The Fan Hitch Volume 8, Number 3, June 2006

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue...

Editorial: Diversity with a Common Interest
FIDO: John Senter
Developing a Culture of Mushers
The Inuit Sled Dog Registry
Arctic Inuit Sled Dogs: Life in Retirement
Inuit Dog Thesis Update
In the News
Fan Mail
Kennel Tip: Taking the Heat Off
Book Review: The Lost Men
 IMHO: Filling the Woodshed

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Fiddich in 2005, working in Iqaluit    Photo: Han

Arctic Inuit Sled Dogs - A Life in Retirement

by Sue Hamilton

Here in Connecticut, at latitude 41° 46' 16N and an altitude of about 283 meters (931 feet), we've experienced a wet, unseasonably cold and bone-penetrating raw spring. The fish in our little pond seem tired of being wet. Well, for sure the below normal for the season water temperature has kept them loggy and uninterested in their annual spring spawn frolic. Even our Inuit Dogs, usually indifferent to such conditions, are fed up with this weather. Except for the new kid on the block. 

Fiddich crossed the Canadian border into the United States with us on May 4th. As we were told he was born in the spring of 1997, we decided we would celebrate the day of this passage as his ninth birthday. He left home in Iqaluit, Nunavut about 1:00 PM at -8º C (18º F), and, when he lunged through the gigantic automatic revolving door out the front of the Pierre Trudeau Airport in Ottawa sometime around six o'clock that evening, it was about 18ºC (about 65ºF)! The black, sludgy (like well-worn motor oil) bowel movement, not uncommon after a meal of ringed seal, which Fiddich splattered on the grass adjacent to the car park (we did our best to remove as much as we could) seemed out of place at Ottawa's latitude and climate. It was the last scat of its kind he produced, thankfully, and it heralded the end of one way of life and the beginning of his new life as a "retiree".

It is our grand plan to maintain one working team of four to six dogs instead of the two small three-dog teams we now have. We are hoping that the continued kindness of northerners as a source of male pups occasionally needed will enable us to maintain one viable team, as Father Time takes his inevitable toll on our older team, our original ISDs conceived in Pond Inlet and born here nine-and-a-half-years ago. We certainly don't look forward to the loss of these dogs and the anticipation of standing in front of empty pens is unsettling. Sure it will be a plus for the remaining working team to have even more of our time and attention (although they get lots of both now). Still, we feel that as space becomes available, we can offer our time and energy and a less demanding lifestyle to older Inuit Sled Dogs who have lived, worked and sometimes battled the elements and each other in the Arctic. Fiddich is the second older ISD we have brought into retirement at our kennel. The first was another broken-eared, battle-scarred male, Goofy, with whom we crossed the same border on our way south also on his ninth birthday, May 9, 2001.

As it was for Goofy, the two-day journey from Iqaluit to Connecticut was very stressful for Fiddich. It was almost heartbreaking. Even though we were certain of a positive outcome, it was impossible to convince this older dog that everything was going to be OK. Even if Fiddich did understand our assurances, we were asking him to trust total strangers. Experiencing grass, trees, buildings, bumpy plane flights, nine-hour car rides, new smells, new humans, new water, kibble dog food, watching TV during an overnight in a motel room were akin to thawing out a prehistoric man and dumping him into downtown Miami, Florida on New Year's Eve. This, however, is where a [healthy and mentally well balanced] Inuit Dog excels. The breed's ability to withstand adversity is legendary, although its history and definition of adversity relates more to the likes of blizzards, exhausting work, and periodic dietary privations. Their inherited "talent" for dealing with such conditions coupled with early socialization and a good upbringing make dogs like Fiddich, Goofy and no doubt many others, great candidates as retirees for the right owners. 

Fiddich in June 2006, five weeks into retirement     Photo: Hamilton

Although our experience is based on just two dogs, I feel comfortable in saying that it is unfair to assume that an older dog will be decrepit and on its last legs. Sure, they are likely to wear battle scars across their foreheads, muzzles, cheeks and legs; broken ears, broken teeth and yes they may be on their last eye. But beauty is only skin deep. Functionally, a well cared for senior ISD can enjoy good health, needing no special care other than zinc and joint health dietary supplements and no more frequent trips to the vet than other dogs their age. The ones we've kept, and senior dogs we've met up north have fine, strong pasterns, a youthful spring to their step and move well, assuming they haven't been recently bitten on the leg.  As was Goofy, Fiddich is an easy keeper, has a great appetite, is bright-eyed and full of vitality.

