Sled dogs: A day in the life

Mark Melham/ Sun Star

The series serves to document the everyday lives of sled dogs. Taking care of them is a lifestyle both the dogs and their mushers have to adopt in order to succeed. Chena Hot Springs Resorts, while it functions as a tourism kennel and the dogs do not race, provides insight into the magnitude of work and support that goes in to making sure the dogs are happy, healthy and ready to run.

These photos were taken in the morning and afternoon of Oct. 13. As the kennel prepares for a busy winter season, it trains staff in feeding and nutrition, has mushers select and develop their teams and prepares for the cold, busy winter season.

Several researchers spoke to the UAF community last week about using sled dogs as a model for human health. Because the dogs take in so many of the same things their human counterparts do, they can function as a bellwether for health risks. Understanding a day in the life of a sled dog can help preface the concepts presented by researchers later this week.

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It’s just after 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 13. Peso patiently waits on top of his house for mushers to come and feed him. A rib cage lays on the ground in case he wanted a midnight snack. While feedings vary across kennels, Chena Hot Springs provides a large meal at the beginning of the day with snacks (like rib cages) sometimes interspersed. – Mark Melham / Sun Star


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Musher Kristen Davis spoons the salmon stew into Bear’s bowl. The kennel roars with excitement during feeding. Chena Hot Springs Resort houses roughly 75 dogs. To feed all of them, nine 5-gallon buckets are made everyday. Bear can’t wait for his share. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Yaygo, who recently retired from pulling sleds, gets a warm good morning from musher Kristen Davis. The kennel at Chena Hot Springs Resort has an adoption program for retired sled dogs who are ready to transition into a cushy lifestyle. Retirement age varies by kennel and individual, but generally recreational dogs stop pulling at 9 to 12-years-old. Racing dogs will retire earlier but may be taken in by a tourism kennel. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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After feeding, Rokon makes sure to lick his bowl clean. Behind him, another dog, Ramp, waits for his turn. Kennels often have several teams of dogs, ensuring no dog is ever overworked. Even with an appropriately staffed kennel, feeding 75 dogs can take a half-hour. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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After feeding, the dogs get some personal attention. Bri greets musher Brian Harder as he scoops her circle. This happens multiple times a day to ensure a clean environment. “Poop scooping is a number one priority in a kennel. It’s important that the dogs have a clean area to exercise, rest, and just hang out,” Harder said. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Peso excitedly jumps towards the camera and says something incomprehensible in dog language. Sled dogs are often connected to a swiveling tether that provides them personal space while safely allowing them to exercise. Four feet of tether can provide ample circular running space. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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The fish on top is a large chum salmon with an exaggerated kype, a product of its reproductive maturation. Much of the dogs’ food is locally sourced, meaning the chum salmon will be in varying stages of senescence. As the salmon will be cooked until they are nearly completely broken down, senescence can help with that process. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Goodies abound just next to the kennel, from an elk forelimb, to a trough of pig parts, to the large bin of frozen fish musher Brian Harder is examining. Different food sources are not just a function of circumstance; they also lend themselves to different needs of the dogs. When picking fish for the pot, they look for average sizes. If one of the fish use is really big, they might use seven fish. If the fish are smaller, they’ll use more. – Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Musher Tony Knickerbocker moves salmon and white fish from the tub to the pot. Up to seven fish will be cooked in the pot, along with rice .The cooking process will take about an hour and a half. After, the pot will steep. Nine 5-gallon buckets are filled with kibble, bone powder, psyllium (fiber) and occasionally iron supplements. When morning comes, those buckets are also filled with the salmon stew. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Musher Tony Knickerbocker uses a hose to fill the pot of fish with water. The fish will cook for one hour before the rice is added. As kennels have dogs with different traits, different treats and foods will be given out to the dogs. Tallow (rendered fat) is given to any dog that has difficulty keeping weight. Dogs don’t have to worry about the same health issues stemming from fat as humans. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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The caudal fin of a chum salmon protrudes from the top of the cook pot as the water boils. The salmon the kennel feeds the dogs are locally sourced as is the spring water. Musher Tony Knickerbocker talks to staff about dog nutrition. “Using whole fish and animals have a probiotic component due to their intact gastrointestinal tract,” Knickerbocker said. Mammal bones provide excellent teeth cleaning for the dogs after a good meal. – Mark Melham / Sun Star


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Musher Brian Harder checks the teeth of Danish. Teeth can be a strong indicator of age. The older they are, the more tartar buildup. Danish has exquisite chompers for his age, likely a product of the bones he gets. “Danish has a phenomenal undercoat that is designed to protect him in extremely cold conditions,” musher Kristen Davis said. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Harnessing and running comes after feeding. Dodge is harnessed in as the wheel dog because he’s a strong puller. Dodge was born in Lance Mackey’s kennel. Mackey is a four-time Yukon Quest and four-time Iditarod winner. Dodge now pulls sleds and carts at Chena Hot Springs Resort. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Musher Sindy Sagromski checks in with the dogs during one of their runs. Tangles happen if the wheel dogs in back overtake the lead dogs. If a tangle happens, the team will stop to ensure safety and the matter is usually resolved very quickly. As she walks down the line, Sagromski gives each of the dogs a little attention. Here, she offers Dodge a pet on the nose. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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A trough of bones lays frozen in a shipping container. The bones serve as a source of protein and calcium, as well as acting as teeth cleaners when chewed. They are not handed out on a set schedule. It may be a few days between such treats, depending on how quickly the dogs have gone through them. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Musher Kristen Davis looks at kitchen scraps set aside for the kennel at Chena Hot Springs Resort. While there are a lot of resources for kennel operators to feed their dogs, this kennel is lucky because the kitchen for its guests provides an additional food source. Mark Melham / Sun Star

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Musher Kristen Davis offers Gilead some vanilla-flavored pyrantel pamoate (dewormer) on her gloved hand but he seems to prefer taking it straight from the syringe. This eager behavior is an example of the individual traits mushers will recognize when putting teams together and trying to determine which dogs will be compatible with each other. Mark Melham / Sun Star



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