One of the ways in which Hetta Huskies, as a kennel, stands out head and shoulders above most others, is because of the level of care given to the dogs.
We have added this section to our website since we know that some clients believe that all kennels in Scandinavia care for their dogs at a similar level and, sadly, that is just not the case. Even though most kennels and owners are clever enough to say they care for their dogs in their marketing literature, dressing up the facts do not make them true.
If this is at all important to you and you are trying to choose between companies, you will need to delve a little more deeply to find out the reality when it comes to the welfare of the animals you will be working with. There are some easy ways in which to get a good feel for the kennel / farm you are thinking about going on safari with and to be assured that your money is going back into well cared-for huskies.
NB: Even if this is not a deal breaker, for you, it is worth considering the fact that companies which have a real ethical commitment to the quality of care they invest in their dogs tend to be the same companies with good reputations for quality and care when it comes to their human clients!
At Hetta Huskies we aim for the highest standards in all aspects of our company! We encourage you to also have high standards in your dog sledding experience and to take part in humane mushing!
We also encourage you to think that the care of the sled dogs, from what they eat, where they live and what they sleep in is just as important as how much the tour itself will cost (but our prices are at the extremely reasonable end of the scale, too)!
In 2015 our work towards raising standards within the sleddog industry earned us a GOLD in the World Responsible Tourism Awards for the Best Animal Welfare Initiative. Whilst this is something that we are proud of, there is a lot of work to be done to raise standards across the board..
First, check the images and information on their marketing materials and see how transparent, open and forthcoming the farms are about their standards when questioned, or, conversely, whether they are evasive about them.
Reputable kennels can normally always offer detailed information about the care of their dogs and this information should be transparent. Unfortunately, we have seen images taken of our farm by area marketing boards being used in brochures in other countries in Europe to portray other farms which are not so photogenic for whatever reason.
Most of the good farms will have lots of images of their farm and kennels on their media platforms in addition to the standard pictures of people and children cuddling dogs since they will be proud of how well maintained and clean it is.
They will also not merely mention their sled dog ethics in passing or as they feel like it is required but they will proudly talk about their efforts in this department and will explain their ethos. If they are not willing to be completely transparent in regards to the care of their animals, then there is likely to be a problem.
We have seen this first hand when we tried to approach the french company which owned a farm in the South of Finland in case they weren't aware that the management practices in place were raising concerns both in public forums and within the Finnish sleddog community (multiple pups being killed, per year, because of unwanted pregnancies taken to term, and the general condition of the farm), we simply got no response. When we followed up by asking a French guide to approach as a prospective client, she was twice brushed off when she asked just about the quality of care of the dogs with comments about how she would see for herself that they were well taken care of when she got there.
Hence, it seems like they were deliberately unaware of what was going on and there isn't much more than one can do in that instance.
Similarly, the only other farm in Enontekiö raises concerns in the industry despite the great marketing material images of dogs running and pulling in a beautiful setting with smiling clients which are put out by the British company which owns it. When queried by clients, they claim that they rehome old dogs and never put a dog down apart from on a vet's recommendation. But unfortunately, that is simply untrue. Hence, trying to see behind the rhetoric is very difficult for even fairly knowledgable clients. In most cases like this, however, you can get a glimpse of the truth from the fact that the information that they can actually give you about their dog care, when approached on the subject directly, is likely to be limited to fluffy rhetoric about what they imagine you would want them to say.
For example, ask about how many people look after the dogs, both in summer and winter and how experienced those people are / how long they have worked on the farm since this will tell you a lot about how well the kennel manager, guides and farmhands actually know the dogs.
Having a core group of people who intimately know and love the dogs and provide continuity in their care, is critically important for the welfare and safety of the animals.
Most farms with c. 100 dogs have only a couple of people caring for them in summer and some with up to 600 dogs still with only three or four people looking after them in summer. When this is the case, it is almost impossible for each dog to receive the personal, top notch care, love, attention and exercise they need and deserve.
Some kennels also have almost no stable caretakers of the dogs since good people are unlikely to stay for long in somewhere that does not care - and the company which does not value its dogs probably does not invest in and value its staff, etiher. When one is a disposable commodity, so is the other.
We have guides who return to us year after year. Some return in the summers because they love the training and building side of things and take pride in the kennel looking and functioning as well as possible. Others return for the intense winter challenge and they know the dogs more in terms of how they are as team athletes. These returning guides form the backbone of our team and they also oversee the development of the trainees who have to stay with us for a minimum of three months.