In the case of "second hand" dogs, the more responsible the previous owner the more stable and well balanced the dog and the better able to quickly transition and adapt to new circumstances. They may show exceptional manners for the first couple of days or even weeks. But as they become more comfortable in new surroundings and attempt to find or establish a place in their new pack, the repertoire of behaviors and idiosyncrasies they have grown up with will likely become apparent. I am not implying that these manifestations are problematic. Perceptions of what is or is not acceptable conduct will vary widely with new owners and will  be affected by conditions under which the dogs are kept.  But anyone who wishes to take on a previously owned dog and expects it to conform to a preconceived profile, or who feels he or she can erase behaviors developed over 4,000 years, need not consider or experience the joys and, yes, the occasional trials of a keeping retired Inuit Dog.

Those who may think about welcoming an arctic ISD retiree into their care should not assume that just because these dogs are beyond their prime, they are mental "near-deads". To the contrary, they should be considered spirited senior citizens, survivors, who have found new energy to engage in activities that their former lifestyle and rigors of the climate would not permit. They have been observed (and not just by me) as extremely social, playful, of good cheer, maybe more compliant and appear to genuinely enjoy new surroundings, part of that special something that in my opinion sets them apart from our Inuit Dogs who have not led the same working life that their northern cousins have. Stealing a line from a commercial about human senior citizens, these dogs might say, "I'm old. I'm bold. Get used to it!" With this in mind it cannot be overemphasized that, just as you can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, you cannot expect to turn a hard workin', ass-kickin', rompin'-stompin' ISD into your sister's monosynaptic Golden Retriever just because it (the ISD) has some age on him or her! You cannot disregard or disrespect their genetic heritage. Simply put, they'll not be transformed into pets.

"June 14, 2006. Dear Sue Hamilton, I own a Inuit dog and I was hoping to place him in a home. I do not want to just give him to any body because most people have no clue how to handle such a dog, so I was hoping you mite (sic) have some ideas. Thank you for your time. L. D." 
Unfortunately L.D. offered no further details and one can only speculate on why the dog needed to be placed elsewhere and what the writer means by "a home". But however she learned it, she's right that "most people have no clue how to handle such a dog."

Recently, a northern team owner outlined his vision of a retirement home as one having "access to a large open space where they can run free on occasion, a cool or winter environment of part of the year, or a place where it gets down to 5ºC (40ºF) and outdoor living conditions. They are outdoor dogs."

Judy Hashek with “Misty”, at age 13, a retired Mawson Dog 
by way of the Minnesota Voyager Outward Bound School 
                                           Photo: Hashek

Frank Hashek of Indiana, USA, who adopted Misty, a Mawson Station, Antarctica dog, after she was retired out of the Minnesota Voyager Outward Bound School program stated, "When adopting an Inuit Dog, the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are working dogs, whose needs must be met differently than the needs of a typical domestic dog. The Inuit Dog requires much more mental and physical stimulation than a typical domestic dog.  Without this stimulation, I believe that they would be quite difficult to manage… Inuit Dogs are not house dogs."

So what circumstances are right for a retired Inuit Sled Dog and what sorts of activities can you engage them in? For all the obvious reasons, such as their vocal nature and the need to keep them appropriately active, retirees, like ISDs of any age, are suited to country and not city living. These dogs ought not be spending their remaining years on concrete. In existing working kennel situations, there would be opportunities for recreational sledding, assuming the older dog could be safely integrated, without bloodshed or worse, into a team - a major challenge for a stranger in an established pack of ISDs. If the retiree is of strong enough character (like a boss dog, to avoid being taken down by an organized pack of youngsters), he or she may be able to manage/train to work in harness a bunch of puppies who, for whatever reason, may not have their parents as teachers. In a kennel like ours, no demands are made of retirees. They are free to engage in as much or as little activity as they wish, although we make sure they get plenty of stimulation to avoid boredom and to keep them from devising ways to get into "trouble." A retiree or two in a small kennel or for a person relatively new to Inuit Dogs might make a dandy recreational team for carting, sledding or skijoring. A male retiree may still have some breeding vigor and, if he has been deemed worthy of passing on his qualities, could be a valuable part of a pure Inuit Dog breeding program. 

We typically imagine that the arctic Inuit Dog's retirement "gift" equivalent to a pocket watch or rocking chair, often given to humans leaving the work force, is a bullet. But a working dog's retirement need not be so final. With the right combination of circumstances, the twilight years of retired arctic Inuit Dogs can be as enjoyable for them as their former owners would like it to be, and for their future owners, too.

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