Dog Yard & Housing
Space and Location
Beginner mushers are sometimes surprised by the amount of space needed for a kennel. A dog yard for 10 dogs will require at least 1,000 square feet of pens, or 1,450 square feet for tethers. These figures do not include space needed for walkways, out buildings or other facilities. (Note 1)
A dry, well-drained area makes life pleasant for both dogs and musher. These conditions are also best for the dogs’ feet and for disease control. A location both visible and audible from a house window allows you to enjoy the company of your animals and alerts you to problems or emergencies.
Locating the kennel on a slight slope or on a high spot will greatly improve springtime drainage. A low-lying flat area may seem perfectly dry in the summer or winter but a few weeks of standing water during spring thaw will make life miserable for both you and your dogs.
In summer, shade helps keep the dogs cool, and a breezy location helps keep bugs away. During winter, a sunny area that is protected from wind helps conserve the dogs’ energy. It is best to lay out the dog yard so the ground is exposed to full sunlight for at least part of the day. Direct sun (ultraviolet light) is one of the best natural means of controlling disease organisms. However, you should try to provide at least one shady spot for each dog to retreat from the sun’s heat. Ideally, your kennel should be located on a southern aspect adjacent to hardwood (deciduous) trees. The trees will provide summer shade, and after leaf fall the winter sun will improve the microclimate of the kennel.
Planning your dog yard in a way that allows you to do your chores efficiently also allows for more time to care for and interact with your dogs. If you are able to run dogs directly from the yard, it’s well-worth planning a safe takeoff area for runs. Some kennels are set up to allow the musher to leave from the middle of the dog yard to facilitate harnessing. Other considerations include access by vehicles for loading up dogs and for maintenance.
The ideal dog yard surface depends upon its location and the method of confinement. Soil is fine in areas with good drainage. However, keep in mind that soil can harbor disease organisms and therefore requires more diligent feces pick-up. Soil is relatively easy to work with and is easily manipulated to meet your needs. Excessive silts and clays in the surface will produce a rock-hard surface when dry but will slow drainage and become slick and sticky when wet. Adding sand to soil improves its ability to absorb water and also reduces dust.
For wetter locations, sand, wood chips, coarse wood shavings, wooden platforms, or fine, smooth gravel less than ••• inch in diameter are good surfacing alternatives. Excessive amounts of decaying bedding material increases water retention and can increase the amount of fungi, mites and other organisms that may be harmful to your dogs. Beware of large gravel and stones in the dog yard. If your dogs are rock-eaters, remove rocks larger than 1 inch from the soil. Although many dogs swallow rocks without incident, there have been cases of dogs that have died from rock ingestion.
Typical sled dogs love to dig in dirt. Because digging is an instinctive “species typical” behavior many mushers accept the extra work of filling in holes rather than trying to thwart the action. Other mushers prefer to prevent digging; there are several methods of doing so. One popular method to prevent digging is to cover the ground with sturdy fencing or concrete reinforcing mesh before adding the surface material. Another method is to house dogs on a concrete or plywood surface. This not only precludes digging, it also (and most importantly) prevents your dogs from eating rocks. Plywood floors work well in dry climates and are softer to stand on than concrete. They are also easy to clean and repair, but eventually breakdown and need replacement.
and Cons of Plywood Surfaces
digging and rock eating.
cleaned with high-pressure water hose and
likely to cause chronic joint injuries than paved
harbor infectious bacteria and fungi within its
difficult to keep dry.
Deteriorates over time, and must be periodically
and Cons of Concrete Surfaces
Precludes digging and prevents rock eating.
cleaned with high pressure water hosing and
difficult to keep dry
harbor infectious bacteria and fungi within its
surface can cause chronic injuries to dog’s joints
abrasive and can cause excessive wear to dogs’ feet
caustic and can cause excessive drying.
Mush with P.R.I.D.E. Guidelines Committee firmly
stresses that dogs should NOT be continuously housed
on concrete surfaces. Dogs housed on concrete should
be allowed to exercise on other surfaces several
hours each day.