Having a rotating group of folk who go through training in working with sleddogs in addition to the core group of guides is beneficial in that it helps the shy dogs to realise that the approach of new people is not a scary thing. Our medical supervisors and training managers are critical roles and the guides who take on these roles do so with intensity and passion and they know the dogs intimately.
Whilst most Scandinavian kennels are subject to annual visits by vets, the standards of care they can measure against and comment upon are so minimal that the visit is almost a token gesture.
At present, and maybe surprisingly, given the number of dog farms in Scandinavia, there are no well thought out guidelines or quality of care recommendations for working sledwork farms. The only internationally recognised standard - Mush with Pride - is fairly minimal in terms of what it asks and it only scratches the surface of what is needed.
Indeed, the only area that has done a great deal of work in this regard is the British Columbia region of Canada which initiated an investigation into kennel standards after a worker sued for mental damages after having to shoot c. 100 dogs. Through the work of a high level task force, they initiated, in c. 2012, both a Sled Dog Code of Practice (effectively best practices; Click here if you are interested in learning more) and a Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulations (enforceable guidelines under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (Click here if you are interested in learning more). In Scandinavia, however, nothing like this exists and, therefore, kennels can really get away with doing 'not very much' when it comes to care of the dogs.
At present, vets can effectively check some basic quality of life criteria like the length of chains the dogs are attached to and that the kennels are raised off the ground.
Ironically, we think that the legal length of the chains is acutally too long for, eg, our little girls to lug around behind them but we comply, aside from in our sick dog area where the vet agrees that it is better to restrict movement. Very few farms conform and in many places the dogs are on quite short chains which are connected to the kennels themselves so the dogs have very little range of movement and in only two planes. In many places, farms have dogs 'temporarily' on very short travel chains through the entire winter and the dog has maybe a foot of movement room whilst it hops back and forth across the long gangline chain.
Vets are supposed to recommend that suitably insulated kennels are used but there are no guidelines as to what this means so most farms get away with using simple tongue and grove or plywood kennels which are quick and inexpensive to make and provide only marginal insulation from wind and pretty much no insulation from the cold.
When farms do not comply with the minimum standards the vets are checking against, all the vets can really do is to issue a warning that things should change in order to comply - but they don't really have time to follow up to effect change and there is no common agreement amongst the vets, at that point, as to what they should do.
When it comes to vaccination policies, deworming strategies and having the dogs physically examined by vets, the vets have no right to comment. Even some of the 'best' sled dog kennels think that keeping up to date with vaccinations is an unnecessary expense. Similarly, many farms seldom deworm their dogs or take them to the vet for checks.
Our farm, conversely, is known by the area vets as the lump and bump farm since they are amused by the size of the lumps we find in our weekly dog checks. Clearly checking and removing a pea sized lump is better for the dog than it being brought to the vet when the lump is already the size of a golf or tennis ball. Without regular handling, however, it is hard for other farms to find these lumps, particularly outside of the running season.
Many kennels also think that it is only worth getting a dog operated if it is either an exceptionally good dog or they are sure that the course of treatment will be less than an arbitrary expense cap. We often hear of €200 as being the upper limit that owners are willing to spend on a dog. More than that and for most dogs it is more economicaly sensible, in a farm setting, to kill them.
Find more information about our farm's philosopy with respect to dog health and welfare, here.
In the majority of farms, dogs are put down as soon as their useful life is over. Hetta Huskies, however, (and about five or six other farms, in total, that we know of), has a no cull policy! Of course, if the rest of the dogs will be put in jeopardy because of the end of life expenses of the retired dogs, then the farms have to take this into consideration. But in most cases, farms are breeding regularly so as to be able to keep the dogs in an optimal age bracket.
Farms can legally shoot their own dogs so long as the person using the gun is capable of doing so - and those that breed ten to 20 pups annually and kill off a corresponding number of older dogs each year, tend to choose this option for end of life plan rather than going to the vet since, even though the vet would have to comply, it would still cause them to raise their eyebrows. Clearly it is a cheaper exercise to do in-house. A bullet costs about 30 cents and the cost of a painfree end of life plan at the vet, at least 10 times that. Vets are subject to the will of the owners when it comes to the decision as to when to end a dog's life since the dogs are the owners' property.
Most owners know that clients won't like to hear that the dogs are put down when ill or old and will fudge the truth on this subject, or, indeed, just try to change the subject. However, if kennels claim that they follow this principle but you do not see many older dogs hanging out there, it is probably not true apart from, maybe, for a token one or two.
The two dogs in the image below run (a small bit) in training season and then as soon as the clients come, they decide it is time for a holiday. In their defence, Petteri on the left has a mild form of epilepsy and Hamppu has a dodgy heart so we try not to push them to do more than they want. And they don't seem to want to run with clients at all so in the season we switch them into a retired dog category and just make sure that they go for regular walks.
