The Fan Hitch Volume 4, Number 3, May 2002

Newsletter of the Inuit Sled Dog

Table of Contents

Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Chuck Weiss
Research Paper 1: Survey of Diseases and Accidents
When to Start Working Dogs
A Day in the Woods
Future or Death
Reality Check: Reproduction or the Real Deal
Behaviour: Qiniliq Learns His Place
High Arctic Mushing: Part III
Book Review: Igloo Dwellers Were My Church
Janice Howls: All Along the Watch Tower
IMHO: Friends and Allies

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Ordering Ken MacRury's Thesis

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              Editor: Sue Hamilton
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The Fan Hitch Website and Publications of the Inuit Sled Dog– the quarterly Journal (retired in 2018) and PostScript – are dedicated to the aboriginal landrace traditional Inuit Sled Dog as well as related Inuit culture and traditions. 

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Running free along with the team, this tired pup rests on the qamutiq      Nora Sanders photo

When to Start Working Inuit Sled Dogs

In the Arctic, it is common for dogs as young as 5-6 months to travel along loose with the team of working Inuit Dogs. Certainly, by nine months at the latest, pups are put into harness and are working as part of the team in a fan hitch. These dogs are raised on a diet principally of seal meat, about 50 % fat, plus caribou, narwhale and Arctic Char, with no carbohydrates other than what may be found in the stomachs of some these animals. Dogs in the Arctic are often "used up" by the age of six years, although some have been known to live and work in some capacity to as long as eight or nine years. The principal reason for this short life span is assumed to be osteoarthritis. 

Please comment on the issue of what the risks may be of putting young freighting dogs such as Inuit Sled Dogs into harness at an early age and what your recommendations are.

THE RESPONSES (in no particular order):

G. G. Keller, D.V.M.: Veteriarian with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals
Exercise of this type, used with discretion, is all right.  A European proposal years ago suggested just this type of exercise for early identification of dogs with HD.  The weak just broke down earlier.

Paul Shurke: Arctic Adventurer and Owner of Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge, the largest kennel of pure Inuit Sled Dogs in the United States.
We start our young dogs in harness training at 8 months but they only do half
days at best during their first season.  We run them 3 days per week during their second season and they don’t go out on our extended camping or arctic trips until theyre at least three years of age.

Al Townshend, D.V.M.: Staff Veterinarian, Eagle Pet Products, Inc., and charter member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association 
I discussed this with Dr. Sonny King (veterinarian and Iditarod racer). We agree that it really doesn't make any difference when you start a dog in harness. Many very young dogs are put in harness with no ill effects. Most take time to adjust and become a part of a team. Initial training should be fun runs with experienced leaders so as to stimulate the pups and to give them a very pleasant experience.  I would expect that very few pups less than 8-9 months of age are advanced enough to put them in a hard working team pulling heavy weights and have them work well. 

My feeling is that there may not be any physical difficulty having a young dog (less than 8 months) pulling heavy loads, but there is great potential for that pup not to work well under such circumstances and to not contribute much to moving the load. There is also great potential to do mental harm that would ultimately affect the animal's performance as an adult. That is, bad experiences as a young animal will affect the dog's desire and enthusiasm later on which wound definitely inhibit the development of the full potential of this animal. Genetics, spirit and enthusiasm and good nutrition are the keys to developing the maximum potential of any animal you want to train.

Janice Dougherty: Licensed VeterinaryTechnician, Registered Nurse, Cynologist
To my way of thinking, it is asking for trouble to place a dog in a position of putting heavy, continuous stress on an incomplete skeleton. The growth plates close (go from soft cartilage to regular bone) at the same time as the sex hormones come into full play at the finish of growth, the end of adolescence, and the adult dentition is complete. When the skeleton is finished adding height at about 10 to 14 months, I think that is an appropriate time to BEGIN to incrementally increase a work load. I do believe in imprinting them on "harness work as normal part of life" very early. I think it is foolhardy to waste a year in idleness, but heavy, continuous work is asking for trouble. Most drivers of Alaskans feel they are at their peak working years from 3 to 7. Some Alaskans are still being run after 10. Most dogs, no matter what size, finish their secondary sex characteristics of muscling up, breadth of skull, etc. at about 2 1/2. This is not to say they are mature socially. What is expedient in the Arctic is not necessarily what is biologically/biomechanically optimal. As an aside, the Thoroughbreds in Kentucky are ridden and raced well before their final adult teeth come in (at age 6-7) and in the wild, I am sure young mares are pregnant before that age. However, it should be noted that the more prolonged youth of race horses in Great Britain results in a longer useful life in competition. Whatever someone has been getting away with, is what they'll tell you is best. If they shoot dogs in the Arctic at age 5, waiting (and feeding) till 2 is not going to happen, whether it's the "right thing" to do or not.

Andrew Bellars, M.A., Vet.M.B., M.R.C.V.S.: Veterinarian and British Antarctic Survey Veteran
From point of view of bone growth and soft tissues, nine months is ideal. Our problem in Antarctic was that pups were very active and mature at six months, so needed to be kept out of mischief, and easiest way was to harness them and start training. Then it was difficult to stop them working! In late '50s, Dr.Wayne Riser, of California, carried out an historic piece of work on a litter of GSDs known to have the inheritance for Hip Dysplasia. Half the litter were maintained in runs where they were restricted for exercise and could not jump up, while the other half were allowed to exercise normally. At nine months the restricted half's hips were totally normal on radiography, whereas the others were showing obvious signs of dysplasia. Now, no one is suggesting that all pups should be put in cotton-wool, and probably thereby become mental cases, but Riser was just showing that excessive early exercise can influence matters.