Cleaning up dog waste at least once every day makes the dogs’ environment pleasant and helps control diseases such as parvovirus and intestinal parasites. Waste management or “scooping poop” is one of the daily chores all mushers must undertake.
Locate permanent waste disposal or temporary waste storage sites away from water drainages and from any location that may cause ground water contamination, such as wellheads and areas uphill from natural springs. Methods of disposing of dog feces include composting, burial, or removal to a landfill.
Landscaping around your kennel can be both attractive and practical. Begin by removing brush that is an attractant to moose, which have little fear and often have animosity toward dogs. Remove foxtails and other grasses with barbed or brush-shaped heads that are prone to getting lodged in the soft flesh of dogs’ ears, eyes, throat and respiratory system. Identify other noxious plants found in your area and remove them from your dog yard.
Even mushers who primarily house their dogs in their own homes need some sort of outdoor confinement system. Mushers with larger teams usually confine some or all of their sled dogs in an outdoor “dog yard”. Whether confining members of a two-dog skijoring team or a 100+ dog racing kennel, the general considerations and methods of confining the dogs remain the same.
The confinement system you choose must provide a reliable and safe means of preventing the dog from escaping. It must allow enough room for the dog to move around freely and engage in “species typical” behaviors such as running or jumping. Materials and hardware used in your confinement system should be durable, reliable and maintained in good condition. Chains or cables used in tethering systems should contain at least one swivel to prevent tangles that can potentially choke your dog.
It is recommended that kennels include a sturdy fence around the perimeter to contain any dogs that may get loose from their primary confinement and to keep unwanted people, wildlife and stray domestic animals away from your dogs. All dog yards should also include fenced pens or runs to confine females in heat, dogs that display dog-directed aggressiveness, sick dogs, or puppies too small to collar and tether. Many mushers incorporate a fenced “play yard” into their kennels where compatible dogs can run and play together.
When planning a dog yard, consider including one or two “extra” spaces that can be used to house dogs while making repairs or modifications to the dog’s normal housing area.
Post and Swivel Tethering Systems:
Tethering is a common, traditional and economical means of confining multiple sled dogs. The only controlled scientific study comparing sled dogs confined by tethers to those confined in pens found no evidence that tethering is either unsafe or inhumane (Houpt K). The most common tethering systems used by mushers allow dogs to interact more directly with their surroundings, musher and handlers, and with teammates.
The tethering method preferred by most mushers involves attaching a chain to a rotation device at the top of a post or pipe, thus allowing the chain to travel in a full circle around the post. One simple rotation device uses a piece of rebar with a 90-degree angle bend and an eye for the chain welded on the end. A hollow iron or steel pipe is driven into the ground to serve as the post. In use, the long arm of the rebar slips inside the pipe allowing the rebar to swing in a complete circle. With this system the post can be easily lengthened in deep snow by slipping a taller pipe of larger diameter over the shorter summer post. Another method to allow for rotation is to bolt the end ring of a chain to the top of a beveled solid wooden post.
Using a top-mounted post and swivel chain system, each dog needs a strong chain of 5 to 7 ft
(1.5 to 2 m) in length rotating on a post of about 3 to 4 ft (0.9 to 1.2 m) in height, with at least another 3 ft (1 m), preferably more, buried in the ground. A pole of this height will hold the chain above most snow accumulations. If snow is deeper, provide taller poles and longer chains. Never use cable to tether dogs to their posts. Cable is much too likely to tangle around legs (in an armpit or hock) and can cinch up like a snare. Cables also have a tendency to fray and break.
The optimal length of the chain is somewhat longer than the height of the pole or post. If the chain is too short the dog will not have enough space to lie down or move around comfortably. If the chain is too long it will drag on the ground too much, increasing the chances for a tangle and spreading and breaking up feces before they can be cleaned up. For soil-based kennels that use tethers, it is best to use elevated tethers to minimize the amount of time that the chain drags on the ground.