On most farms, these dogs would no longer be alive. However Petteri is one of the very few dogs whose ongoing existance is thankfully sponsored by one of our returning multiday clients and Hamppu is just waiting for his forever home since one of our old guides has offered to take him when she has settled down (it has just taken four years of waiting so far, but we are patient and hopeful and so is Hamppu!). We have many other dogs who don't run for whatever reason and the majority are on the adopt / sponsor list and meantime hangout eating and training with the other dogs to the limits of their capabilities.
We have large running fences for our old dogs to wander around in and enjoy time in, together. Indeed most of the older dogs live permanently in these large cages since they are less likely to fight or try to escape in their later years and enjoy the company of the others. When they look like they are nearing the end of their time, they are brought into the house for some comfy months on the sofa and beds. Essentially, our sleddogs are pretty lucky that they are on our farm.
Learn more about our oldies and other dogs which would very much enjoy moving sooner rather than later to a soft dog bed and sofa in a forever home, here. And, if you like our no-kill policy and want to support one of the oldies whilst they are still with us, please check out our sponsorship in situ option for the non-running dogs, (as well as for working dogs and pups), here.
We also keep the puppies we breed rather than trying to use them as a revenue generator because they are a valuable part of our family! Each pup is given the opportunity to run and pull. However, if we recognize that a puppy simply doesn’t want to be a sled dog, as much as we hate to part with them - we put them up for adoption just as we do our retired huskies. Thus, they can continue their lives as very rambunctious and much loved house pets - generally with former guides!
You may be surprised that some of the farms (see below) still follow old school practices and breed and kill off unwanted puppies (both on purpose and by accident) nearly every year.
Few farms do regular checks of their dogs, like we do. Most are simply reactive to issues. We are also, we believe, fairly unique in the level of information / data about our dogs which we keep accessible at our fingertips.
Few farms have developed good systems for keeping track of everything from medicine use to the full medical histories of each and every dog as well as their vaccination and deworming schedules etc etc but some at least keep current lists against which medications are given.
You can ask at what stage of record keeping your farm is at and this will tell you quite a bit about how detailed they are, in the care of their dogs.
Surprisingly, some of the most respected kennels even consider antibiotics 'evil' (whereas we believe that their cautious and well thought-out use is almost unavoidable). We medicate slightly less than the vets might designate, because we are a) cautious about over-use of antibiotics and, with so many dogs in our care, we believe that we have a wider responsibility than normal about the frequency with which we use this precious commodity and we understand the global risk of their overuse and b) we have a lot of alternative care knowledge including the use of natural remedies like spruce sap and honey-based ointments and we are willing to spend the time, if need be, on flushing wounds to stimulate healing that vets can't necessarily trust pet owners to commit to.
When we hear other owners in the industry talking about antibiotics and pain medication being evil, we are never really sure if they believe this or if they are just wanting an excuse to reduce costs.
You can actually tell quite a lot about how the dogs have been looked after by how scarred the dogs are since wounds that have been allowed to heal without care and attention leave fairly large scars and a lot of farms have a lot of dogs with scars on their faces and legs from fight wounds which have not been well attended to.
Find more information about our farm's philosopy with respect to systematic record keeping here.
Are there wires sticking out of cages and kennels and are there dirty bowls lying around everywhere or is the farm environment clean and orderly and the kennels well insulated?
(If there is a noticable amount of poo lying around then they are simply not cleaning the yard often enough). We scrub puppy cages three to five times per day and we poop all other circles and cages at least twice per day. If we did not, we would soon not want to be petting our dogs or handling their bowls and our clothes would not just smell of outdoor dog but also of poop.
Some smaller farms train their dogs to have fun on agility obstacles but we rarely see this on the bigger farms and our self-made GEE HAW maze is arguably unique!
If you notice that there are very few sick or recuperating or old dogs on a farm - or, indeed, if you go to a farm more than once and don't recognise many dogs from before - it might just be that the sick are considered too much trouble to keep around and that there is a very high turnover of animals.
If you also see dogs that pull 100% of the time, never fight and never chew harnesses, you need to wonder if the owners are exceptional in their ability to train their animals (since we, for instance, definitely have some dogs that are lazier than others and will quit pulling hard on the longer trails and we also have one or two dogs, including one rescue, that still has what we consider an unacceptable / unpredictable level of aggression - or do they just get rid of all of those which do not meet specific standards. That does, of course, make life easier for the farm since it is then far easier to manage the group of dogs since you don't need to pander to any individual specific training or behavioural needs.