Greenland team scrambling out of a crevasse                                      Huctin photo

Joe Bodewes, D.V.M.: (Paul Schurke’s veterinarian)
This is a very controversial subject in all sporting dogs in addition to sled dogs. We know that most of these dogs have not reached complete closure and calcification of the growth plates until at least two years of age so the argument that you can cause bone and joint damage before that point is valid but doesn't hold up in the real world. The human sports arena has proven this. Children have open growth plates until their late teen years yet they can be, and are very active athletically (probably more so than at any time in their life) before their growth plates close with only positive health benefits. I think the same is true for dog. Pulling a sled in a recreation mode really isn't over exercising, in fact it is probably healthy for these dogs. Sled dogs that pull 7 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 months at a time are a different matter and the verdict is probably out on the health risks involved with them. We really can't compare the pulling life of true arctic dogs with southern dogs because of their diet, lack of summer exercise, and lack of veterinary care. These dogs’ shorter life spans probably aren't associated with the age they start working. I know the Wintergreen dogs start pulling early and most pull until they are at least 11 or 12. I also have never seen an Inuit dog with hip dysplasia, which stands to reason because we know that it is primarily an inherited trait. So while I may go against what some others say I don't see any problem with putting an 8 month old dog in harness and letting them pull recreationally. Hard work (more than 16 hours a week) should probably be reserved for dogs over 18 months. Most dogs don't reach their peak physical performance until they are at lest 2 anyway so for racing dogs their isn't any benefit to starting them younger because they won't be a benefit to the team making starting them any younger impractical. This is probably where much of the argument 
stems from anyway.

Ken MacRury: thirty-year arctic resident and Inuit Dog owner/musher.
On starting pups: the age of starting a pup will vary with the individual pup.  Some are ready, both physically and mentally, to go at six months and are very soon able to keep up with the adults, others will need more time to mature and develop and may not be able to keep the pace until ten months.  It seems to me that the smaller and lighter pups are ready at an earlier age than the larger heavier types and a litter can have both types.  In other words, one pup may be ready to go at six months but a brother may need until ten months.  The thing to look out for is damage to the cartilage in the front shoulder joint.  If the pup is heavy and works too hard it can do damage and it will take months to recover.  The damage never seems to be permanent.

The best time to have pups born is in the spring. That way they are usually ready to be put into harness with the adults by November. At this time, the very beginning of the season, the adults not being conditioned and the snow surface not yet ideal, the pace is slow enough for the pups to keep up.  By spring the youngsters are working at the same pace as the adults.

Niels Woldiche Pedersen, D.V.M.: formerly on assignment in Greenland
My own experience with the Greenlandic dogs - as to the age, where they started working:

The mushers started to use the dogs when they were 6-8 months - sometimes earlier. Theoretically, this is too early, but I have never seen one case of hip problems or arthritis which I could relate to this. 

A male dog has not reached his full size before his is maybe 18 months old - a bitch will reach full size a couple of month earlier.

I think you are right about the importance of feeding. If the young are not properly fed - especially as to protein, minerals and vitamins - there is a higher risk of damaging joints etc. But also do not forget that young dogs who are overfed will have a much higher risk of developing degenerative joint disorders - even when they do not work.

I would not be the person to raise too much discussion about this issue. My experience is limited to greenlandic dogs - and I do not know if this is valid for other breeds. But I have seen quite a few sledge dogs and since I have never seen problems related to age and working, well...

Charles Berger, D.V.M.: former Alaskan Malamute breeder, International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association member and race veterinarian
Your question is a complex one.  I am not certain how extensively these dogs are actually 'working' under the respective conditions in the communities you are discussing.  Understand that the term 'working' sled dog has many connotations.  Long distance, racing sled dogs, as you know, run over 100 miles/day for 10-12 days.  This is real working.  If the dogs in question are going 3 or 4 miles to carry back a shot caribou, for instance, although this is 'work', it does not constitute a major liability to any given dog.  In general, I worry about puppies (in large breeds under 1 year old) doing much traumatic - to the joint - type of work.  That is, forced long running, jumping, or heavy freighting.  This is mainly due to the soft articular cartilage that can be easily malformed by trauma and hence lead to remodeling of the joint and subsequent arthritis.  As far as I am concerned, a 5 or 6 month old puppy can easily 'hike' 15 or 20 miles in a day, providing the pace is reasonable.  I would, however, be very reluctant to have a 6-month-old puppy following a bicycle on pavement at a good clip, even for 2 or 3 miles.  I can see nothing wrong with a 6-month-old puppy running along, unharnessed with a team of relatively slow moving working dogs.  I would also start training dogs with very light weight at an early age, so they get used to pulling.  but I would be empirically against any heavy freighting before 12-15 months old. 

I am also intrigued by your concept that 'dogs in the arctic are often used up at 6 years of age'.  You then assume it is due to osteoarthritis.   However, of the 5 sled dogs that you have had x-rayed from northern Canada, it sounds like none of them had any degree of osteoarthritis.  So we have to wonder, what is going on?  Are these dogs breaking down due to arthritic problems, or not?  Are high protein diets causing excessive workload on the kidney nephrons, and hence disabilities due to renal dysfunction? Lots of questions.

* * *

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond. 

A juvenile pup runs along side her team                                          Feder photo

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