The simplest method of tethering sled dogs is the post and loop, or post and chain method. This involves looping a chain around a solidly buried post or pole. The chain should have a large loop, or preferably a large welded steel ring securely built into one end with an S-hook or quick link. The loop or ring should be at least twice the diameter of the post to minimize binding. The post may be either wood or steel, but it must be smooth to allow the chain to rotate freely. The post must also be tall enough so that the chain loop or ring cannot fly up and over the top, especially when the dog jumps up on top of its house. A 5 ft (1.5 m) post is generally adequate. Where posts cannot be reliably buried, a 100-lb (45.5 kg) concrete block with an eyebolt cast in the center and a swivel attached will adequately secure a 5 ft chain.
Although the post and chain method is easy to set up, it has a few major drawbacks. The chain drags entirely on the ground, stirring up a dust cloud, spreading feces around, and making cleanup much more difficult. Also, the chain often freezes to the ice and snow when the dog urinates on its post. The chain is also more prone to binding around the post than in other methods, so it must be checked several times each day.
Whichever tethering method you use, space the posts so that adjacent chains can’t overlap and so that dogs can’t tangle or strangle each other. Strong hardware is also essential. Look for snaps that are durable, easy to open with a gloved hand yet difficult for dogs to activate. A bull snap is reliable because it requires the gate to be rotated outward. Snaps and chains do wear out, so replace them before they cause problems. We recommend using a snap with a swivel on each chain to avoid tangles and possible choking, as well as to save wear and tear on the chain and snap. It is preferable to use two swivels on each chain to provide a backup in case one fails (ices up, for example). A snap at both ends of the tether also gives you an instant “leash” when moving dogs from place to place. This is important in the unlikely event that you need to evacuate the dogs from your kennel. Having each dog with its own tie-out makes emergency kenneling in a safe location easier. The drawback is that snaps have a shorter life-span than solid links but the added convenience is well worth the extra cost.
Using either of the tethering systems described here with 5 ft chains gives each dog an area of slightly more than 78 square feet in which to exercise. With 6 ft chains, the dog’s play area is increased to about 113 square feet, and 7 ft chains allow each dog a personal playground of nearly 155 square feet.
Fenced Runs or Pens:
Runs or pens must be large enough to allow dogs to perform most behaviors that are typical of their species. It is recommended that pens provide at least 100 square feet of space for each dog housed within them. Many certified behaviorists have observed that dogs spend more time exercising in rectangular pens rather than in square, so a pen measuring 10’ X 20’ would be very effective for two dogs housed together. (Rollet J)
Chain link or sturdy woven wire fencing with walls buried 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) into the ground provide a sturdy barrier that discourages digging. A fence height of 5 ft (1.5 m) or higher is recommended to discourage climbing. Place doghouses so the roof cannot be used as a platform from which a dog can climb or jump over a fence.
Runs and pens should be equipped with gates that are wide enough to permit easy entry and exit, but which can be closed quickly if necessary to prevent a dog from “rushing” the gate and escaping. Gates should be installed with thresholds that allow for snow to accumulate without interfering with the gate opening and closing. These thresholds should also be removable to allow for access with equipment like wheelbarrows and carts. Gates should be equipped with latching devices that are easy for the musher to manipulate while wearing gloves, but difficult for dogs to manipulate. During winter it is important to shovel snow well away from gates in order for them to swing fully open when necessary, especially if thresholds are not incorporated in the design. Thresholds of 1 ft high that are removable for maintenance will almost completely eliminate the need for snow shoveling.
Some mushers have used “hot wire” electrical fencing successfully to prevent burrowing under and climbing over fences. The goal of electric fencing is to modify the behavior of the dog and provide a visual cue to restrict the animal. “Invisible” underground fencing has seen only limited success in sled dog kennels where no other fence or physical barrier is used.
