Rob's Blog Archive

June 3, 2012

Building a Kennel










I moved to Montana in July, 2003.  I had two house dogs, Dawn and Tenaya.  I found a house to rent that accepted dogs a week after I arrived and moved in. The following October, I purchased Jake and Jag.  That gave me two house dogs and two yard dogs. 

June, 2004, I purchased the twenty acres I call home.  The grandchildren of the gent I bought this place from had named the pond Silly Lake and I knew not to argue with such wisdom.  I moved into the house right before Independence Day.  It took a couple of weeks, but I eventually got my fencing up---a combination of panels and permanent cyclone.  Once this was completed, Sima, Tok, Fondue, and Vixen joined our merry band.   My friend, Jacques Porter, had suggested, “Silly Lake Siberians” for my kennel name.  The macho part of me objected, but the poet in me pointed out that it had a ring---the poet won.

Spring of 2005, I added five dogs.  Quid came down during the fall and that got me up to 12 sled dogs and two house dogs.  With Tanner and Shoshone the following spring, I may have made the most substantial improvement of my racing team since I first got Jake and Jag.  That gave me 14 sled dogs and the girls.  A year later I added five dogs in the spring and one in the fall.  With these dogs, I expanded my dogyard from two concentric arcs of doghouses to six rows.  The full sequence was 2, 6, 12, 14, 20, 21, 22, 22, and 21 in my dogyard. 

With all of these additions and changes, my most difficult adjustment occurred when I got Dawn and Tenaya.  Sapura, the dog who saw me age from 20 to almost 34, had passed away nine years earlier.  I had learned from Sapura that Siberians, particularly, are happiest with a roomie.  When I got back into dogs, I was often gone for 12-16 hours a day, so it wasn’t going to be me.  A pair of dogs made sense.  While doing research regarding pairs of dogs, I learned that littermates had an established dominance/submission relationship, so a pair of littermates would be far less likely to fight than a pair of strangers.  Dawn and Tenaya, a pair of eighteen month old littermates, fit the bill perfectly.

Owning two dogs surprised me in two different ways.  First, these year and a half year olds didn’t have a pecking order established and did fight.  I learned that the established pecking order thing was simply incorrect.  The fighting ended after three months and only when Dawn went onto Phenobarbital for seizures and mellowed just enough to no longer care about dominance.   The second and arguably bigger surprise was that I had almost no clue how to divide my attention and affection between the girls.  Sapura and I had had a one on one relationship.  Two dogs was very different.  It took time and there were glitches along the way, but I did figure it out. 

By comparison, adding Jake and Jag five years later went very easily.  From the get go, Jake, Jag and the girls got along.  In fact, the kennel remained peaceful and easy to manage until Ghost and Quid entered the scene.  Both wanted to be alphas.  Neither had a chance----Ghost because he was too small and Quid because he managed to inherit the same level of intelligence and fighting ability that his brother, Quinn, had.  Let’s just say that this part of the Q continuum isn’t as all powerful as the one in Star Trek.

Unlike a lot of mushers, my males are the dogs who fight.  During the course of events, yard time is their only real opportunity to do this.  I supervise this and generally do a good job of cooling things off before they get too hot, but I can’t be everywhere.  Additionally, with hundreds of yard times a year, it’s just odds that a fight will occasionally break out.  When it does happen, I intervene as soon as I can.   In the tradition of a pack alpha, I make sure the combatants understand that if they fight at all, it’s going to be with me and they are going to lose. 

Fights have generally been infrequent, but they did peak right before I had my hip replaced.  I believe the dogs with alpha aspirations were jockeying for position prior to my expected demise.  With my recovery, at least that fighting stopped. 

And since then, the frequency with which I even have to break up pre-fights has gone down every year.  My old kennel may be a bit slower than they used to be, but age and wisdom and a bit of infirmity are intervening and preventing fights.  Ghost, particularly, is mostly blind and no longer bids at all for the top spot.  Happily, all the dogs he used to piss off are giving him a bit of slack when he doesn’t manipulate his many blind spots and few visual spots around adequately and bumps into one.  My soft and harsh words for good and bad behaviors in this regard have helped, but I have only been building on my dogs’ instincts to give old and infirmed members of a pack a break. 

One of the things that never confused me was dealing with all of the different personalities in my kennel.  While prior to getting the girls, I owned only one dog, I often lived in multi-dog households.  This was necessitated by being either a poor student or poor post-doc and, along with another poor student or post-doc, needing a place to live that allowed dogs.  In retrospect, this laid a good foundation for owning a kennel.  I may not have known the word, alpha, but I understood how to have that presence.  I had also learned that it’s about leadership, not control, something that suited me just fine.  Once I got the girls, I listened to several friends with ten to fifteen dogs, and this built nicely on my foundation. 

Of course, it’s not just recognizing differences in personalities, it’s treating each dog based on his or her individual personality that’s important.  Ironically, I can yell as loud as I want at my rescue if she does something wrong.  She recognizes it’s punishment, usually acknowledges this by a submissive posture and occasionally even obedience, and then moves on.   From the time I got Cameo, I knew that she had had a healthy puppyhood.  Conversely Kennicott, a female from Chlupach/Outwin lines but brought up by somebody else, still has some self confidence issues.  They’re not at all severe, just inconvenient---hook-ups and runs are not quite as smooth as they would be if she were more confident.  Of course, this isn’t aided by the fact that she vies with Quid for being the most intellectually challenged dog in my yard.  Yelling at her would only stress and confuse her more---not the reaction I want on any count.  Two full seasons at Silly Lake with a very strong emphasis on complements when she does things right behind her and she has almost figured out my hook-up routine and that hook-ups are a good thing.  We’ll get there.    

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for an owner of many dogs, remembering where each dog likes to be scratched and how is critical.  Base of the tail is usually a good bet, but Daisy, for example, is much happier with her chest or face being scratched.  Tempest and Otter like variety.  Shoshone likes a nice hug more than he likes being scratched.  So does Lolo, though I have to watch my angles with him (see “Don’t Try This with Horses”).  And Zappa loves to jump up and give me a hug while I scratch his back. 

Studies show that one of the big behavioral differences between dogs and wolves is if given a problem, a wolf will work until he solves it.  A dog will usually give it a go, then look up toward the nearest person for a clue.  We’ve bred them to read us.  And, given how beneficial the relationship between dogs and people has been, I suspect we’ve evolved to read them as well.    

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