Early into our visit to Howling Pines Kennels a few weeks ago, I discovered that Nicole, the breeder, is a fascinating person to talk to about her Alaskan Malamutes. Her knowledge of the breed is encyclopedic, and she chatted with us–and let me ask a thousand questions–as she went about her chores.
Howling Pines dogs enjoy life in huge frost-fence enclosures just back of the main house, when they’re not running trails for play and exercise.
Each so-called “cage” is about half the size of some back yards I’ve seen, and each houses just one (or maybe two at the most) animals, depending on how many females there are. There’s plenty of room in each enclosure to run a bit, jump, and play when they feel like it. And the cages are butted together, so that each dog can touch noses with her neighbours.
One of the daily exercises these dogs get to enjoy is running alongside a motorized vehicle or pulling a sleigh up and down the many trails that lead through the neighbouring woods. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to run these large, heavily-muscled animals, long bred for power and endurance and the ability to pull heavy loads of up to 2,000 lbs.
It’s no wonder their coats bristle with health and there’s a lively gleam in their eyes; these are beautiful animals, at the peak of health and conditioning.
The dogs get a special diet of meat and vegetables, with vitamins and such added to their diet as needed. I don’t believe one of them has ever tasted grains of any kind. Puppies get their own specialized version of the adult diet once they’re ready to start eating.
Never mind that the individual bags of food are served frozen; hungry dogs (bred, after all, to eat in the frozen north) enjoy it the way we would a gourmet dinner, and they make extremely short work of it.
However, they’re not allowed to jump at the food. They must sit and wait for Nicole’s signal to start eating. It’s an amazing sight to see all these independent-minded animals, known to be extremely possessive of their food, sitting patiently waiting in front of their full bowls for permission to eat.
Nicole trains them constantly–and never by scolding. Her training is reward-based, and most often the reward is simply a pat or a bit of a scratch behind the ears.
On the day we visited, there were two litters available for us to peek at. One, a batch of roly-poly fur-balls about five weeks old, had just been moved from a spot in the house to a halfway home in a protected shed with a heat lap over their sleep area, to transition to the colder weather outside the house.
This litter was already promised, but we got to play with the babies and cuddle them before they scrambled back into the screened-off area, over to Mama for a little snack and another sudden nap time, as they all began dropping like stones into one large ball of heads, tummies and paws.
I could see clearly why puppies new to their forever homes can be heartbreakingly lonely at first. They miss that body comfort of being snuggled up to brothers and sisters, sharing warmth and breath and the safety of the pack.
The puppies in the second litter, the one “our” puppy will be picked from, were much newer. At about a week and a half old, their eyes were still shut and their baby ears, tucked back against their heads when they’re born, were just beginning to edge away from their skulls.
Shiny short hair covered their bodies, where eventually the distinctive malamute layers of fur–the soft, downy undercoat that keeps them warm in the winter, and the coarse outer coat–would grow. They looked like nothing so much as a bunch of fat, shiny, brown and black sausages as they rooted blindly around, bumping into and off each other in a little awkward dance of exploration that nevertheless kept them within the smell of Mama’s life-giving milk.
Their paws were about the size of my little fingernail. Looking at those tiny, delicate puppy paws while the babies slept made me think of Gannon’s huge snowshoe paw that filled my hand when he deigned to perform the “shake a paw” trick—usually in exchange for food.
It was obvious that Gannon considered this particular command so far beneath him that he was almost embarrassed to have to perform it–unless, of course, there was a treat waiting in the background. That big ol’ dog was definitely what trainers call “food motivated.”
And for some reason his paws–don’t ask me why–always smelled to me like fresh popcorn. Ahh, Gannon.
As usual, I’m digressing.
This breeder keeps her pups for ten or twelve weeks rather than the usual eight because, she says, Mom is still teaching them essential skills during those extra weeks. One of the things their mother teaches them is not to bite her tender teats, and they learn the soft-mouth lesson sooner—and better—from her than they would from any human handler.
All large breeds need to be socialized so that they’re not a danger to others, but not all breeders bother to work with their puppies to the extent that Nicole does. That alone makes her special, in my eyes.
Nicole starts training her puppies once they’re old enough to be out of danger’s way, making sure they get plenty of guided human handling by many different folks (trusted neighbours and friends and their kids, all trained volunteers who have dog sleepovers and “play parties”).
Nicole’s dogs are beautifully socialized and well accustomed to being handled by many folks long before their forever families get to take them home.
But most important, I think, is the overall atmosphere that extends throughout this breeder’s property, home, enclosures and shed: an obvious respect for these independent, highly-intelligent animals; great care and affection for each one of them individually; and a calm, skillful approach that ensures they respect and love her as well.
She told me she’s always sad whenever a batch of puppies that she’s helped care for since the moment they were born, leave to go to their forever homes.
Sometimes, she says, it’s really hard not to cry.
And that? Well, that’s exactly the kind of person I want looking after our puppy.
To hear a pack singing together like that fills me with delight and a strong desire to join them. I couldn’t think of a better way for a day like this to end.
Please Note: All photos on this post (with the exception of the two with captions) can be found on the pages of the Howling Pines website.