The most reliable way of preventing unplanned litters is to spay or neuter all dogs you do not intend to breed. Regardless of the primary confinement system used, if your kennel includes any intact (unspayed) female you will need a heat pen to prevent unplanned litters. Plan enough space in the pen or pens to contain all of your intact females at the same time. Females in season (heat) tend to stimulate other intact females’ heat cycles. A secure gate and walls at least 5 ft high are minimum requirements. A fenced roof keeps climbers out and burying about 2 ft of fencing or lining the pen with boulders helps discourage digging. Chain and house the female dogs in the pen so they can’t jump over the fence and to prevent “through fence” breeding. If only one intact female is in season, she may be housed with another compatible female or neutered male to provide company and mental stimulation. If you decide to breed your dogs, it's also nice to have a pen large enough to accommodate a pair of dogs. Note that heat pens can also serve as puppy pens later on, so be sure that the fencing material fencing used is fine enough to prevent puppies’ heads and adult dogs’ feet and legs from getting trapped.
Every dog that spends time outside your home should have its own house. It should be large enough for the dog to turn around and relax in, but small enough to conserve body heat in cold weather. A wooden house or plastic barrel that is raised a few inches off the ground works nicely. During winter doghouses must be kept on top of the snow so that they continue to be useful and safe.
Insulation is a must for warmth and comfort in the winter. Some short or thin coated dogs require fully insulated dog houses to maintain a normal body temperature during extremely cold weather. Most double-coated sled dogs do just fine with a deep bed of straw or wood chips. Replenish bedding every few weeks and replace it if wet. Beware of foxtails, mold, contact dermatitis and individual allergies. If a dog develops a problem with one type of bedding switch to another. Remove bedding during summer months to keep dogs cooler and prevent irritation from mold, dampness or skin parasites.
Consider buying or building doghouses with removable roofs or floors, which make it easier to change bedding. Other design options worth considering include flat roofs that provide comfortable sunning, sleeping and observation platforms for dogs. Many mushers train their dogs to jump on top of their flat-roofed houses for handling, nail trimming and other husbandry procedures. Houses with doors placed above the level of the floor help keep the inside dry and hold in the straw or other bedding material. A trim board around the door helps keep male dogs from urinating through the door, deflects wind and rain, and discourages chewing and chain wear around the door. Wooden doghouses that are painted last longer than those left bare but be sure to avoid paints and stains that contain lead or toxic chemicals.
Social and Psychological Stimulation in the Dog Yard:
Recent research indicates that both social and psychological stimulation in the housing area may be even more important for maintaining physical and mental health in dogs than providing adequate space. (Hubrecth 1995, Hughes & Campbell 1998). This doesn’t mean that space is not important, but rather stresses the importance of providing a stimulating environment for your dogs. The quality of life of a sled dog is not based only on its environment and confinement method, but also on what the dog does outside of the tether and the dog yard. The following ideas may help to improve the dog’s quality of life while it is in the yard.
Dogs are very social creatures. They thrive in an environment in which they can interact with their teammates. Whenever feasible, dogs should able to see, smell and safely play with each other. Isolating dogs from the company of their teammates has been associated with an increased incidence of behavioral abnormalities. (Hetts et al. 1992). Research has shown that dogs housed in a way that allows them to interact with at least one companion spend a similar amount of time interacting with each other as dogs kept in groups of 5-11 animals. (Hubrecht 1993). If you must isolate a dog from his or her teammates because of health issues, aggression or to isolate a bitch in season, try to keep the duration to a minimum. Isolated dogs should be given extra human interaction and housed within sight of other dogs. (Hubrecht 1993).
Generally, you should provide dogs with a stimulating, non-barren environment. Toys, chew bones and other safe objects with unique smells and placement can provide psychological stimulation. Offer a variety of appropriate items and rotate them frequently between dogs. Many mushers incorporate a “play area” in their kennels in which compatible dogs can interact under supervision.
Spend time interacting with each of your dogs while doing chores and include additional time to play with your dogs and train them to perform simple behaviors. Try to make all such interactions as positive and rewarding for the dogs as possible. Most importantly, take your dogs on frequent training and conditioning runs. Working with other team members, physical exercise and the unique sights and scents of the trail are the best possible form of stimulation for working dogs.
Dogs as Good Neighbors
If you live near other people, it is important to teach your dogs to be quiet. Respect for the rights of other people for peace and quiet makes for happy neighbors and promotes a positive image of the sport. Dogs bark for a reason; it could be to get your attention, to communicate to other dogs, or to announce a visitor (moose, fox, human, etc). A daily howl can express happy communication in the dog yard, but dogs can be trained to be quiet most of the time.
