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Keeping Your Kennel the Right Size

Determining Your Needs

Any trainable dog can be a sled dog, depending on what you want to do with it. A musher must use appropriate care when asking any dog to work. A team of beagles can pull a sled, but they couldn't break trail in deep snow. A team of 30 lb border collies might pull well, but they should be outfitted with booties to protect their long-haired feet. A team of poodles can make good sled dogs but it isn't wise to ask them to camp out in severe weather.

Some dogs have a head start for some types of mushing. Northern breeds evolved specifically as sled dogs and they have physical adaptations that keep them comfortable in very cold weather. Thousands of years of selective breeding have given them a strong instinct to run and pull.

When deciding how many dogs you should own, consider how much money and time you can dedicate to your team, what your zoning laws and living situation will allow, and what it will take to do the type of mushing you want. There are different types of sled dogs and you will need fewer dogs if all of the dogs you own are suitable for what you want to do. If you keep fewer dogs, your costs will be lower, and you can give more attention and better care to the ones you have. Keep your kennel the size you can care for properly. Donít let numbers increase to the point that neither you nor the dogs are happy.

Preventing Breeding

The most effective method for preventing dogs from breeding is to spay or neuter all dogs you do not intend to breed. Spaying (ovariohysterectomy) or neutering (castration) are good options for dealing with heat cycles and for preventing unwanted litters. Sterilization can also make it easier to run females and males together, and can save money by reducing dogfights, health problems, and food requirements. Spaying and neutering can save a tremendous amount of frustration, energy and money in the long run. One unwanted litter or one serious dogfight is much more expensive than the cost of the surgery.

Some mushers are under the false impression that spaying or neutering will reduce the drive of the racing sled dog, but this is not the case. (Zink 2005) Many top long-distance and sprint mushers have successfully run neutered and spayed dogs in their racing teams with no decrease in performance. And, many races have been lost by having a bitch come into heat at an inopportune time. The only reason to not neuter or spay a dog is the desire to breed the dog.

Some veterinarians who specialize in canine athletes recommend spaying or neutering athletic dogs including working sled dogs any time after 14 months of age. Dogs sterilized prior to puberty seem to run a higher risk of injuries to bones and joints, to some types of cancers and to some behavioral problems, including fearfulness and aggression. (Zink)

If you own any female dogs that aren't spayed, you must have at least one heat pen. It should be capable of containing all dogs in season comfortably and securely at the same time. To be effective your heat pen should be either tall enough or roofed over so that dogs can't get in or out. Even if all of your male dogs are secured and under control, the heat pen is necessary to prevent breeding with stray dogs. (See The Dog Yard and Housing section for details on heat pen design.)

If you suspect a bitch has been accidentally bred, consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet may be able to perform tests to determine whether or not she is actually pregnant. If she is pregnant you may abort the pregnancy and prevent future mishaps by having the vet spay the dog. If you strongly feel you want to breed her in the future, treatments are available to terminate pregnancy if given within a few days of breeding. Abortions can cause complications and aren't a substitute for prevention. Consult your veterinarian for details.

What to Do with Dogs You Don't Want to Keep

It is unfair to the dogs to own more than you can handle. Any musher only has so much time, space, and money, and those are divided by the number of dogs in the yard. Sled dogs are born to run and should not be kept on their chains all their lives. Don't keep them if you don't have the time to exercise them. Review your needs, honestly evaluate the dogs you already have and then decide the best course of action.

The most difficult part of owning dogs is figuring out what to do with the ones you can't keep. You might be able to sell your extra dogs, but donít assume so. The market is very limited except for sellers with top-notch kennel records or dogs from rare and highly desirable bloodlines. If you do sell dogs, be honest and try to make the right matches. Be sure that the new owner will care for the dog properly. Consider giving trial and return periods as a means to encourage adoption. Occasionally contacting and being available to assist new owners in the care of your old dog is a great way to maintain a positive relationship with the new owner and let you maintain a lifelong connection to the dog.

Another option is to give surplus dogs away to interested, reliable people. Consider recreational or junior mushers, skijorers, mushers competing in a different mushing discipline or less demanding classes, or pet owners looking for a companion. Be sure to fit the dog to the right person. Many sled dogs are challenging pets; some have an instinct to roam or kill livestock and are often more independent than some pet owners expect. Keep in mind that dogs that have been properly cared for and socialized have the best chances to be placed. Since a dog that is not good enough to keep is probably not good enough to breed, consider having the dog spayed or neutered before giving it away, or requiring that the person taking the dog have the operation performed.