Check out images and information about all of our dogs, here.
Ask them, also, what their feeding program is..
The very best farms have a detailed feeding program which meets the needs of individual dogs. The worst simply throw food into cages and onto the ground and the dogs within the cages compete for it on a fairly hit and miss basis and fights can ensue.
Our dogs' weight is checked weekly and appropriate portion sizes for bigger and smaller dogs and those with anomylous metabolisms all calculated and adjusted weekly in response to the differing needs of the kilometers being run or the ambient temperature.
Sled dogs burn anywhere from 1000 to 7000 calories per day, sometimes even more! Each dog is as different as each human. Like people, dogs cannot all eat the same portions and maintain a healthy weight. Some need to eat more than others and some, less.
Whilst all of the dogs in good kennels might look lean compared to pampered house pets, (they should be, after all, conditioned athletes) there is a big difference between athletic and skinny - and dogs that are allowed to be overweight in a sled dog farm are at as much risk as those that are too skinny.
Even for house pets vet’s often recommend that you should be able to feel the last 2 ribs and hip bones but not see them.
Clearly you can see the ribs of some people no matter what they eat and it will be the same for a handful of dogs on any farm. But if you know what a healthy dog should look like, you can take these considerations into the mix and get an instant and fairly reliable picture of how much effort is put into good nutrition for the dogs.
Sled dogs are supposed to be fit, not skinny or looking like walking skeletons.
In the sprint racing industry, the sled dogs are mixed with a high percentage of German Short Haired Pointer and Greyhound to increase the speed of the dog. Generally, dogs that are full time racers are kept lighter framed to ensure that they can maintain their speed - just like marathon runners - but remember that they only pull one person at a time and light sleds.
Touring sled dogs travel mid to long distances whilst pulling much more weight and therefore they have to be very well trained, muscularly fit and of sufficient weight to guarantee their and your safety on the trails. If the general appearance of the sled dogs is skinny or bony, it is cause for concern.
How much attention do they actually pay to the food that they are feeding? What do the dog poos look like? (Liquid diarrhoea or solid and firm?).
Every week, we examine and consider the weight of each and every dog and think about whether the weight on the farm as a whole is also increasing or decreasing or staying constant. We then decide whether we need to raise or lower, on average, the feeding portions, to maintain a stable weight and, after that, we assign categories (fat, normal big dog, normal smaller dog, and skinny) to each dog. Some dogs are constantly in the skinny and fat categories because of their metabolisms and some enter these categories fairly randomly but essentially each dog has a feeding plan specific to their needs which is monitored and adjusted weekly.
Learn more about our nutrition plan here.
We also have systems in place which ensure that the feeding itself is carried out with optimal efficiency since we want the dogs to be in a heightened state of anticipation about their feed for as little time as possible since that is when cage fights, for instance, are most likely to happen. Hence our farm layout has been designed with this (and the efficiency with which we can prepare the dogs to run), in mind.
Most people, if they understood what is considered the norm in the industry, might be a little uncomfortable to find out what breeding policies are considered acceptable.
Many old school mushers, for instance, still believe that you should breed c. 20 new pups per year so as to enable you to kill off any of the adult dogs that are old, slow, needing greater care, chewers of harnesses, harder to handle etc. Some breed both to replenish their own stock (which they want to keep in an optimal age bracket) and to sell and some of the most respected of these will look at their one year old pups, keep the best, sell any that make a minumum weight and are fairly good but that they don't need and kill the rest (so that they don't reduce the quality of their name as breeders). They won't even give these pups away for fear that any that were sub so-called-optimal weight or performance would reflect badly on their name and standing in the industry!
In their world, it is quite literally a tough old world. Don't necessarily, therefore, fall for the 'I have 25 years of experience'. They might just be 25 years out of date!
Some kennels breed exponentially simply because they are not organised enough not to. When there is no regulation of breeding for whatever reason (cages are not enclosed, intact males and females are together in cages, etc etc), accidental pregnancies definitely follow and breed lineages are lost since no-one knows who the sire of the pups is. In-breeding is also common in mismanaged kennels since the dogs don't understand to respect family relationships like father / daughter breeding. Most worryingly, unplanned litters increase the kennel population and therefore costs and result in increased culling or lower standards of care overall. The number of dogs you have should be carefully regulated to match the amount of business you have, or you simply won't be able to feed them all! Planning for pups is therefore crucial to avoid overpopulation and also, of course, to ensure the proper care of the dam during pregnancy.
