We have all seen the memes, “If you are cold, they are cold. Bring them inside.” But full truth seldom fits on a meme.
When I was younger and dumber, I was easily sucked into online flame wars. But life is teaching me that few people who engage in such things are truly interested in hearing one another or learning anything. They are too busy talking AT one another to hear one another. But today my hand has been forced. I'd much rather be out running my dog team instead of sitting here writing this article but I will share some great information here. What you do with it is up to you.
Before I begin, let me give you a little background on myself. I earned my Bachelors in Wildlife Biology from the University of Maine. I conducted the most comprehensive morphological study of the wild canids (coyote/ wolf) of our region ever completed. I spearheaded the two year field research for a state/university Whitetail deer winter survivability study. I was extensively trained in cold weather at SERE school as a United States Infantryman. I have served as both an environmental planner and a fisheries biologist. Finally, I have mushed for 19 years- including managing 165 sled dogs at a dogsled tour business in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. So I might know a little about this subject. Please hear me out. Those who want to remain ignorant will do so. They will not read this article but will scan it for fodder. For the few that are objective and have open minds, I invite you to read on…
Few people realize that Maine has a rich mushing heritage and tradition that is second only to Alaska. The dogs that saved the children of Nome Alaska from the outbreak of Diphtheria- the ancestors to my dogs- moved here. Arther Walden's expedition “Chinooks” had their home for decades here. Admiral Perry and his Greenland Dogs had their home here. We have the Can Am Crown. The Eagle Lake Race. The Wilderness Race. To this day Maine is fielding some fantastic dogsled teams. I hope to write a book on this soon. It is hard to explain to someone that has never mushed a sledding team, the magic, the mystical feeling of man or woman and dogs working together as a single unit in the forest and tundra-as we have for thousands of years.
Maine can get really cold right? By our standards. We are, after all, tropical bald naked primates. So to us, yes, Maine can get cold. To other tropical animals, Maine is cold.
HOWEVER, there are animals that consider Maine too warm. Some that are familiar to us here in Maine are the Canada Lynx, Fisher Cat, the Wolf, the Moose, The now extinct woodland Caribou, and the Goshawk. To all these animals, Maine is the southern most extent of their range. It just isn’t cold enough for them to be comfortable. Thats right! Their biological adaptations are for climates that you and I would consider inhospitable. I realize that is hard for our naked primate minds to wrap around, but it is true.
Now, the sled dogs we mush are not like your “Little Baby FooFoo." In particular, my dogs are Siberian Sleddogs and Canadian Inuit dogs. These dogs - and the Alaskan Malamute, and the Alaskan Husky, are ARCTIC species. Let that word sink in for a moment.
These are ARCTIC dogs.
We here in Maine don’t live in the arctic. We don’t even live in the Subarctic or boreal forests. For the most part, we are in what biologist call the “temperate zone.” Thats right! To most other mammals we live in a temperate climate. But to an Arctic breed, it is hot here. It is our summers- not our winters- that can harm them. My Eskimo dogs and Siberians Huskies have been breed, not only to survive, but to thrive and work in -40F temperatures. When life gets below zero is when they truly start to thrive. You would be right to worry about an afghan hound, pharaoh hound, short haired pointer etc, in the conditions we have here. You would also be right to worry about arctic breed dogs kept in Nicaragua or Panama, for example.
Time would not permit to write about all the environmental adaptations our arctic dogs have to thrive in conditions Maine never offers up- from their long guard hairs and wooly thick undercoat, to even the finer things. Like: did you know Arctic dogs have less reflective tapedum in their eyes so they wont get snow blindness? Isn’t that cool? Their very being has been fine tuned for literally thousands of years to the ARCTIC.
Sure cold is an issue for them. But what so many internet trolls don’t understand is that thee dogs warm up from the inside out. Not the outside in like us naked monkeys. Therefore nutrition is everything. My dogs are training for the Can Am Crown in March. We are a small team so we have to take our time working up to the mileage needed. We go out every other day and increase our mileage at this stage every time we go out. But here is what non-mushers do not understand. One cannot force a dog to pull a sled. A sledding team must be 1. Healthy 2. Happy 3. Motivated 4. conditioned to do what they do.