If you are unable to find new homes for unwanted dogs you may be able to relinquish your surplus dogs to a sled dog rescue organization. Some sled dog rescue groups specialize in pure¨bred dogs such as Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes, and others are willing to accept Alaskan huskies and other mixed breeds. A group that specializes in sled dogs will generally have a better chance of placing your working dogs in an appropriate home than a government operated animal shelter. Such shelters should only be considered for dire and/or emergency situations.

If you must relinquish your dogs to an animal control agency be aware that any dog not adopted within a limited time period will probably be euthanized no matter how friendly or well-socialized the dog is. Sled dogs are often misidentified as non-adoptable or overly aggressive by some shelters and can be euthanized immediately based on local ordinances or requirements. Your dogís chances of survival are much greater if you take responsibility for finding it a new home yourself.  

Acquiring Dogs

It is important that you determine your mushing goals before acquiring even a single sled dog. Once your mushing goal is firmly established acquire only those dogs with physical and behavioral attributes that will help you achieve that goal. This will prevent you from acquiring unsuitable dogs that will need to be re-homed later.

Leasing or borrowing dogs may be an option if you aren't sure how committed you are or if you need extra dogs for only one race or one season. Shop carefully, as there are many options. Ensure your lease or loan agreement is clear about who is financially responsible for illnesses or injuries, and remember that borrowed dogs need the same responsible care as the ones you own. Another option is to volunteer to “foster” rescued sled dogs for a sled dog rescue organizations.

When you are ready to establish your own kennel, keep your mushing goal in mind. If your goal is to win sled dog races, it isn’t enough to buy the best dogs you can afford. Instead, you must afford the best dogs you can buy. Today’s sled dog races are extremely competitive. Only teams made up of exceptional dogs can win consistently.

Mushers with more modest goals have a much wider range of options. Experienced sled dogs suitable for a variety of mushing disciplines are frequently available through sled dog rescue organizations or from other mushers in your area who have surplus dogs that need to be re-homed. There are very good dogs available but you have to make sure the dogs you get are the right dogs for you. Don't make the assumption that a dog from a well-known kennel or bloodline will meet your needs. Evaluate the individual dog in relation to your goals. For help in evaluating the health of the dog you are considering acquiring, see the Basic Health Care: Basic Health Examination section.

Another option for building a team is raising puppies yourself if you have the time and energy for this process. Good dogs are easier and probably less expensive to buy than to raise. However, raising puppies is a fulfilling experience if you can afford to do it and have homes for each of the puppies. Breeding sled dogs should be viewed as a way to produce better dogs, not just more dogs.

If you do decide to breed dogs, remember that in less than six months you will have essentially full grown dogs, each needing a house and chain or a pen of its own. For Alaskan huskies, plan on more than six pups per litter. A litter can easily be as many as ten or as few as one. Two litters can therefore produce as many as twenty new dogs!

Before you breed dogs you must do two things: (1) Make a realistic plan for what you will do with every pup that is born. (2) Ensure that the dogs you breed have all the essential characteristics you want. If you don't have the right dogs, buy a good female, buy the service of a good stud, or offer to raise pups for a musher who has high quality dogs. Never breed dogs with any physical or behavioral defects. Undesirable attributes are as likely to be inherited by their offspring as the traits you wish to perpetuate.

Remember that good genes are responsible for only a portion of the final result. Raising excellent sled dogs requires excellent physical care, mental and physical conditioning, socialization and training. The more time you spend with your puppies the better sled dogs they will be.

Both male and female dogs become fertile at six to 12 months of age. The average interval between estrus cycles is about six months, but it varies widely. Some females to come into heat every three to four months, others only once a year. Although a female may be bred in her first heat, many breeders prefer not to because it interrupts her growth and because young dogs can be poor mothers. It is also a good idea not to breed very young dogs so that you can be sure they have the traits you want. Older dogs can be bred, but fertility generally declines after about 10 years of age. Be cautious about breeding females over six years old that have not been bred for two or three years, as they more frequently have problems with whelping.

Be sure the female is adequately vaccinated and wormed before breeding. Be sure to disinfect the puppy pen, doghouse and whelping box before the pups arrive. Pups are usually born 60 to 65 days after the breeding. An experienced veterinarian can often tell if a dog is pregnant by palpating the abdomen 21 to 28 days after breeding. For more information, consult your veterinarian.

A pregnant female will need progressively more food starting the last three weeks of her pregnancy. The female should be in good condition and weight, Do not allow her to become obese, as this can cause trouble during whelping. See the Feeding and Watering section for more information.

Zink,C.,“Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete One Veterinarian's Opinion”,Canine Sports Productions,, 2005


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