The Routine, Part One

by Betty Zubritsky

A race kennel is a busy place…. except when it’s not. That is to say, there are several daily bursts of frenzied work-time, and then periods of rest. Not for the peoples. We don’t get rest. Rest for the dogs, because they’re more important than we are.

And that’s right and proper. Those are the athletes. It is the dogs that pay our bills and goodness knows there isn’t a solitary one of us human peoples who could do what they do. Tough enough for me to run back from the finish line in the mornings, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Where was I?

Oh yes. It’s a busy place.

Every trainer and/or kennel owner has The One And Only Way To Do It. For as much as the daily work is pretty universal, there are as many ways to do it as there are kennel operators making up the rules. So, for the purpose of this little article, I’m going to do it my own way, which is a hodgepodge of all the other ways I’ve seen and done. Also for the purpose of this article, we’ll pretend I’m the trainer. It’s not such a stretch of the imagination.

In the wee small hours of the morning, like about 6AM, my helper (we need a name for my helper…. ok, his name is Craig) and I arrive at the kennel for the first turnout. We are prompt. Early is fine, late is not. Already, the dogs know we’re there, and if we had anything to say to each other, we’d be unable to hear it. Craig picked up last night, and I get to assume that there were no injuries or illness. If there had been, he’d have called me. Craig is wonderful, and I trust him completely.

In a typical kennel, the girlies are usually in the upper beds. Muzzles for each stack hang on hooks affixed to the upper door of that stack. There are no hooks on the lower doors. The muzzle on the latch side is the one that belongs to the dog in the top bed. The muzzle on the hinge side is for the bottom bed. Left and right have no meaning, because there are left and right doors. Latch side… hinge side. So here we go.

Craig has already turned down the radio, opened the back door and popped the girls gate, making sure the boys gate is secure. We make eye contact for an “all is well” and the turnout is afoot. Girlies first. When I first got Craig, I watched him carefully on this. Properly taking down a girlie requires some skill. You don’t want to just slip her muzzle on her and let her fly out of her bed. Oh dear, no. Those precious ankles would get mucked up in a hurry if we let them jump down without any support to soften the impact. And although Craig had worked in other kennels before, I couldn’t be certain that he would be as fussy as I was. So I kept an eye on him while I was getting my own girlies down. Never ignoring my dogs, but ever alert to what my new helper was doing. You learn to have eyes all the way around your head, and in your hands, and in your shoes and behind your knees…. when you’re in the kennel. By now, of course, I know that he’s doing it the way I want it done.

The girls are out and Craig stays outside for a few minutes with them. Fills water buckets and keeps the peace while I start getting the boys out. Our girlies are a little silly this morning, and I can hear him fussing at them. I can tell by his tone of voice (or the voices of the dogs) if he needs me to interfere, and I continue to let my boys out. He has it under control. Silly is ok.

I don’t invade his space just now. There is a very real and important “line” at the door. If he needs me, I’ll know it. If he doesn’t, I’ll interrupt the flow of his control if I go out and make a fuss. This works both ways, because sometimes I’m out with them, and he understands how my mind works on this. If I need you, you’ll know it. And then, by gummy, don’t hesitate. But if I don’t, just keep letting the boys out.

Ok, the dogs are out and there is relative peace in the valley. Craig and I start on the beds, constantly listening and watching the goings on outside. We still haven’t spoken to one another. Time for that later. It doesn’t take long before a scuffle erupts, so one of us stays in the kennel doing beds, and the other one goes out to pick up plops and keep things civil in the yards. Either/or, as long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter which of us is doing it. Whoever is picking up plops is examining them for parasites and whatnot. Whoever is doing the beds is mopping and sweeping and shaking and listening to the dogs (and the person) outside.

Whenever the outside person is able, he comes in to help with beds. Mostly, I want congeniality outside, so this isn’t of critical importance. It’ll get done.

Ok, the beds are all clean and spiffy, the soiled bedding (be it shredded paper or carpets) is carried out of the kennel. Since I prefer paper beds, we don’t have to wash carpets. YAY!

The girlies come in first. Makes sense, they were the first ones out….. but they were the first ones out for a reason. We’ll get to that. I like to have them come inside in manageable groups, maybe 15 at a time. Being the trainer, I want this chance to look them over for anything that might be amiss, and it’s easier to do that if I don’t have all of them at once. Besides, it’s just more chummy to have them in a small group, ….. so we can play a little. We have time. So Craig sends me some of our girls and comes in to help me put them to bed. We keep our ears and eyes open to the yards, and (remember all the extra eyes we have?) we’re looking at the girls right here under our hands. Ever vigilant for a limp, or a girl that jumps short, or any of a dozen other things that could describe a problem.