Biologically speaking, sled dogs are the greatest endurance athletes in the world. No other land creature can do what they can do. They can only be apex athletes with the paragon of care, training and nutrition. When I took some of my team to update their shots a couple weeks ago, the vet kept repeating, “Wow, look at the muscles on these dogs.” These words made me very proud.
All arctic animals heat themselves by caloric intake and insulation. Therefore we feed them the highest quality food. They could not do what they do otherwise. I can speak for most mushers when I say my dogs eat a more intentional diet and are trained more consistently than I am. "But don’t they need access to fresh water?" Good question. Here’s the answer if you really want to know-
Although there is water everywhere, the arctic is considered a desert, because all the water is frozen. So these dogs (and other arctic animals) have evolved not to drink water. It’s all Ice. Instead they eat snow and ice. So we mushers have to “trick them” into drinking water when they are training. Every day we give them soup we call “Mush” (thats where the word came from- now you know) chummed up flavored water with meat chunks or soaked kibble that entices them to drink. As you might imagine, if you give them a bowl of water. they turn up their nose and it freezes. The worry is not them dehydrating in winter. Summer in Maine is where we have to be extra vigilant.
Let me give you this personal story as an example. Years ago when I first moved to northernmost Maine with my team of Siberian sled dogs we got hit with a terrible blizzard. Although my Siberian dogs had come to me from a kennel in Whitehose Yukon (and you think it gets cold here?!) I could not help but worry about them with the pelting snow and howling winds. I could not sleep. Finally I strapped on my headlamp and went out in the middle of the night to check on my dogs. I shown my headlamp into each of their dog houses and they were all empty. Where had all of my dogs gone? Was the storm so bad that they had run away? I began to call for my dogs. This is something I greatly regret. The moment I called for them their heads started popping up out of the snow. See, they knew instinctively that a blanket of snow would provide them much more comfort than a drafty doghouse. But I, in my ignorance, had forced them to break their micro-climate bubble where they had been fast asleep. I apologized profusely to my dogs.
Here is where Im gonna get a little testy…
Dog expert‘s ranging as far flung as Cesar Milan and 3 time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey agree that the anthropomorphication of your dog is the number one cause of behavioral problems in our dogs. In other words, most dog behavior problems aren’t the dog's fault. They are your fault because you treat them like they are your children. Now, we don’t judge you for anthropomorphizing your animals- although it does them great psychological damage. If you want to act like your little baby foo foo is a human child that is completely up to you. But I speak on behalf of all mushers when I say, do not then come into our backyards and insist that we deny our Arctic animals of the conditions under which they thrive. It would be cruel for you to put your poodle out on the sledding trail. Yes. It would be cruel for us to deny our Arctic animals they’re cozy blanket of snow and crisp clear moonlit night, and insist they sleep in our gruelingly hot homes. We love our dogs at least as much as you. I would merely suggest that we are loving them from knowledge rather than anthropomorphic ignorance.
Thankfully I live in the state of Maine that still understands these things, and has a different set of regulations for sled dogs than for the rest house pets (If you’re wondering, my kennel houses and tethers etc, exceed state requirements). Thankfully I live in a community where my town manager and town animal control officer too understand these things and are too intelligent to be bullied by Internet trolling.
But not all mushers are so fortunate to live in such communities. So share this everywhere and educate your friends. For as G.I. Joe used to say, “knowing is half the battle.“
One last thing. If you really care about dogs, and not just wanting to ignite internet flame wars to get attention, try reaching out directly to the musher with your questions before you attack people about something you aren’t educated in. We love nothing more than educating people about our great passion! We will talk your leg off and explain anything you want to know. If you have an hour to spare. This is a very passionate topic for me. So I have tried very hard to be gentle in my reply here. I hope it is received with no malice. as none is intended. Peace to you.