkpoint in second place with ease. While this momentary jump in positions was great fun, it would not last long. Every team in a long distance race has a little bit of a different schedule, and ends up running their dogs a little differently from one another. All of the front teams in the Copper Basin rest exactly the mandated amount (18 hours), which must be taken in checkpoints. So, for these most competitive teams, there would be no reason to rest on the trail unless their team was having problems. For me, it was important to give our young dogs a positive experience and teach them new things (like pulling through checkpoints). So, our run took us two hours out of Sourdough, and into a nice pullout that I found from a wandering snowmachine. This proved to be a great spot for the team to rest, and pretty entertaining for me as the fastest teams started to roll by about 45 minutes after we parked (it was great to see the front runners and compare their teams as they went by). Camping on the trail works very much like resting in a checkpoint. I start by immediately feeding the dogs some dry kibble and a meat snack, and then strip their booties and get them on straw. Once they are resting, I start melting snow in the cooker and go back to the team for some massage and muscle therapy (certain dogs also get jackets with heat packs to keep their muscles warm and prevent stiffness). The whole process takes little more than an hour. Once the cooker is boiling water, I add my vacuum packed meal to thaw out (thanks Wife!), and then prepare their watering for a few hours later (primarily meat with a little kibble). Sleep for the musher comes last, but I find a couple hours to stretch out next to the team in my sleeping bag. In this particular case, I over slept a bit and spent seven hours at our camping spot (goodbye front runners). The dogs really enjoyed a peaceful rest, though, and shot off their straw with all the spunk and motivation of a well rested team. The remaining 70 miles to Mendeltna were definitely the easiest on the entire race, and consisted mainly of running from one large lake to the next. As I have said before, our team trained the entire season on hard packed trails, and loved traveling across smooth lakes at over 11 miles an hour. We arrived into Mendeltna at about 10:30 after traveling for just over 7 hours.


Mendeltna to the Finish- The Mendeltna checkpoint was AWESOME! Not only was this a nice Alaskan lodge, but they were super hospitable and thrilled to be apart of the Copper Basin, opening up their home to volunteers and racers alike.

Coming into this checkpoint, every dog looked healthy, alert and energetic. I had, however, been nursing some small dog issues that showed themselves more prominently after a few hours of rest at Mendeltna. Simon, one of my main leaders on the race, had been dealing with a tight hind end on and off through training, and showed quite a bit of stiffness getting off the straw for a walk around (I will often times leash walk the dogs in a checkpoint to get a feel for the flexibility and muscle health). Due to his age (he is now 8), and the level of tightness in his hip, I decided it made sense to drop him and get him recouping for the later part of the season. Dome, my other main leader, has the draw back that his feet are very soft and prone to cuts and nicks both in the pads and the webbing. He was off his tug line coming into the checkpoint, and upon looking at his feet, I saw that he had cracks under his nail bed, causing painful irritation and limiting his performance. So, he was also dropped. This left us with seven dogs, six of whom had never raced before and none of whom I considered solid leaders (although, 5 of these guys had all run up front at different times). Looking ahead to the next 60 miles and the run times from the top teams at over 7 and a half hours, I knew we were going to be facing a challenging run. Indeed, my expectations were met.

Leaving Mendeltna, I put Rockwell (a dog I borrowed from Amanda Gecas) and India in lead. They were perfectly eager to go, and hopped right off their straw. India, not being the strongest leader even in the best of conditions, only made it about 100 yards before she decided the middle of the team looked far better. She was replaced with Scorch, whom, to the best of my knowledge, has never run lead a day in his life. He was eager and the best performing dog on the team, so I figured, why not try him. Scorch and Rockwell seemed to click, and off we went. The next 35 miles were probably the best traveling we had had the whole race (nice hard packed trail). The dogs clipped along at about 9 to 10 miles an hour, and despite the small size of the team, we had no issues with power.

Just as I was beginning to picture crossing the finish in a few more hours and the meal I was going to eat when we got there, we came upon another team. Typically, passing teams is not a problem (we do it all the time in training and, of course, do it in racing). However, as we got closer to this team, the dogs and I realized there was something different about them. First off, they were pointing our direction, head on, and screaming like banshees (excited to go). Second, the musher was off the sled and standing in front of the team looking right at our team as it approached. Combined, this was way to much for fragile Scorch, and he bulked as we got within 100 feet. I put the hook in and spent a minute untangling and rearranging dogs while the other team barked, howled and screamed. Finally, after trying a few unsuccessful take offs, I hollered to the parked musher asking him "what he was up to." He responded with, "not much." Expecting a bit more of an answer, I asked him as politely as I could muster, if he wanted to get back on his little sled and take those annoying idiots by. Apparently, the thought had not crossed his mind, and without hesitation he hoped on the sled and called his team by. Easy enough I thought. But, the dogs had gotten flustered at the unplanned stop, and it took the next 3 hours to get smoothly rolling again, moving dogs in and out of lead and taking little pep breaks. Not a common occurrence in our team, but something that comes up for every musher once in a while. In the end, the dogs finished the last hour of the race strong, and Rockwell ran in single lead for the last 15 miles (good job, bud!).

At the finish line, I told Katti I probably wouldn't be back to the Copper for years, but after a nights rest and a look at the team in the morning, I am already thinking about next year.