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Meet Thom "Swanny" Swan
Historical Reenactor

Name: Thom "Swanny" Swan
Kennel Name: Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs
Birthplace: Born in Missouri, raised in Colorado, but alive in Alaska
Home Town: Two Rivers, Alaska
Occupation: Security officer/paramedic at a remote industrial site
Web Site: www.tworiversak.com/mushing.htm

[click on any photo on this page to see a larger version]

Introduction

In addition to the mundane things I do to earn a living, I am an historical reenactor18th Century Outfit.jpg 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 Hudson’s 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.

I’m 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 I’m 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 Moore’s SP Racing Kennel.

Background

What is your primary sled dog activity or area of interest?
My ultimate goal is to do back-country touring and camping with my sled dog team using the same equipment and basic techniques that were used prior to the twentieth century while maintaining the highest modern standards of humane sled dog care and training. It’s a long-term project that I think will require several more years to fully realize.

How long have you been involved with sled dogs?
I have been casually interested in the sport of dog mushing throughout the 16 years that I've lived in Alaska but active participation was limited to training my own pet dog to pull a toboggan or travois during historical reenactments and winter camping trips, and some casual recreational skijoring. Following the death of my beloved wife, Shiloh, I had free time on my hands and needed an activity that would keep me mentally and physically active during winter. I have many good friends in Two Rivers who encouraged me to pursue the sport of dog mushing, and have served as teachers and mentors. Sometimes I think some of them actively conspired to get me active in the sport to help me cope with my grief. Whether or not it was by design, it was certainly effective.

I’m 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?
Dogs have been a part of my life since I was kid. I grew up in a ranching community in Western Colorado where our “farm dogs” worked just as hard as the humans to keep cattle and sheep in line. I became seriously interested in dog behavior and training when a certified canine behaviorist friend of mine gave me a pointing Labrador retriever puppy from impeccable hunting lines. Training her as a hunting companion and skijoring dog was an awesome experience.

In terms of fan interest, long-distance sled dog racing in Alaska is akin to NASCAR in the southeast. I’m 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.
My friend Mike Green was training a team of puppies for an Iditarod racer. One day I was following him on a snowmachine during a training run. He stopped the eight-dog team and asked me to step the brake. I assumed he was going to go up and move dogs around or fix some little problem, but instead he told me to keep my knees bent, keep the gangline tight and hang on. Then he pulled the hook and we were off and running. It was awesome and I haven’t looked back since.

Who have been your mentors?
Dog mushers are among the most generous people on earth when it comes to sharing their knowledge and resources. I couldn’t do this without the help of Mike and Kim Green who have taught me tons and who board my team while I’m away at work. Edie Forrest and Randy Dunbar let me help handle and train their dogs, while teaching me to properly care for the dogs and handle the sled. They were incredibly patient considering that I left face prints in just about every tree, stump and rock along their training trails at one point or another. Last year I started working with Lynn Orbison, helping her train rescued sled dogs while learning even more about the sport and especially about dogs with ‘special needs’. Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore have been incredibly supportive and Janece Rollet, a certified canine behaviorist who lives in Kentucky has been guiding my education in canine behavior, training and the associated sciences and has also played an important role in my development and growth as a musher.

Kennel Management

What size kennel do you operate?
I sometimes refer to my Stardancer Historical Freight Dogs kennel as a ‘micro-kennel’, especially compared to those of the racers I handle for. I currently have 6 dogs of my own and co-foster a rescued dog who will probably join my team if she wishes to be a working dog. We won’t really know about her until we can start pre-season training when the weather cools. Because of my financial and time restraints I’ve set a limit of 8 working dogs in my kennel, but of course retirees will stay with me for the remainder of their lives.

What type of confinement/bowl system do you use?
I use a combination of confinement systems. The physical layout includes a 500 square foot free-run pen where I house two dogs, and 6 additional pole and chain swivels outside of the free-run pen. My pole and chain swivels are the type described in the Mush with P.R.I.D.E. Sled Dog Care Guidelines and are probably the most common type of confinement system used by dog mushers in my area. In addition, the entire yard is surrounded by a hardware cloth fence to keep out wildlife and stray pets.

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?
The most important considerations are meeting the dog’s physiological needs for food, water and adequate shelter while supporting their mental and emotional needs as well. Some rather interesting research has found that social and psychological stimulation in the housing area may be even more important for maintaining the physical and mental health in dogs than providing adequate space. This doesn’t mean that space isn’t important, but it does point to the importance of providing a stimulating environment for our working 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.

Here’s 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 I’m older than the “typical” beginning musher and my back tends to protest if I’m 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 I’m 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. I’m 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 feed a premium commercially manufactured kibble that is specifically formulated for athletic dogs. While researching kibble I specifically looked for a food that does not contain any corn products, because corn has been associated with some brain chemistry imbalances in dogs that sometimes contribute to problem behaviors.

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.
My primary focus is on doing whatever is in the dog’s best interest and to give them every advantage that I possibly can.

The Dogs

Team at work

What breed(s) do you work with?
I’m trying to recreate a team that might have been working in the most remote frontiers of the late eighteenth through 19th centuries. The best description of those historical sled dogs was provided by a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk, who wrote in his memoirs “These animals are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind, large, long-legged, and wolfish with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiryhair. White is one of the most usual colors, but brown, blue-grey, red, yellow, and white marked with spots of black, or of the other various hues, are also common. Some of them are black with white paws, others are covered with long rough hair, like Russian setters. There are others of a light bluish-grey, with dark, almost black spots spread over the whole body…. Most of them are very wolfish in appearance, many being half or partly, or all but entirely, wolves in blood. One frequently sees dogs which are said to be almost pure wolves.” ( Robinson, HM: The Great Fur Land or Sketches of Life in the Hudson’s Bay Territory; G.P. Putnam’s Sons; New York; 1879.)

