Medical Checks and Health Records

Weekly Dog Checks

Every dog is checked thoroughly, once per week, by the person in charge of their overall health and well-being (the dog manager). During the check, the dog manager will make notes on their weight (and will adjust their weekly food intake for the following week accordingly) and their general wellbeing.

Nails are checked to see if they need cutting, range of movement is checked, as is the skin to ensure that there are no sores requiring cream or betadine; the collar is checked for tightness or loosness and that it is moving freely; and we also check for exoparasites, signs of pregnancy, state of teeth, feet etc. The security of the kennel is also be checked, since the dogs like to burrow underneath these, particularly in summer. The general state of the cages or the running circles is also checked for any issues that could cause injury.

All of this information is recorded in two places – a medical book and a weekly medical summary chart – both of which can easily be accessed by all guides, visiting vets etc. Everything from massage needs to nail-cutting and hair-plucking goes onto this weekly chart, in addition to more critical daily antibiotic and other medication needs.

Any larger medical needs are recorded, in addition, on an individual computerised record for each dog. In this way, we can build up a picture of any recurrent injuries or illnesses that individual dogs might be at risk from and we can easily keep track of their vaccination and worming requirements.

Heat, Frostbite and Mosquito Bite Checks

Three times a week, we check the females to see where they are in their heat cycles, and we carefully monitor the results of any accidental matings carefully. We plan to have only one litter of pups a year, timed so that they are big enough to interact with the clients during the mushing season - and we have to work quite hard to make this a reality. In February 2011, we had an unplanned litter just because the ‘check with ultrasound’ note had been written, by accident, in the wrong column in the spreadsheet!

Hence, as you can imagine, we take our charting and record keeping very seriously.


Small things, such as a need for cream on a cut, for nails to be cut, massages given to counter stiffness, etc, are noted on a computerised weekly medical chart as well as in a medical book. We use both a physical notebook and computerised records, since it is easier to walk around the farm in the winter with a vet, carrying a notebook than a computer. The notebook is also openly accessible to all guides, whereas the computerised records are only accessible to lead guides.

Similarly, any major incident – eg, a fight resulting in stitches, staples or a course of antibiotics - gets recorded in both of these places once the dog has been thoroughly checked in the house extension (which is essentially a dog medical room but also masquarades as the place where multiday clients sit and get to know us and their equiment when they first arrive for multiday safaris.

In addition, an individualised dog chart will be written up and posted on the dog kitchen wall. Whenever medications are given, guides have to annotate the chart to ensure that meds are not missed or doubled up. Slightly less big issues are recorded on a weekly medical chart (for instance creaming needs for small pressure sores, checks which need to be made in relation to certain dogs, etc).

The dog-manager will put a note about the treatment into a spreadsheet which details the entire medical history for each dog. In this way, we can build up a picture as to whether or not a dog is suffering from recurring injuries, for example, to a particular joint, which may prompt us to try a possible solution like a magnetic collar to try to strengthen such a joint. The dog-manager is responsible for making sure that all vaccination needs are planned appropriately with the local vet and that the dogs are regularly treated against worms, mites etc.

She will also annotate the lists for which antibiotics or other medications have been used, and why, so that we can give a complete history of medication use to the vet periodically to reassure them that they are being used appropriately. This list also feeds into our stock check so that we replenish medications on a timely basis and therefore have them to hand when needed.

In the summer, we have to keep a close eye on the dogs to see that they are not being troubled too much by the mosquitoes since the pups from that year, in particular, will have little resistance and will be bitten a lot around the eyes, ears and genitals. Although we have put drains into the ground underneath the cages to reduce the amount of water that can gather there and this helps greatly in reducing the number of mosquito attacks, this is always a difficult time of year.

We have spent over €2000 on mosquito magnets to protect both the dogs and guides from mosquitos since the results of not doing so, and trying in any way possible, is just not worth it, when the implications of that are dogs which suffer.

Of course, the dogs devise some pretty good low tech solutions themselves!

The winter brings its own challenges since the super-cold weeks - when it is consistently below -35C – can be difficult for our shorter-haired dogs. Recent mothers can be susceptible to frost-bitten nipples and males with hairless balls can also get frostbite there. We spend quite a bit of time, three times per week, putting honey on dogs balls! This is probably not the first job that comes to hand when

All in all, the dog handler has to get intimately acquainted with every dog.

The findings from the weekly medical check are communicated out through the weekly feeding maps and through the training sheets. If the dogs are starting to get too fat or too thin, the manager has to compute a new weekly food norm that will stabilise the weight for the majority of the dogs and minimise the number of anomalies who need more or less. In other words, the managers need to be pretty good at applied maths!

The feeding chart we adapt weekly (based on changing food quantity requirements), shown below, is a rough schematic of where the dogs on the circles live relative to each other. We have also accurately mapped the circles of course, and the distances between the dogs dictate whether they circles are shown in red (completely isolated for dogs which are aggressive), blue (overlap at least on one plane with another circle) or green (overlap a lot with other circles) so that at a quick glance we can figure out the best place to move a dog when need be, depending on his character and how well he likes (or otherwise) the neighbouring dogs.

This plan also shows which cages have feeding holes and which don't, where the females are living and at what stage in their heat cycles they are at, whether or not the dogs are currently skinny, normal (normal big or normal small) or fat and the quantities of food needed for each category.

Dogs that are not to be run or trained, because of injury, are also highlighted on the training macros so that they are not put into a team by accident, and those dogs that are in heat are highlighted on both the training and the feeding maps so that everyone is aware of the need to make sure that male dogs are kept separated from them. Click on the chart below to see more about the amazing training master designed (and constantly evolved) by Hamish Steptoe one of our gap-year guides...

Recording all of the health-related information in a Systematic Way...

Keeping records is vital. And yet most farms do so in a very marginal way, if at all. Many mushers and folk in the industry have been amazed by the systems we have developed for tracking everything from antibiotic use to calculating automatically, based on the number of dogs we have assigned to the fat or big or small or skinny category during dog check and the portion sizes we have determined appropriate for the time of year to either maintain or increase / decrease the weight as a whole across the kennel, the total amount of food needed, per feeding, in automated systems. On the one hand, we try to be as hands on with the dogs as possible and on the other we try to use scientific tools and formulas to make our behind the scenes work for the dogs as efficient and exact as possible. Click on the chart below for an example of how we keep on top of running dog med schedules...

Mental Health

Clearly keeping on top of the physical welbeing of the dogs is an ongoing process. But so, too, is keeping on top of their mental health. That is why we invest so much time and energy in play and cuddle time, grooming, general handling and training through the year targeted at stimulating their specific mental needs (and helping the pups to encounter new obstacles with courage!).

We periodically offer 'open agility days' for other locals with dogs, too, so that they can also benefit from our home-made obstacle course. Those days are lots of fun for everyone and allow all of the local dogs a chance to interact.