Once you discover the reason for the barking, it may be possible to train them to bark only at acceptable times. Some methods that work include (1) providing a positive experience when they are quiet. This takes a lot of work, but the success is most satisfying, both to dogs and to mushers, and/or (2) providing consistent training when they do bark—a dousing from a squirt gun in summer, hitting the top of a dog house, or a vocal reprimand. You must be consistent and correct them, even at 3 a.m., in order to be successful. If all efforts fail and you can't seem to get a dog to be quiet, discuss the issue with a professional trainer or your veterinarian.
Dogs should travel in safety and comfort in dog boxes or airline crates. Dogs need to be restrained during travel to prevent injury to themselves and to other occupants of the vehicle. Dogs left in the back of pickup trucks and in the back seat in the cab are risks to themselves, the occupants of the vehicle and to other vehicles on the road.
Dog boxes or crates should be large enough for the animal to stretch and turn around in. They should have dry bedding and adequate ventilation. Dog boxes should be well-constructed, have user-friendly latches and locking devices and should be securely attached to the vehicle.
Boxes should not be open or vented in the back of the truck because the vacuum created behind the truck can suck in exhaust fumes. Many mushers modify the exhaust systems of their vehicles so they discharge above the dog box to reduce the exposure to toxic fumes. Mushers in regions noted for extremely hot or humid conditions may equip their dog trucks with ventilation systems for cooling. These ventilation systems should be designed so they draw clean air from the front of the box and exhaust air towards the back to prevent back-drafting of vehicle exhaust.
Some mushers believe that dogs are more comfortable when doubled-up in larger boxes. If you wish to do this, be sure to match compatible companions. When traveling, dogs should be taken out (“dropped”) several times a day. The dogs can be safely left for eight hours at night as long as the vehicle is not moving. Some dogs require their bedding to be changed every day; others, not until the straw has broken down. Drop chains should be kept short to avoid entanglement. Leaving the drop chains or plastic-coated cables in the boxes or on the dogs while traveling keeps the snaps thawed.
While on the road, as at home, keep water buckets clean. Avoid parking where other dogs have been in order to avoid exposure to diseases and parasites. It is best not to store smelly food and equipment in motel rooms, for the sake of your hosts. It is also important that mushers rake up straw and other waste from wherever they have dropped their dogs and dispose of it properly.
“Gang Chain” for temporary confinement on the trail.
The figure cited for pen housing is extrapolated from Table 1 appearing in Hubrecht R., “Comfortable Quarters for Laboratory Dogs”; UNIVERSITIES FEDERATION FOR ANIMAL WELFARE, 8 HAMILTON CLOSE, SOUTH MIMMS,POTTERS BAR, HERTFORDSHIRE, EN6 3QD, UNITED KINGDOM. This table lists 8.0m as the minimum floor space per dog for dogs weighing 35 or more lb., kept in research facilities. The Mush with P.R.I.D.E. Guidelines Committee chose to recommend the larger, 100 square feet per dog figure because sled dogs tend to be more active than dogs in research facilities (Houpt K).
Hetts S, Clark JD, Calpin JP, Arnold CE, Mateo JM 1992. Influence of Housing Conditions on Beagle Behavior. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 34. Houpt K, Reynolds A, Erb H, Sung W, Golden G, Yeon W;
A Comparison of Tethering and Pen
Confinement of Dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, vol 4, no 4, 2001.
Hubrecht RC 1993. A Comparison of Social and Environmental Enrichment Methods for Laboratory Housed Dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 37. Hubrecht R 1995 The Welfare of Dogs in Human Care. In Serpell J (ed.), The Domestic Dog 179
198. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hughes, H. C., & Campbell, S. A. (1989). Effect of Primary Enclosure Size and Human Contact. In J. Mench & L. Krulisch (Eds.), Canine research environment (pp. 66–73). Bethesda, MD: Scientists Center for Animal Welfare.
Rollet J (CCB). Private Email correspondence with Thomas Swan, 6/8/07