Larry’s Huskies

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I know, I know, I’ve already written about Samoyeds. But Huskies are different, I swear! Yes, they’re also originally from Siberia, and yes, they are also extremely loving and gentle. But, there are some serious differences, and if we don’t fully understand the nature of the Siberian Husky then it is unwise to even consider having one in the family.

Let me take a step back. Those beautiful specimens you see in the photos above are owned by competitive skijorer Larry Nichvolodov, who can be seen riding his bike around Dunedin being pulled by his pack of furry friends (a sight to behold, believe me).

“Hold up, what the hell is a professional skijorer?” You ask.

This is what I said to Larry, and he directed me to the Ski Dogs New Zealand Facebook page (I highly recommend checking it out). I found out that skijoring is the art of cross-country skiing with your dog. I was stoked – I found a sport that combines my love for snow sports with my obsession with doggos – why have I never heard of this before!?

 

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Larry competing with his girl Novoya – who can be seen in the photos above – in Switzerland, 2014 (picture from Ski Dogs NZ Facebook)

 

Huskies, like Samoyeds, are more naturally selected than other breeds, and have co-evolved with their humans since the first employment of their ancestors as sled-dogs in Mongolia about 35 000 years ago. Many scientists and historians believe that it was the use of sled-dogs that made way for humans to migrate north in to the arctic circle, as it allowed them to travel long distances quickly in order to obtain basic provisions, hunt on sea ice, and communicate with other groups. For over 30 000 years they have evolved to pull sleds, and that is precisely why Huskies are unparalleled with any other bred in their endurance, stamina and strong will. Many communities in Alaska, Canada and Greenland still use Huskies for daily life (if you’re interested, check out this amazing video from BBC’s Human Planet about subsistence hunting with Huskies in the arctic).

You only need to research for minutes to find countless stories of heroic Huskies who made unimaginable journeys against all odds, loving and caring for their humans in the process. There is of course the famous story of Balto, which was made in to an animated film in 1995 (no surprise I have already seen it about 30 times). Balto was a Siberian Husky (although in the film he was portrayed fictionally as half-wolf) who lead a team of sled-dogs on a treacherous mission transporting diphtheria antitoxins to Nome, a remote town in Alaska, that was experiencing a deadly outbreak of the disease. After the success of Balto’s mission, a statue of him was erected in his honour in Central Park, New York City, and the path he took to retrieve and deliver the medicine is now being used for an annual Alaskan sled-dog race in commemoration.

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Balto with his Norwegian sled-driver, Gunnar Kaasen, 1925. (Public Domain)

 

These days, there has been a significant amount of criticism aimed at using Huskies for snow sports, as events such as sled racing in Alaska can be particularly dangerous, answering to a significant amount of deaths and injuries amoungst the dogs (check out what PETA has to say on the matter). Although there is certainly truth to these criticisms, and any sport that uses animals should be treated with caution, it is important to point out that these dogs are born to run, to be outside, and to experience pain and hardships. Many would argue that it is crueler for a Husky to live a long life in a sterile apartment with no room for exploration or to stretch their legs than to die outside doing what they love.

Larry is on to something. He cannot skijor all year, and you need only to flick through the photos on the Ski Dogs NZ Facebook page to see how much his dogs adore competing (and how much they are spoilt in the process). So in summer, they pull him on his bike, and they look completely at home. Without this sort of intense physical and mental stimulation every day, Huskies can be an absolute terror. They become neurotic, start digging and destroying your garden, and will stop at nothing to free themselves from their yards – they are very well known as expert escape artists. The best thing is to do as Larry does and take up a sport with your Husky, and give it a job to do. They benefit hugely from activities like hiking, long-distance running (or bikejoring) over varied terrain, or if you don’t want to do the exercise yourself, attend agility classes. You never know, you might have a champion Flyball dog in your hands! But be warned, Siberian Huskies are extremely smart and devilishly stubborn, so as long as you are as hard-headed as them you can train them to do amazing things, and they will adore you for it.

