Among Santa’s most willing and most unlikely helpers at this time of year is a team of Siberian huskies who transport him to various venues during November and December.
The dogs belong to Wattie and Wendy McDonald who keep nine of the pure-bred dogs at their home in Stonehaven, and a further 34 in Alaska.
“Our dogs here in Stonehaven are first and foremost our pets although they live outdoors and work very hard,” Wattie explained. “They are usually in demand at this time of year for various Santa duties and this year is particularly busy.”
Pulling Santa’s sledge, even laden down with Christmas gifts for a couple of hundred yards is no great hardship for the dogs since Wattie is a veteran of the annual 1,049 mile Iditarod race across Alaska. One of Wattie’s most enthusiastic supporters and sponsors is the K9 Hydrotherapy Centre at Findon.
“We first became involved with K9 a couple of years ago when they became sponsors,” Wattie said. “We have been using their hydrotherapy pool out of season just to keep the dogs ticking over and every now and then they use the dog run treadmills.
“I don’t know of anybody else in the area who does this kind of training which is ideal of my dogs. It helps keep their muscle tone. In the warm summer months training is very difficult as we need the temperature to be below 10c. Now and again we do some night running but mostly it is just too humid.”
Wattie works offshore so has had to devise a training programme around his time onshore and the K9 sessions have been a great help. They frequently collected his dogs when he was offshore and supplied him with clear reports of what exercises they have done, how training was progressing as well as updates on socialisation and general fun for them to foster a positive mental attitude. This is a service they are happy to offer all clients.
After the festivities and public appearances, training for the gruelling Iditarod race gets underway in earnest. The annual dog sled team race begins on the first Saturday in March and takes between nine and 15 days to complete although the record of eight days, 22 hours 47 minutes and two seconds was set in 2002. Usually it involves more than 50 mushers (team driver) each with a team of 16 dogs drawn from more than a dozen countries and takes the competitors through blizzards, white-out conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds.
“It’s billed as the last great race on earth and it is the pinnacle for any musher. It’s a life-changing event and a dream for so many people so I feel very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to take part and will be taking part again in 2011,” Wattie said. “I class my Iditarod 2010 as a major success as I was the first Scotsman to finish the race with a full, healthy team of 16 dogs and was the only musher from the field of 71 to do so.
“I’m very confident about 2011 and have set myself a target of finishing in the top 20.”
Webcams cover the race so Wattie’s supporters from around the world will be able to check on his progress throughout, and be there with him at the finishing post to see if he achieves that goal.
The Iditarod event means that Wattie has limited opportunity to take part in the husky circuit in Scotland at the moment. “We’ve had missed success in Scotland over the years but mainly compete to enjoy the dogs.”
In the meantime the dogs are enjoying their starring role in Santa’s spectacular appearances and no matter how bad the weather is – and it is forecast to be bad – they are sure to deliver. With their Siberian heritage and Alaskan experience, a little Scottish snow causes them no problems at all.
K9 has played a crucial part in training Wattie’s huskies, but it also offers less intensive treatments. At this time of year, the dog run is an ideal way of making sure dogs are fully exercised indoors if owners want to avoid going out on dark, wet and snowy nights. The dogs can be dropped off at K9’s premises when owners go to work in the morning and spend the day socialising and having fun with other animals, exercising on the treadmill while watching suitable DVDs and playing with educational toys.