Thom "Swanny" Swan
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In addition to the mundane things I do to earn a living, I am an historical reenactor specializing in the day-to-day lifestyles of those affiliated with the northwestern fur-trade from the end of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) and the amalgamation of the North West Company and Hudsons Bay Company in 1821. At living history events I most often portray a North West Company wintering partner in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
I enjoy the traditional Alaskan outdoor lifestyle with a historical twist. When I head outdoors to play I often do so wearing the same clothing and using the same equipment and supplies that were in common use in a similar climate and ecosystem about 200 years ago. Rapid transportation was as important historically as it is today, and the canoe and dog sled were the vehicles of choice in the northwestern fur-trade.
Im a small scale recreational musher interested in recreating the mushing practices of the past. In addition to running my micro-kennel of historical freight dogs Im a proud member of Mush with P.R.I.D.E., the Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association, the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile Club and a sponsor of Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moores SP Racing Kennel.
What is your primary sled dog activity or area of
How long have you been involved with sled dogs?
Im truly a beginner in the sport and still negotiating the learning curve. During the 2005/06 season I handled for sprint mushers Edie Forrest and Randy Dunbar. During the 2006 / 07 season I had just enough dogs of my own to start working toward my own goals, so trained my mini-team of four big dogs while also training with and handling for Lynn Orbison.
What sparked your initial interest in sled dogs?
In terms of fan interest, long-distance sled dog racing in Alaska is akin to NASCAR in the southeast. Im a big fan of the middle and distance races, and when I started meeting and spending some quality time with some of racing mushers I realized that as a general rule mushers enjoy a bond with their dogs that few pet owners can ever hope to achieve or even appreciate. The more I learned about the sport, the more I wanted to play too.
If you remember your very first time behind a team of dogs, tell
us about it.
Who have been your mentors?
What size kennel do you operate?
What type of confinement/bowl system do you use?
During summer I keep fresh water in front of the dogs in 12 gallon galvanized tubs. I feed in 3 quart stainless steel pans that are set inside of used airplane tires than an aircraft mechanic friend gave me as a freebie. During winter I remove the tubs and give warmed, baited water in the feed bowls to encourage them to drink before it freezes.
What are the most important considerations in housing sled dogs?
Almost everything I do in my yard is based on the best available current scientific information that I can find and after consultation with a professional canine behaviorist friend. A lot of current scientific findings lend support to very common practices that dog mushers have been doing for decades, but have been under attack by well-meaning but misguided animal rights activists.
Heres a good example. Although animal rights activists have been trying to outlaw tethering for years, a recent study conducted by Cornell University has shown that tethering sled dogs in a manner that allows dogs to interact easily with other dogs and with their human caretakers is no more likely to result in aggression, compulsive behaviors, or any other behavior problems than any other type of confinement. Using six-foot chains swiveling on a central axis, each dog has slightly more than 113 feet in which to run, jump and play.
Dogs in my free run pen are housed in pairs because studies have shown that single-housing for prolonged periods is directly linked to an increased incidence of behavioral abnormalities, and that dogs housed in pairs spend a similar proportion of their time interacting with each other as dogs kept in groups of 5-11 animals.
I like having dogs inside my house, so each night I bring two of my team members inside for the evening. I rotate dogs through the house, free-run pen and individual pole & chain sites so that all members of the team have frequent opportunities to interact with all other members of the team, including the musher. I also feel that rotating dogs from place to place helps reduce the potential for resource guarding behavior that can lead to dog-directed aggression.
Each dog is provided his or her own flat-roofed dog house because dogs like having platforms on which to jump up, sun themselves or just gain a vantage point from which to survey their surroundings. I train all of my dogs to jump up on their houses for handling and grooming, mostly because Im older than the typical beginning musher and my back tends to protest if Im bent over for too long at a time.
Since my yard is fenced I can allow a few dogs to run loose and play around while Im available to supervise, but my next major kennel improvement project will be to fence in a reasonably large play yard where I can allow groups of compatible dogs to free-run and play together. Im planning to install some tunnels, platforms and maybe some other enrichment devices in that yard as well.
Give us an overview of your feeding program.
I supplement the kibble with some probiotic and with salmon oil to promote GI and cardiovascular health and to help my dogs maintain healthy, plush coats. I also supplement with raw meat or fish every day we run plus the day after, and during exceptionally cold weather.
Summarize your basic kennel management style.
What breed(s) do you work with?
Most of my dogs are so-called village or trap-line dogs or mixes that include village lines. I have a husky/St. Bernard mix, a husky/Anatolian Shepherd mix, two Hedlund gray huskies, and two truly awesome dogs from Denali Park kennel lines. Im also co-fostering a candidate that is a striking Alaskan husky / Alaskan malamute mix.
What physical characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
What mental or emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
Tell us about an all time favorite dog or two.
What criteria do you use for selecting breeding
The issue has become a bit more complicated since last spring. I acquired a pair of Hedlund husky pups that leaders in the Hedlund husky Preservation Project believe are genetically valuable, so I've had to rethink the issue. The Hedlund husky line was developed by selecting dogs that exhibited very desirable physical and temperamental traits and the resulting line was noted for sound, healthy moderate sized sled dogs that were easy to handle, intelligent, easily trainable and physically very able with good coats and excellent feet. No dog can be accurately assessed for temperament and ability until it has reached full maturity, usually at around 24 months of age.
Ive also learned that there are health and behavioral concerns that make it advisable to delay spaying or neutering working dogs until after they have reached puberty. Having acquired a dog that is potentially genetically valuable, and acknowledging the health and temperamental advantages of delaying sterilization, I've decided to keep my new pups intact until they reach an appropriate age.