 

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Fido the Mutt

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Name          Fido

Breed          Mutt

Location     Ocean Beach

Fido is a feisty, excitable “Jack Russell-cross-everything else”, whom I spotted frolicking in the salty sunset. He greeted us enthusiastically as soon as we approached him, and tried to coax us into throwing his DIY kelp rope toy. To my delight, the energy changed as soon as I lifted my camera up to my face – he was a picture of elegance, posing patiently until I got the right shot (see above).

“He’s used to the camera”, laughed his Dad, “Fido’s mum makes him model for her all the time, he’s even got his own Instagram!” Understandable, with a face like that…

‘Mixed breed’, ‘mongrel’, ‘mutt’ – there are many words we could use to describe a dog with no defined pedigree, and unfortunately many of these names have negative connotations. Dogs like Fido should not be disrespected just because they don’t have some sort of human-constructed identity.

In fact, many (and I would include myself here) are advocates for the loveable mutt. There are so many reasons to be on the mixed-breed bandwagon. Firstly – and I really want to reiterate this point – breeding is not natural. It does not rely on the natural forces of evolution, and these days it relies on not much more than human consumer demand. Pedigree dogs do not naturally select their breeding partners and dogs with health problems are not ‘outcompeted’, which means that genetic diversity is extremely limited. Only those with the desirable traits will be bred, and sometimes desirable traits cause severe problems.

For example, dogs that are bred with particularly short legs in proportion to the rest of their bodies, such as Dachshunds, Corgis and Bassett Hounds, actually derive this trait from a genetic mutation which causes dwarfism – often the same mechanism that causes dwarfism in humans. When the dwarf mutation popped up, breeders realised it would create the perfect hunting dog for rabbits – these dwarf dogs were the exact height of a warren, so they were able to run inside the rabbit hole without bending their legs. So dogs with this mutation were selectively bred so that they would pass the mutation on to the next generation: and thus the Dachshund and Basset Hound were born. Welsh Corgis were originally bred as a particular type of herding dog known as a ‘heeler’, which involves the dog nipping at the heels of livestock to get them moving. The dwarf mutation allowed them to be heel-level so they did not need to crouch down.

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Pedigree Welsh Corgi (CC, from Wikipedia )

But because their bodies did not evolve to be that particular size and proportion, dogs with dwarfism can suffer from excruciating joint and back pain, amongst many other health problems. I grew up with a beautiful miniature Dachshund named Claudia, whom we always assumed was too stubborn to sit when she was told, but found out later that she actually had such severe back problems that she couldn’t physically sit, she could only stand up or lie down. Claudia also developed calluses on her belly when she was pregnant because it literally dragged along the floor (it didn’t help that she ate like she was about to go in to hibernation).

This is something we should never forget when we are thinking about buying a doggo of our own. Many characteristic physical traits that certain breeds have were selected for the use of humans and not for their survival in the wild. To make matters worse these defining characteristics are so important for breeders that incest is a serious problem amongst pedigree breeders, which we know at the very least limits genetic diversity, and can cause brain defects in some unlucky offspring.

Unless you’re buying a ‘designer mutt’ like a Labradoodle (Labrador X Poodle), most of the time you can only get them from shelters, and this is enough of a reason to get a mutt than any, because supporting shelter dogs and giving them a new and happy life is so fulfilling!

What are ‘Dog Years’? (And Frankie’s 21st)

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Yes, I went to a dog 21st, and yes, this post is partly an excuse to share my photos of said 21st.

BUT, I have some interesting and potentially life-changing information for all you dog owners out there. Your canine bae is probably not the age you think she/he is!

Frankie the Japanese Spitz turned 21 last week. Most of you will know that this means she has lived 3 human years, as it is commonly accepted that 1 human year equals 7 dog years. Although this method of ageing is used throughout the world, no one actually knows where it came from, and there doesn’t even seem to be any vague scientific evidence to back it up. The theory is probably based loosely on the human lifespan, but it doesn’t compare difference in the ageing process between dogs and humans.

Firstly, most dogs reach sexual maturity between the ages of 8 and 18 months. If the 1:7 year ratio is at all accurate, that would mean humans could breed from a minimum age of 4 and a half years. I’ll let you picture that for just a second….

