Well, last summer's pups are nearly grown up. Not really, but in many ways it feels like it. They are not quite full sized adult dogs yet, but they have outgrown their fluffy puppy bodies and are acting more and more like grown up sled dogs. They are excellent skijorers and joined the team with the big dogs pulling the sled on patrols. So what is next? It is time to think about the next generation.
The Denali kennels only has one litter of puppies each year, just enough to replace the litter that will retire this summer. I spend all year closely observing our potential breeding dogs as they work and think carefully about which dog is the best candidate to form the foundation of the kennels future. This is no small task and the excitement and nervousness surrounding each year's breeding does not stop until we have healthy, happy puppies on the ground with mom a few months after the breeding takes place.
This year our breeding female is Sultana. Sultana is 5 years old and will turn 6 this summer. She and her siblings, Fin, Spur and Cassin are all great leaders and have excellent drive to run and pull a sled. Sultana has a great conformation with nice long legs, a strong body, good fur coat and a great appetite. She has already had one wonderful litter of pups. Her children in the NPS kennels are Tuya, Pyro, Lava, and Tephra. They are big, strong dogs who love to pull and many are maturing into very smart lead dogs. We hope she will have another wonderful litter of pups who will grow up to share all of her great qualities. I think all the dogs in the kennels agree with me that Sultana is an excellent choice for breeding because every time she comes into heat every dog in the kennel wants to be the one that gets to breed with "Sulty".
The male we have chosen to breed to Sultana is from Brent Sass's Wild and Free Kennel. His name is Silver and he is 9 years old. Silver has been Brent's main leader and best friend since he got him. Brent describes Silver as,"an 8 year old, 70-pound monster with more power than your average sled dog. Silver was my first sled dog and turned out to be one of my best. He came from Kurt Wold, who I have gotten most of my original dogs from. Silver has always been the main leader of the team and the dog that everyone else looks up to."
I know Brent's dogs are a good source of the traits we need in our Denali dogs because of where Brent lives and trains. He is based in Eureka, AK which is a very remote location north of Fairbanks. He routinely runs his dogs in howling winds, cold temperatures, and deep snows- the same conditions we encounter here in the park. During the 2011 Yukon Quest race, Silver stood out to me as a good, strong dog with a great fur coat as he happily slept out in the 50 below zero temperatures we were experiencing at Slaven's Cabin. Silver is not just good at his job in Brent's race team, he is exceptional. He is so good that the Yukon Quest has created an award in Silver's honor. It is given to dogs that exhibit strong character and perseverance out on the trail. In 2006, during a storm on Eagle Summit, Silver was instrumental in assisting a musher in trouble and another team to get over the summit.
In 2011, Silver was key for Brent in getting his own team as well as Hans Gatt's team over the summit. The Silver Legacy Award will be given to honor future canines for their incredible deeds and feats of bravery and honor.
I am hopeful that the combination of Sultana and Silver's genes will lead to some more tough, strong dogs with the head, heart and spirit of great leaders. So what happens after the breeding? We sit and wait. Average gestation time for puppies is 60-65 days after the breeding takes place. We don't see many obvious signs that Sultana is actually pregnant for several weeks, so we cross our fingers and hope for puppies.
Now, we can see that Sultana is looking pregnant and starting to produce milk for her puppies. We are in the final days of anxiously awaiting their arrival. Sultana's pen and special doghouse are scrubbed clean and ready for her to deliver. We are monitoring her body temperature twice daily. It should drop a degree or two 24 hours before she begins labor. Sultana is content and ready to deliver. She is eating a lot, still happily going for short walks, chewing on her toys, and waiting until the time is right for her second litter of puppies to be ready to be born.
We will keep everyone posted when the pups finally do arrive. For those who know and love the "puppycam", it will be turned on when the pups are about three weeks old and starting to move around and leave the dog house. For those who have never seen it, the "puppycam" is a webcam installed in Sultana's pen. It takes snapshots every few seconds and updates them live on our website at http://www.nps.gov/dena/photosmultimedia/webcams-pups.htm so you can join in the daily fun of watching the puppies grow all summer long.