When the rest of the girls come in, we switch the boys over to the yard that has just been vacated. Boys Love To Peepee In The Ladies Room. It’s a guy thing. Ok, seriously, these dogs are intact, and the interaction with females (albeit sort of second hand) really does get the boys all a-twitter. I like twittery boys. They have something to prove. They get all macho and they strut around and when they go to race, they do it in a bigger and better way. Not kidding. I’ve seen the difference the switch makes. I won’t pretend to understand it, (and if you call me superstitious, I’ll just agree with you)… but it works.

Girls in bed, hang race muzzles for today, boys come in. Same thing, small groups that I can look at. We human people take the time to go over anything from last night that might need attention. Craig has already checked the program and written up my weight chart for today. I have 6 dogs to sprint this morning and we load them up in the truck. Light sprints, and I am comfortable letting Craig do them while I weigh my racers for today.

Race Weight Is Crucial! Whatever is set cannot be off either way by more than a pound and a half. (2 pounds at Tucson, not sure why.) That’s not much leeway, and when you consider that a weight scratch costs the trainer a bundle of money in fees, you watch the weights pretty carefully. And since I won’t deny ANY of my dogs a breakfast, I’m fussy as hell about my weights.

I’m a little bit OCD. No. That’s not true. I’m a lot OCD. I won’t take my dogs to their races dirty…. so I get out the baby wipes and the cookies before the weighing commences. Baby wipes? For to clean their ears with, silly. Remember, they check ear tats when the dogs are presented for their races. My ears will be clean.

“Here honey”. Finally, after what.. a couple hours??… now I can handle my dogs intimately. One at a time, just you, sweetie. Come along and be my love, and hey, can ya stand on this here scale for a second? You’ll get a cookie if you do.

Cookies, it should be mentioned, are not milk bones. Ick, have you ever tasted one of those? Cookies are those vanilla cream things that you can get from the Dollar Store for next to nothing. Break ’em in half, and you have twice as many cookies. Vanilla settles upset tummies, sugar is a perfectly safe and healthy energy boost, and milk bones suck. And half a cookie isn’t going to make the slightest difference in my weights. Now then…

Digital scales are wonderful things, and I can use them quite happily. When they’re being accurate, there’s nothing better. When they’re not, you might as well just feed without weighing and hope that all the planets line up. I like a balance scale. “Here honey, I know it’s wiggly. That’s why I’m here to help you.” Taptaptap, tickle my fingers under your chin, aren’t you perfect, 67 pounds. Baby wipe for your ears, peek at your toes, cookie for your trouble, on to the next. And the next. I may have as many as 15 dogs to weigh. I have time. Craig is back by now and he helps me get dogs to and fro. His sprinters are outside in the yards, and he reports that they all looked fine.

Finally, finally, finally… we can mix the feed. Funny, “finally” is really only 3 hours into the day. The dogs are pottied and bedded and sprinted and weighed. My helper is tidying up the yards and overseeing my sprinters. It is time, my babies.

I like a very simple feed tub. Meat, water, and good quality meal. I add electrolytes to the feed tub, but very little else. Rice once a week, pasta once in rotation with the rice. That’s carbs twice a week. I adjust for the weather things like garlic and brown sugar. Once a month, I add tomato juice. I know who is likely to need potassium, and I have bananas in the kennel all the time. Besides, they’re fun snacks. I believe firmly that all of what they need can be found naturally, and all the muck and bother of chemical additives just gives me more to worry about. I drain the blood from the meat because dirty blood is the first suspect in a transferable illness, and I know I’m being stupid because the meat is already dirty if the blood is…. but I drain the blood. Why make it worse than it has to be?

Craig stands at the ready to help me feed. I measure up each portion, he delivers it. I do not snack my racers ahead. I find it’s easier to go around the room and snack my racers when I get to them. Craig watches our in-kennel signals (race muzzles hung) to be sure I don’t fuck up and overfeed a racer. I am careful to not get too far ahead of him. He is not flinging corncobs to a bunch of pigs. He is feeding my dogs.

The giving of food is more intimate, and frankly, more alpha than anything else a dog knows. I will not permit anyone to throw a feed pan down and slam the crate door in an effort to save a moment of time. No. You feed this dog. Come get the next pan and feed the next. I have time and so do you. Being fed is joyful and happy. Deliver their meal with love.

Damn, the morning isn’t over yet and I’ve rambled on for a way long time. Part 2 of this article coming soon.