Here’s best friends Taco and Frankie to remove that image from your mind:

 

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Feel better?

Secondly, most puppies will stop crawling on their bellies and start walking sometime in their third week of life, whereas most humans won’t start cruising on their feet until about 9 months.

It is these first years of life that are the most problematic in living up to the 1:7 year ratio, and most dog breeds will age more or less in the same way during this period. Due to the rapid growth rate during these years, many professionals are now suggesting that the first and second year of a dog’s life equates to about 16 to 24 years of a human’s!

Things get a little more complicated after those first 2 human years (or 24 dog years). The ageing process in an adult dog depends considerably on its breed, and especially its size. For example, medium to large breeds, like a Rottweilers,

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generally have a shorter lifespan than smaller breeds, like Jack Russell Terriers.

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Among other reasons, this is thought to be because of the strain put on a larger dog’s muscles and joints as it gets older. Larger dogs are much more likely to develop arthritis and obesity than smaller dogs, but they also just seem to mature more quickly in general, and are less capable of strenuous activity later on in life.

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But size is by no means the only influence on a dog’s lifespan – breeding purpose has a huge part to play. The oldest known dog, ‘Bluey’, lived to 29 years old, and she was not small. She was an Australian Cattle Dog, Like Taco.

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Two girls tie in second place as the oldest known dog, and they were both Border Collies. The Australian Cattle Dog and the Border Collie are both working dogs, bred to be able to work almost until their dying days, and selected with the least genetic health conditions. It makes sense that these breeds would likely live longer than a breed selected only traditionally for its aesthetic traits, like a Pug.

But what does this all mean for Frankie? How old is she really?

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It’s hard to say with a great deal of accuracy, but she’s probably closer to 29 dog years. But who’s to say she can’t celebrate? After all, it is kind of silly to try and understand a dogs age by relating it to human age – it doesn’t really mean anything anyway. It shouldn’t stop us celebrating our dogs lives and giving them an excellent life.

Cara the ‘Company Morale Officer’

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Name          Cara

Breed          Samoyed

Age               12

Location     Clyde St

“Same girl, different Samoyed!”

John and Hilary were sitting in the sun on Clyde Street with cups of tea, and Cara was their foot rest. Hilary had owned Samoyeds her whole life, and claimed she was addicted to their calm, caring nature. Cara was no exception. Despite being elderly, she still had a contagious thirst for life, and had an incredibly relaxing resolve. John calls her the ‘Company Morale Officer’ because students often pop by for a cuddle when they’re particularly stressed.

After reading up on Samoyeds, and meeting Cara, I can see why Hilary is addicted. According to the American Kennel Club, Samoyeds are more naturally evolved than any other breed, and are akin to the primitive dog.

As an advocate for natural selection, this gives me the warm fuzzies!

For hundreds of years they evolved with the Samoyede – nomadic tribespeople of northeastern Siberia – who included the dogs as part of their family. They became functioning members of society; first and foremost as companions, but also as faithful sled-pullers, reindeer-herders, and even child-minders.

In the late nineteenth century, arctic and antarctic discoverers saw a hardy, powerful adventure sidekick in the Samoyed, and thus they were employed as sled dogs in polar expeditions.

Since then they have been used primarily as family dogs, and serve as fiercely loyal and loving companions. The connectedness Samoyeds feel to their family runs so deep that they do not take well to a change of ownership, and as a result have been known to develop serious depressive tendencies in the case of failing marriages and other family break-ups.

Due to the minimal amounts of artificial selective breeding and breeding for aesthetic purposes, Samoyeds have very little hereditary diseases compared to other breeds. However, because they evolved to be extremely active and hardworking, they need to be walked every day at the very least, and over varied terrain, both familiar and unfamiliar. They benefit hugely from learning a skill or activity that they can focus their attention and ability on. Above all, Samoyeds need to be heavily involved in family life – they like to sleep inside and have constant company. This, along with the extremely frequent brushing (and vacuuming), means they are definitely not low-maintenance dogs, but if you have the time and patience, I reckon the effort would seriously pay off.