Rob's Blog Archive

August 11, 2013

Old Dogs










Otter had turned nine three and a half months before she ran down the Iditarod start chute in Willow.  Never an exceptional dog, she was durable and smooth in transition between a lope and a trot.  With only 21 racing dogs in my kennel in 2009, a solid nine year old was going to make my team.  And along the trail, she did just fine. 

Three years later she did a pair of hilly fifteen mile sled runs that averaged more than 10 mph.  So did her half sister, Vixen, who was the same age. 

This last season wasn’t as good for anybody.  Vixen continued to run with the team, at least with a slower group.  However, by the end of the season, Otter struggled and no longer enjoyed pulling with the team.  I left her behind as we did the last few runs of the season.  Otter’s movement right now is way too weak to hook her up with a team again---her last run was March 2, four years and one day after she trotted out of Willow.

Of the 21 racing dogs I owned the year I ran in the Iditarod, four have passed away.  I’ve added a rescue and three more racers----I now have 20 purebred racing stock Siberians, including Otter.  The average age in my kennel is nine and a half. 

The good news is that, while my dogs are now losing more than half a step each year, almost everybody continues to run and enjoy it.  Otter did her last run in March, but I hope to have everybody else in harness for my first hook-up, tentatively September 3.  This includes Vixen (13 last January), Fondue (12 last May), and Quid (12 next December). 

I moved to Silly Lake in July of 2004---a lifetime ago.  I had Dawn, Tenaya, Jake, and Jag.  I had purchased Vixen, Fondue, Sima and Tok---they would join me after I got platforms ready and fences up, a couple of weeks after I moved in.  That gave me six racers and my two show stock girls.  Dawn and Tenaya were seven. Fondue was four and Vixen five. Jake and Jag had just turned two and Sima and Tok wouldn’t turn two until the end of the following November. 

By default, Sima and Tok ended up at wheel.  Between the experiences from our first years racing and some clear ability, they became good at it.  They remained my favorite wheel dog pair through the 2009-2010 season.  That year, as seven year olds, I got to see their lopes for the first time since 2006---multi day distance racing is done at fast trots, and I had been doing this for the previous three seasons.  I look back at runs where we averaged 11 plus mph sledding for 23 miles, as always, on hills.  During the one race we ran---the 12 dog class at Flathead---we beat a couple of good teams of Alaskan Huskies. 

The year after that, Tok showed some hesitation.  Sima did better, but neither made the main team. A year later, they slowed even more.  Tok kept up and pulled intermittently, but, by the end of the 2011-2012 season, Sima was having difficulty simply keeping up with the team. 

Sima’s gait weakened during the summer of 2012 and an exam showed that he was starting to develop neurological issues---not overwhelming but easy to spot.  I wondered if he would ever pull a sled again.  Even last fall, I walked him more than I had him pull.  Happily, he really didn’t have a problem with that compromise---he did like his walks and so did I.  But, dogs and sledding have surprises.  Sima ended up running with the team and enjoying the final runs of the season.  He and Tok were no longer at wheel, but I again put them side by side.  Which is where they’ll start on my opening day this coming season.  Assuming everybody remains healthy for the next few weeks, they’ll be joined by three others of my first real racing team.   Only Jag----she was killed by a moose on a training run in Alaska---won’t be there. 

Which is not to say I won’t make accommodations.  I’ll start the season with a slow team and a fast team. That’s different from every other first run of the season I’ve done.  I always had slow and fast dogs running together until our first sled runs, typically sometime in December.  Which is fine.  With this separation, I’ll be able to cater runs to what each group can enjoy rather than pushing the old and slow and holding back the young and fast---actually younger and faster as most of my youngsters are still over six. 

I remember during last year’s Race to the Sky, getting into a discussion with a musher who had breached the top ten of Iditarod.  When asked about turn over for his team, he said it was low----about 25% a year.  Most racers sell dogs who are no longer making their main team and I’d guess he did that with his, too.  What racers who do this don’t understand is that selling dogs who can no longer compete conflicts with how the overwhelming majority view our relationship with our dogs. 

My view is that in a world where abusing and neglecting dogs is commonplace, I’m not going to worry about somebody who finds good homes for their dogs.  That said, it’s not what I do.  With only a little bit of luck, I’ll be running five of the six dogs from my first race team on my opening day, three weeks from now.

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