Our breeding program isvery strict and ensures that we only breed the number of dogs we need. Wetry to breedour femalesin the late summer / early autumn since that allows the pups to move outside when it is still very warm and relatively quiet in terms of visitors to the kennel. It also means that we have the maximum amount of time possible to give to the training and development of the pups and that they are big and strong enough to acclimatise to the winter temperatures when they come.
By the time the clients DO arrive, the pups are at the perfect age to benefit from playing with them - although for the clients at the tail end of the season, we often notice that the pups have started to walk them rather than the other way around! All in all this timetable seems to bring maximum benefit to pups, guides and clients and leaves us with pups who, at the end of their first winter, are open and friendly adults, keen to interact with new people and to meet and greet new expereinces head on.
Females are first bred at around three years but often slightly later and we have a maximum of 2 litters from one mom during their lifetime, with at least a year's interval between each pregnancy.
When the dam is approaching the time of the birth she is moved indoors so that we can't possibly miss the signs of the imminent birth. They actually give birth on our tiled and underfloor heated bathroom floor and they stay inside on a soft dog bed underneath regularly changed bedding until the pups are at least 4 or 5 weeks old.
We monitor them closely in their first weeks and weigh them regularly to ensure that they are gaining weight and that there is nothing abnormal about how they are developing. We also start tiny stress tests around three weeks of age so that in addition to being cuddled when they are handled, they are used to various stimuli like being put on their backs, having their paws and nails looked at etc. There are X stress tests that many books recommend...
By the time they are four to five weeks old, they are used to being handled, their eyesight is pretty much fully developed and they are starting to think about supplemental food so it is easy to initiate them into puppy runs in which they run free and return for food treats using a tsh tsh tsh sound (which we use every time we feed).
These free runs and walkshelp the youngsters build muscle and confidence as well as an under standing of the sounds and smells that are all a part of the great outdoors!Once they start feeling more confident and begin to walk and play with each other we will introduce toys,allowing the puppies to develop normal social and playful behavior.And then we increase other stimuli like bicycles, quad bikes etc.
We start to get the pups used to being in a cage outside by using it for play sessions in weeks five and six, and by feeding them in it at least once a day. They then get gradually acclimatised to the outside temperatures by living in the cage area by the house during the day before being placed outside permanently in our puppy Hilton or in our roofed and floored cages near the house at the start of a week when the weather is going to be nice.
Once the pups are eating puppy food, at around four or five weeks, they are offered food up to five times a day. This drops to three times a day after about five months and to two times a day after about seven months. Hence, having pups is very work-intensive! Once they are in the kindergarten, they start to be fed individually as opposed to around a large tray. They are introduced to collars and are put on little chains and asked to sit before being given their food. This is the start of their training process. Once a day they walk loose behind us through the forest, returning for food to a sound that we make every time we feed them.
Once they have been vaccinated, we start to walk them for longer distances with the quad running alongside (in case any dart away and we can't catch them by that stage) with our older, retired sled dogs along for company. This helps them to develop healthy social behavior from the get go.
The Hilton is custom-made for moms and pups since the moms can still escape from their little ones and get some well-earned private time by climbing onto the second story, where they have food and water always available (to help them with milk production). The pups cannot, generally, climb to the second story until they are about three months old so they learn to spend some time apart from their moms.
Around this same time, we start leash training them by moving them from eating together in trays to eating from indiviual bowls whilst chained in various places around the cage, and at the same time as we start taking them for short individual walks on leads. That way, they associate being leash trained with something positive and, addition to their free-runs, we start working with them on the agility obstacles, (tunnels, bridges etc), on introducing them to the sound of the shaving machine, quad bike or snowmobile etc. Basically anything and everything we can think of to help them to develop into happy healthy sled dogs which take new challenges in their stride. When the pups are born early enough we might also start introducing them to pulling by hooking them up to tiny tyres while wearing a harness, so that they associate the movement of putting on a harness with pulling something behind them. Getting used to the sound of pulling at an early age, helps us to introduce skis and snowboards behind them when older.
At around 8 weeks, they start to be introduced to the lead and quickly progress to the agility course so that they have a fun time every time they are out exploring. At around 4 months, if they are big enough to wear harnesses, they may be introduced to some skijoring training alongside an older, experienced dog. Before the snow goes, they are put into teams alongside the older dogs for some short 2km loops and they are also introduced to quad training at the start of the Spring whilst the fun of running with the sled is still in their minds, so that they don’t get scared of the noise of the quad when they return to training in the Autumn. One of the main things to teach them at this time is that their harness is not food!
Their moms stay with them at night until they are nearly 12 weeks old and then the pups get moved into the next-door kindergarten for a few hours each day until they have been completely weaned. At this point, the mom can start to build up her fitness to run again and to join in the rest of the running season although we have to be careful that her milk has completely dried up or she will be at greater risk of frostbitten nipples than other females.
The pups then live in the kindergarten next door to the Hilton for at least one more month before being split up and put into cages with friendly older dogs who will socialise them and teach them appropriate pack behaviour. They do not start training on the running chains until they are a year old although they may already have started running for fun in the teams at the age of c. 6 months since we try to give them a taste of running before the end of the snow season.
Their training program of recreation and positive fun continues through until they are about six months old and in their first winter they perform as little star attractions. They should all know how to take on the farm's obstacle course by the time the clients arrive and so those clients that spend half a day on our farm, take this part of the training out of our hands. As you can imagine, socialising with the pups is the most popular job on the farm!
On Sundays and Mondays with our standard French groups, for instance, each pup will do the agility course at least four times with different clients each time. This is a fun way f keeping them both mentally stimulated, fit, and open to new people and experiences. (Of course we keep a careful eye on how much fun they are having and give them a break from their hard core work if they look like they have had enough of squealing kids, for instance). Training in this way, ensures they learn a sense of excitement about their future job throughout the entire winter season and, of course, they are on the farm, watching the excitment of the adult dogs as they get hooked up to run, each day.