Wade Marrs on “Best Care”

Yesterday, the Iditarod issued a press release regarding a new program that will implement dog care and kennel standards that future entrants must comply to.  While I believe this is an appropriate step for our sport, it seems information being released from another kennel, Crazy Dog Kennels (Zoya Denure) has published on their website some of the “Best Care” guidelines being adopted in Colorado and Whitehorse that they hope to implement in Alaska. Zoya has confirmed that her husband, a columnist for Anchorage Daily News, will have an article published on these standards in the 12/3 paper.  Keep in mind that as of now, Iditarod has not released any guidelines in regards to a care program, but have organized a panel of mushers to help create them. I am happy to hear this, as I see some serious concerns with the drafted guidelines posted by Crazy Dog Kennels. (More below)

As a child, I was a very frequent visitor at the Redington households, adopted child status almost, and if there was a visiting musher (or mushers) I’d be sure to be there. Eyes and ears open, I took in every word. Most of them probably thought I was an awkward shy kid, but truthfully, I didn’t have much to add to conversation at the time, I was busy learning. I had the privilege of learning from different mushers with different training programs and kennel care criteria. I attribute a large part my dog team’s growing success to the time I was able to spend at the Redington’s, learning the invaluable lessons from a vast array of mushers that I carry on with my dog team today. I will never be able to thank them enough for those experiences.

But as I grew older, like most kids, I started to notice trends. It didn’t take me long to put two and two together and realize that there are 2 different kinds of mushers. The first, being so intensely involved with “the books” of the operation, with every dog’s pedigree written to the farthest extent, and pages of logs containing each dog’s daily “foot print”(or “paw print”), what they ate, training, exact start and stop days of estrus cycles: the list goes on and on. The second kind of musher, being almost the exact opposite, is the kind of musher who spends almost every waking hour with his/her team either on the trail, or out in the yard. The one who doesn’t always remember a full pedigree, or log accurate monthly feeding schedules, or recollect exactly which female was coming into heat next.

From my child to adult observations, it was ultimately the second group of mushers that seemed so instinctively in tune to their kennel. Yeah, so things weren’t logged and posted to OSHA like standards, but the second group seemed to know what was best for their dog team on and off the trail. I’ve seen so many mushers spend too much time focusing on the logistics or how to create/afford the best of the best in their yard, that they pushed aside the mental and physical relationship that occurs “outside of the books”.  That “outside the books” time is critical for a happy, healthy, and successful dog team. To me, finding the balance between understanding and implementing rules that benefit the dogs is the right place to be. At least for me.

I’m a high school dropout who thought (still do) that chasing my dreams of winning the Iditarod and spending all day on the trail with my best friends was more important than furthering my academics. I’m not ashamed to put myself in that second category of mushers. Writing, much less logging, is not something that comes easy to me. I constantly tell Sophie that I’m not good at math and numbers but she will sit and roll her eyes when I rattle off endless run/rest equations and when I ask her to sit down and look at the multiple Iditarod schedules I’ve created in just a short amount of time. Proof that unwritten and unmeasurable passion can sometimes trump our greatest weaknesses. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this: to stand up for that second group of mushers. The ones who may not have the time or resources to show for the level of love and care they provide for their dogs.

I also believe that this knee jerk reaction of implementing a care program centered around Iditarod brings attention to a problem that isn’t specific to our organization. If anyone is familiar with the seemingly outdated and ignored Mush With P.R.I.D.E program, this recently announced future care program just seems like putting a new name on it. So why aren’t we updating the current Mush With P.R.I.D.E guidelines? A system that is already proven.  I’ve heard from multiple people that Mush With P.R.I.D.E isn’t as prevalent as it seems it should be because kennel care has evolved immensely. Yes, there are a few bad apple kennels, but the majority of all kennels do not have abuse or care issues, and if they do, the mushing community has done a great job at keeping those people accountable. If we are going to make a big deal about this, it needs to be done right. This should not be Iditarod inclusive, and it should be agreed upon/practiced by more than one major race organization. In the end, I am hopeful that Iditarod will spearhead this movement in a way that is beneficial to all mushers with safety and care of the dogs at the forefront.

That said, below is my list of concerns, with the published draft of best care practices shared by Zoya Denure and Crazy Dog Kennels.

Best Care Practices:

  1. Doghouses should be waterproof and in good repair with adequate lip around the entrance.

Adequate lip around the entrance, is too specific. Though most of my kennel has “lipped entrance” wooden houses, there are non lipped alternatives that still protect dogs from the weather. This rule also does away with barrel housing. When I moved from Knik to my new kennel property, I adapted barrel housing as the ground contained large boulders that are almost impossible to pound posts in. I’ve since created a new solution which involves laying large birch logs across the yard that hold the chain with an eyebolt. It does away with the poor aesthetics of barrels, and the dogs love jumping, laying, and playing on the logs. Out of approximately 40 total houses, 9 of which are  barrels. I plan on being completely transitioned to wooden houses with my current set up come spring.