At this point I am planning to have the male neutered at 15 months of age, and to leave
the female intact until she is old enough to accurately assess her physical and
temperamental attributes. Since most temperament and behavioral traits are either
inherited or learned from the bitch she is a much more likely breeding candidate than the
My intact female will only be bred if she displays the desirable physical and temperamental attributes for which the Hedlund line is famous and if I am confident that her progeny will help me improve my team of historical freight dogs. If she does not prove to have attributes I really want to keep in my own team then she will be spayed at 24 months of age.
What is the most important thing you look for in a candidate for the team?
At what point do you decide a youngster is likely to make it in
What are your favorite sled dog activities?
Im actually trying to avoid racing, though. To me, dog mushing is something I do for fun and I dont want to turn an important recreational activity into a full-time job. I already have one of those and dont need another. To me, mushing is a lot more fun when it is just a full-time hobby instead.
Tell us why you and your dogs enjoy these activities?
I enjoy mushing because it incorporates so many other things I enjoy. I love spending time with my dogs, training and caring for them and doing active things with them. I enjoy researching the history of the northern frontiers and the science of dog behavior. Most of all, I enjoy experiencing nature in its most elemental form, as a part of the environment rather than a mere visitor. My team gives me a good excuse to do all of those things very frequently.
What is your vision of the future of sled dog
In some regions, where conditions are favorable, I think that recreational teams such as my Stardancer gang will also gain in popularity. There is increasing pressure on public land stewards to limit or restrict motorized access to the back-country, and sled dog teams offer the perfect, low impact alternative to snowmachines or ATVs.
What can individual mushers do to support and promote the sport?
While the busybodies notice the things we do wrong, we forget sometimes that our neighbors also take note of the things we do right. When people can see that our dogs are healthy, happy and enthusiastic about performing in our sport they are much more likely to support dog mushing and those of us who chose to share our lives with working dogs.
Ive been rather surprised at how much of an interest other historical reenactors have taken in the Stardancer team. I recently took some of my dogs to a reenactment and within just a short time nearly every participant there found some excuse to come by my camp and meet the dogs. I think that most people have at least a casual interest in or curiosity about the sport. Each of us can do a lot to promote the sport by just talking with folks, telling them what we do, how we do it, and most importantly by sharing our passion for running our teams.
Almost every musher I know encourages friends and acquaintances to visit their kennels, play with the dogs, and even go out on a training run. I believe that is far and away the very best way to generate interest and support in the sport. Its awfully hard to think ill of someone who just provided you with the most unique experience of your life.
What part do clubs and organizations play in sport development?
In my area, the Two Rivers Dog Mushers Association takes a leadership role in maintaining local trails, providing racing opportunities and in preserving our right to access public lands. I think thats an important role and that other local clubs and organizations could also play.
Personally, Id like to see a bit more emphasis on recreational mushing. I think in some regions local clubs or organizations might be able to conduct some low-stress fun runs or gatherings that bring recreational mushers together to share our experiences without all the hoopla and stress that surrounds a race.
What advice would you give a beginning musher?
Visit lots of kennels and spend time with lots of different mushers, learning as much as you can about as many mushing disciplines as possible. Take advantage of opportunities to handle for and train with experienced mushers in a variety of disciplines. Everyone has something valuable to teach and we all need to learn as many of those lessons as we can cram into our brains.
Join Mush with P.R.I.D.E. and study their materials thoroughly. The Mush with P.R.I.D.E. Sled Dog Care Guidelines, Equipment Safety Guidelines and First Aid Manual are invaluable and represent the best $15.00 youll ever spend in the sport of dog mushing.
Accept the fact that mushing is an expensive and time intensive sport even at a small-scale recreational level. Even though my kennel is small I still expect to pay about $1,000.00 (USD) per dog per year and even during the off-season I require at least 10 minutes per day per dog for basic husbandry, not including the time needed for training. Dogs can only do what theyve been trained to do, and you cant expect your dogs to give you a 20 mile per hour race or take you thirty or more miles per day during a backcountry camping trip if you havent trained and conditioned them to do the job. If you cant find the free time to take your dogs on training runs at least three or four days per week, you probably dont have enough time to be a dog musher.
If you are certain you have the discipline, the resources and the passion to mush sled dogs then jump right in. There is nothing in the world that matches the feeling you get the instant you pull the hook.
Tell us about one or two of your most memorable
sled dog experiences.
Instead, I think Ill tell of a run in which absolutely nothing exciting happened. My favorite run last year was one of those bitterly cold February mornings that makes your blood feel like icy slush flowing through your veins. Though the sun was high in the cobalt sky it offered no warmth at all. A friend was visiting from Kentucky to get in some dog mushing, so we trucked my little four-dog team over to Lynn Orbisons place for a training run. My friend and Lynn were each driving teams of six sprint dogs, and I borrowed three of Lynns slower rescued dogs to run with my four freighters for a team of seven.
Of course the two sprint teams left the yard like rockets, and then I followed along with the big dogs. After a mile or so the team settled into that mile-eating trot that is so efficient and so beautiful that it makes your heart ache just to watch. I had originally planned to run short but the dogs were doing so well that I just couldnt bear to turn them back toward the yard.
My team just clicked that day. They were running so efficiently that we actually caught up to the sprint teams a couple of different times. We went twice as far as originally planned, and had several uneventful passes with other teams. It was one of those magical days when everything just went right. It certainly doesnt make for a very exciting story, but it is a wonderful memory of the kind of day that makes it good to be a recreational dog musher.
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