When we took over the running of the other Enontekio farm which is owned by a large UK company in 2010, we were horrified to discover, as the initial weeks went by, that more and more of the females were pregnant. In total, about 16 bitches were carrying litters which were too late to terminate. No-one had any idea who the fathers were, since the dogs could indescriminately move between cages through holes at ground level or over the tops where there was no ceiling. Apparently the company had instructed the previous manager to breed as much as possible, and she had little choice but to do otherwise, anyway, because of the state of the cages which she couldn't get either sufficient help or resources from them, to fix. Females in heat were put out, when it was spotted, to be the plaything of a big mastif who would mate with them but keep other dogs away, and then they would be aborted. But many slipped through the gap. I believe we found something like 12 pregnant bitches in that first season - enough to start a whole new farm if they had had proper nutrition and standard litter sizes. Luckily (in some ways) only 7 went to full term and most resulted in just two to four pups per litter rather than the 7 per litter which seems to be the average on our farm!
An unfortunate additional side effect was that we often didn't notice that the females were pregnant until it was too late to ensure the kind of good nutrition, rest, pre-pregnancy deworming proceedures etc they and the pups would have needed for a safe delivery. Some moms sadly even gave birth outside (which is common practice in many kennels, even in -30C but is considered totally inappropriate in ours). The dogs were so very unsocialised when we started there that they would cower at the very backs of their kennels and we had to check each and every kennel daily just in case there was an additional suprise waiting for us from a birthing overnight!
And trying to find safe, warm space for the moms and pups to live in, post birth, was pretty much impossible. This kind of management is by no means responsible. All we can hope, now that we are no longer running it and it has gone back to old school management, is that the facilities we put in place for the dogs will stand them in good stead for a while.
An easy way of gauging the owner's breeding vs old age philosophy without raising suspicions from your questions is to ask about the number of pups that they breed each year since no kennel can breed exponentially without very quickly bursting at its seams.
Learn more about our own breeding policy and history here and check out the images from all of our litters of pups to date, here. Essentially, we manage our kennel in a responsible, humane, safe and sustainable manner with consideration given to the number of huskies we have and with thought for their end of life care. We never have more dogs than we believe that we can adequately and expertly care for.
The degree to which the dogs are socialised, or not, links back to the number of workers the kennel has throughout the year as well as to whether or not the kennel is open to the public year-round.
One of the ways in which we work on reducing the shyness of the rescue dogs over time is that we encourage even those guests visiting in big groups to buy dog treats from us so that when they appraoch some of our shy rescue dogs, they do so with something in their hands which the dogs want.
We also have a comprehensive and very systemised training scheme (and health-care and grooming etc scheme) designed for the dogs which takes them through the year so that they are all handled and trained regularly. Hence all but our oldest rescues (who are hard to turn around) are more responsive to basic obedience commands than the average pet and all of the dogs over a year are pretty good with the running commands. etc. Learn more about our training programe through the year, here.
There is a lot of information on the net about the ecological and economical impact of sleddog sports, for example, here as well as about responsible dog breeding, training and ownership, for example here.
However, as with all things in life, there are some people who take extreme positions on both sides of the fence. There are dog owners who have been in the industry for 25 or 30 years and don't see a need to change their old school practices (like some of those mentioned above). Conversly, there are animal rights activists who believe that sleddog sports should be totally banned, without question, who simply don't understand how much the dogs love it. And then there are advocates who are also maybe also a little on the extreme side and would like every sled dog to share your bed in better conditions than most children.
Somewhere in the middle probably lies a reasonable balance where the dogs are treated as living animals with the rights which should come from their intelligence, capacity to love and to feel cared for or neglected as well as to feel pain, sorry and joy / excitement. I believe that we SHOULD all feel a responsibility towards the care of these amazing athletes that we have decided to bring into the world but animal rights extremists who want the sport totally banned are maybe a little too removed from the sport to be judging so vocally. Indeed, any reservations anyone might have about how much the dogs love to run is immediately answered as soon as you stand on the start line of a well managed farm and watch the joy with which the dogs are pulling into their harness, literally jumping to go.
So. Send a message to the old school guys in the business and help to shape the future of sleddog farms by demanding (by where you choose to spend your money) that they 'get with the times' and set standards that value the dogs and treat them as loving and loyal animals rather than as commodities. And don't believe the advocates who say that all sleddogs are badly treated. One look at ours and you will see that they love it!
Good luck in your sleddog mushing experience. May you have the good fortune to experience the joy of running sleddogs wth a reputable kennel. And ideally, of course, we hope that you have your (hopefully life-changing and truly memorable) sled-dog experience with us!