  • Tethers must be 6’ minimum and equipped with a swivel.

I know I’m not alone in having a dislike for swivel posts with chains. I’ve been in more than one kennel/tour operations where I’ve seen dogs jump off their house and get major injuries because of inappropriate chain length that gets caught under their limbs. They also can cause injury to guests if they are hit in head with the swivel. The main attraction for swivel posts is the amount of area the dogs get to run in. With my log and chain set up, the chain never wraps around a post, the eyebolt is pounded far enough into the log where any wrapping of the chain is undone by itself giving the dogs a large area of circumference in their runs. Swivel posts may give the most circumference, but they have their own issues and they are not the only safe alternative.

  • Pens should be a minimum of 100’ feet for a single dog and 150’ feet for 2 dogs.  Fencing should be adequate, designed to prevent injury and without holes.  No standing water in chain areas or pens.
    • Indoor house should be available for older dogs and short-haired dogs.

Old dogs/short haired, too specific. I have a fairly young kennel, and out of the few retirees I did have, most have been adopted. Although there are a few older dogs here who I know would highly protest being inside a warm building. This should be individualized and up to musher discretion. If the dog should be medically monitored due to old age, not able to maintain normal body temperature or appears unhappy outside, the musher should find a resolution. That is simply being a good dog owner.

My Alaskans have a lot of sprint/hound influence. Many comment on their lack of long coat or stereotypical husky appearance. Despite lack of long hair, they do develop a thick undercoat and adapt wonderfully to the cold. So what exactly draws the line on old dogs and short coats?
• Dog areas should be cleaned once daily. This is being a responsible dog owner.
• Unless there is constant monitoring, no more than 5 dogs in one pen.2.

2. All dogs must have adequate caloric intake and be fed at least once daily. Fresh, clean water available in non-freezing months. The listed is again simply being a responsible dog owner. Dogs fed and or baited water 2x’s daily during winter months.

3. Dogs should have a documentable worming protocol.  Coats will be free of matting, toenails at good length. Again, responsible dog owner.

4. Socialization. dogs must have consistent direct contact with people and other dogs. Being a responsible dog owner.

5. Tethering.  Proper tethering should allow most individual dogs to interact with one another by touching, playing and resolving conflict, while still maintaining individual space.  Aggressive dogs may need to have more space from others.
Highly disagree, dogs that can constantly touch are at risk for causing injury to each other, especially if you expect them to “resolve conflict”. Dogs don’t shake hands and agree to disagree. One displays a dominant behavior and the other backs down or reacts…most of the time inappropriately. My dogs personal areas are not able to be reached by their kennel mates. We provide dog to dog socialization by play off the chain and time on the trail. This provides a safe environment in my kennel.
It is important for sled dogs to be in a wide open area that is highly visible to each other and all dog caretakers.  Mushers and guests are able to interact with each dog in their own space.  Tethering allows caretakers to easily notice changes in behavior, apetite and in activeness.  Each dog can be individualized to monitor eating, drinking, behavior and stool health.  Humane tethering, coupled with an excellent off tether exercise program is optimum.

6. Dogs should have straw or ship bedding at temperatures consistently colder than 20*F

7. Breeding.  Sufficient pens to separate females in estrus. Disagree. Some teams train all males, mine along with others are majorly females. Having that many heat pens will take up a considerable amount of space, especially since the majority of my females cycle at the same time. A fenced area around the females is not necessary with good monitoring and housing of males, and should be left to the discretion of the musher and/or property owner. Whelped females should not be tethered.

8.Euthanasia. If a dog is no longer healthy and pain-free it may be euthanized by a veterinarian. This brings most concern to remote areas who do not have readily available access to a veterinarian.

9. On site care. The staff should be knowledgeable.  Large kennels, (in excess of 25 animals) should have constant monitoring available.

10. No more than 30 dogs per caregiver at single location.

11.Record-keeping.  Meticulous record-keeping is the most important piece in any kennel program. Committee members and veterinarians must be able follow individual dogs.  All dogs should have a kennel card with a complete physical and psychological description.  Name, birth date, sex, previous owners, when acquired, spay/neuter should all be recorded.  Additionally, breeding, worming and veterinary records should also be available.  Deceased animals will have the cause and date of death recorded.Also, a monthly training and conditioning must be kept for each dog.Seems a little specific for some, especially when a team all completes the same training.

When not working or pulling sleds, or for dogs no longer working, a log of days and times off-tether must be kept.

At SJK our puppies spend safe time in pens with their mother, as well as supervised puppy hikes around the acres of swamp and woods available to them. The retired dogs are spayed/neutered upon retirement and spend a large part of their day outside monitoring dog yard shenanigans or inside keeping a spot on the couch warm for you. I’d hate to take 30 minutes away from them to make sure thats all documented…


I’d be happy to engage in conversation regarding the importance of sled dog care. You know how to reach me, lets chat!