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. I’m also co-fostering a candidate that is a striking Alaskan husky / Alaskan malamute mix.

What physical characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
I look for dogs that pull with their legs rather than leveraging their body weight. I prefer leggy, long barreled dogs in the 50 to 80 lb range. They are large and strong enough that a historically authentic small team can pull me and a sled full of camping gear at a consistent mile-eating trot pretty much anywhere we wish to go, but are not so large that heat retention becomes an issue. Good coats and good feet are extremely important to me.

What mental or emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
Intelligence, trainability, work ethic and wanderlust are all required of my dogs. I need dogs that want to work while it is time to work, but are willing to rest when it is time to do so.

Tell us about an all time favorite dog or two.
That’s like asking a parent to describe his or her favorite child. It really isn’t fair. Every dog in the Stardancer team is a favorite. If they weren’t favorites, they wouldn’t be on the team.

Breeding Program

What criteria do you use for selecting breeding stock?
It was a lot easier to answer that question last winter than it is today. There are almost always more good sled dogs available than can be placed. Many sled dogs, sometimes from truly remarkable bloodlines, find themselves in the animal shelter or being fostered by sled dog rescue organizations such as the Second Chance League. Because my dogs could offer little or nothing to improve their breeds I simply spayed or neutered every dog I acquired prior to bringing them home. In addition to ensuring they would not contribute to the problem of pet overpopulation early sterilization helped me prevent some potential behavior issues that are unique to intact dogs and bitches.

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.

I’ve 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 male.
Having two intact dogs in the yard requires me to manage my kennel more effectively to minimize the risk of an unplanned breeding. During estrus (heat), the free-run pen in my kennel serves as a heat pen, in which my female can be isolated from intact males, even strays that might wander into the yard.

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?
Desire. Any healthy dog that meets my size and conformation requirements can work on the team and have something to offer, but only if the dog really wants to be doing the job I am asking. Even though I spend as much time caring for and training my dogs as many serious racers, I still remember that this is something the dogs and I do together just for the fun of it. Its only fun for me so long as it is also fun for the dogs.

At what point do you decide a youngster is likely to make it in your team?
I don’t make that decision. The dog makes it. When I walk out to the yard with a harness in hand and the dog starts jumping, dancing and screaming to go it tells me that the dog has decided that he or she wants to be on the team. From that point on my job is to teach the dog how to do its job, and that is truly when the fun begins.

Activities

What are your favorite sled dog activities?
I love training dogs, both my own and those belonging to other mushers. I really enjoy exploring the woods, negotiating new trails and traveling with my team, but I also enjoy the adrenaline rush I get when driving Edie or Lynn’s high-drive, high-speed sprint teams.

I’m actually trying to avoid racing, though. To me, dog mushing is something I do for fun and I don’t want to turn an important recreational activity into a full-time job. I already have one of those and don’t 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?
It’s easy to explain why the dogs enjoy these activities. Sled dogs run because they must – every single strand of DNA in their bodies is screaming at them to run and pull. It’s as much a part of their nature as eating or sleeping. To a sled dog, running feels good. It is a self-rewarding behavior that has deep seated genetic roots and it is as important to their overall well being as good nutrition or excellent veterinary care. Mushers don’t “make” dogs run, we let them run and try to direct them as best we can.

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.

The Future

What is your vision of the future of sled dog sports?
I believe that racing will always be a driving force in the sled dog sports, because it is the most visible aspect of dog mushing and because it is human nature to be competitive. Because the population in North America has become more centralized in urban areas, even in the far north, I think that small teams will become more common as time goes on. It’s a lot easier for a person living in the suburbs and holding down a full-time job to field a skijoring, bikejoring or limited class team than to establish and maintain a larger kennel.

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?
Any time someone in a community owns more than a couple of pet dogs, that person is living in a fish bowl. Neighbors pay attention, sometimes more attention than is welcome. I think it is vital to the sport that all mushers demonstrate the highest possible standards of dog care and humane training. It only takes a small mistake, observed by the neighborhood busybody, to cast the entire sport in a bad light.

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.

I’ve 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. It’s 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?
I think that organizations such as Mush with P.R.I.D.E. are crucial to promoting the welfare of the dogs by providing guidance in acceptable sled dog care practices. Race organizations pretty much have to focus their interest and attention on their particular events, and don’t have a lot of resources to spend in developing other aspects of the sport.

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 that’s an important role and that other local clubs and organizations could also play.

Personally, I’d 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?
First, do your homework before acquiring even your first sled dog. There are lots of different mushing disciplines ranging from skijoring with a single dog to racing an open class or long-distance team. Take your time to explore all the possibilities. Find the mushing discipline that excites you the most, establish a well defined mushing goal and then focus every bit of your attention and resources on achieving that goal.

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 you’ll 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 they’ve been trained to do, and you can’t 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 haven’t trained and conditioned them to do the job. If you can’t find the free time to take your dogs on training runs at least three or four days per week, you probably don’t 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.

Anecdote

Tell us about one or two of your most memorable sled dog experiences.
Wow, there have been so many. Every run seems memorable in its own way. I could certainly tell about the time I crashed into a stump that still carries my face-print, or the time I took a big bite out of the drive bow while flying off the runners and into the basket or the time I was dragged kicking and screaming for a good quarter of a mile before the team finally remembered what “whoa” means.

Instead, I think I’ll 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 Orbison’s place for a training run. My friend and Lynn were each driving teams of six sprint dogs, and I borrowed three of Lynn’s 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 couldn’t 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 doesn’t 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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