The food that the dogs are given has a huge impact on how healthy and happy they are and how well, in turn, they can run. Sled Dogs have special food requirements. Along with their power comes a huge appetite. While a normal dog might get by on 1,500 calories a day, sled dogs can easily consume up to 10,000 calories per day.
We use a mixture of meat and dry-food, since the dogs love fatty meat but a good dry food can add a lot in terms of the extra nutrients that high-end athletes need. In the winter, we cannot leave water out in their bowls because it would freeze, so we have to monitor their water intake carefully and do everything that we can to encourage them to take fluids on board by giving hot soups at key points. We want them to be used to drinking rather than trying to eat snow since that can actually dehydrate them as they spend too much energy warming up again.
Hence, in winter, the dogs are fed a meat or mushed dry food soup using steaming water first thing in the morning, at least two hours before they run and and post-running they get an additional soup - unless it is a very hot day, when we may use blood ice cubes to help reduce the core body temperature. Using warm water gives the dogs a chance to enjoy the food rather than have it almost instantly turn to ice in front of them. In this way, we go through hundreds of litres of hot water, per day.
They get their evening feed, which is a mixture of dry food and meat, right at the end of the day and collectively this adds up to somewhere between 2000 and 7000 calories, depending on the mileage they are running at that time. Dogs in the cages eat through feeding holes in the front of the cages and any food which they spill in their eagerness is immediately picked up so that birds, mice etc are not attracted to pick up the pieces.
In the summer, the dogs have water in their bowls at all times (although it is a battle, sometimes, with those who play with their bowls, to keep water in them) and the adults are just fed – again, usually with a mixture of meat and dry food or sometimes just dry food - at the close of the day. They are still fed a high quality food but they are burning less calories at this time (c. 500-1000 calories per day)so the portion sizes they need are far smaller. We change all water in the bowls and in the water canisters once per day so that there is no chance that the dogs are drinking stagnant water.
Pups are fed a high-quality puppy food at first and then they move on to a mixture of puppy food and adult food when they are transitioning into the same feeding system as the adult dogs.
Soft food alternatives are available for dogs recovering from illnesses and those with problems with their teeth and we have additional food supplements which we give, depending on need. Our bowls are also stainless steel to ensure that no rust gets into the food.
In elk hunting season locals bring us bones which they cannot otherwise utilise and it is a win win all round. The dogs that live on the circles can all have bones with no problems. Those that live in pairs in the cages are separated and one of the pair is put onto a travel chain so that each can eat bones for a couple of hours each day. (We don't put them into the cages with the dogs or there would be a high risk of fights). In addition, when there are cows or horses from local farms which die in the winter, we often get their carcasses to feed to the dogs (assuming the cows can't enter the human food chain for some reason (eg post having taken medications)) and this adds variety to the diet whilst also enabling them to clean their teeth fairly regularly on bones.
Some Natural Supplements can be beneficial for dogs and we use psyllium, for instance, to help 'steady' the digestive tracts when the going gets tough for the dogs in the peak points of the client season.
Just like people, all dogs are individuals. Each has his/her own personality and eating habits. Understanding this we recognize that not all the dogs are going to eat the same amount of food. To guarantee that our dogs get what they need, we feed them top quality ingredients and monitor their calorific needs during weekly dogchecks. Keeping track of what each dog should be eating and IS eating is very important. If the dogs are leaving their food for a couple of days in a row, we take it very seriously since this can often be the first indication of an illness, fatigue or allergy which needs to be addressed ASAP.
In the heaviest weeks we add psyllium as a supplement to the evening feed to help absorption in the digestive tracts and to settle stomachs.
And, of course, after carefully monitoring what we put in, as well as how efficiently we do it, we also have to monitor what comes at the other end, to ensure that what we are feeding is important. There are a bunch of unexpected aspects of running a dog business....although our guides have not been quite as 'in your face' as some of the Bristol Hospital nursing brigade, who apparently made the cake below.