Victoria Rock - Bikejoring

Indi had 10 healthy puppies on 27th March 2017! 

The first litter of Greyster puppies in the UK!

 Father: Magnus (imported from Norway, breeder Lena Boysen-Hillestad, pedigree), 
Mother: Indi (imported from Poland, breeder Igor Tracz, pedigree)


In 2014 I imported the first Greyster from the continent to England. I wanted a purpose bred dog for Bikejoring. I originally started the sport with my German Wirehaired Pointer Kai who is a very good and strong runner, but due to the breed being very heavy set there is a lack of speed compared to the lighter set German Shorthaired Pointer. In spring 2017 I bred the first Greyster litter in the UK so I didn't have to import another puppy from abroad and could breed with the lines of dogs I am interested in.

What is a Greyster?

Greysters, originally a cross between a German Shorthaired Pointer and a Greyhound were developed for sprint sled dog sports in Norway. The Norwegian name Vorsther means in German Vorstehhund, comprising all hunting dogs that have the ability to point. The combination of 'Grey' from Greyhound and 'sther' of Vorsther created Greysther, with the 'h' often missed out in English speaking countries. These dogs were bred to have a short coat suited for the European climate and to be strong and fast for short sprint efforts of approx. 3-5 miles. First generation crosses of GSP and Greyhound often produce very fast dogs, some lack the willingness to pull or don't manage to sustain the speed over the distance required. Second or third generation crosses, i.e. 1/4 or 1/8 Greyhound, have proofed more suitable for sprint dog racing. Nowadays, there are more and more lines with less than 1/8 Greyhound, these dogs are not as high in top speed, but produce consistent high average speed, are physically very strong and have more stamina over the distance. Many Greyster lines also contain a percentage of English Pointer, I've even seen a pedigree with German Longhaired Pointers involved, and often small percentages of Alaskan Huskies where Scandinavian Hounds/Eurohounds were crossed in. Some purists only consider GSP x Greyhound crosses as Greysters and get hung up on other breeds or types of dogs, e.g. Alaskan Husky,  forming small percentages in the overall pedigree of the dog. The mechanisms of gene expression of the dog's genotype isn't that straightforward and if a dog has a small percentage of Alaskan in them, that can be potentially negligible in their phenotype. Overall, Greysters appear in their phenotype very much like a GSP or streamlined GSP (due to the Greyhound influence) looking compared to a more 'hound like' look of the Scandinavian Hound/Eurohound. Often the Greyster has a short liver/black/white ticked, roan or solid coat whereas the Scandinavian Hound/Eurohound has a slightly hairier coat with various solid colours or variations of large distinct coloured areas with colours ranging from tan to black. Since neither the Greyster nor the Scandinavian Hound/Eurohound are conform FCI registered breeds, they remain 'types' of dogs with great variation in both genotype and phenotype compared to purebred FCI registered breeds such as for example the Siberian Husky. 

Why is early socialisation so important and why can importing a dog cause problems?

When I imported Indi she was 15 weeks old at the time as that is the age they are allowed to enter the UK due to the rabies vaccination. She was healthy and well raised by her breeder, however she was predominantly kennel raised and found it difficult to adapt to everyday sights and sounds in a family home and when going to the local park meeting a variety of people, dogs, other animals, traffic etc. Essentially I had a very undersocialised puppy.

Generally puppies go to their new homes at 8 weeks of age where they can settle with their new family and start socialisation in their new environment to prepare them for the life they'll be living. That means for example if someone lives in the city their puppy is walked around the streets and gets used to the traffic as it is important that the puppy isn't scared of traffic. They will have to deal with this on a daily basis for the rest of their life so it needs to be part of their early socialisation. On the other hand, say someone lives very rural and gets a sheepdog to work the sheep on the farm. This puppy needs to be predominantly socialised around the farm and the sheep, which includes for example that they are not allowed to chase down and bite sheep, as that is the environment they need to be able to deal with for the rest of their life and city traffic may not be something the puppy ever encounters so can potentially be neglected during it's early socialisation. However, even if this sheepdog is only meant to work with sheep, but once in a while taken along into the city, that puppy should experience city life a few times during the early critical socialisation period (see more about this below), so it is capable to cope with that environment too. Hence, it is very important that one realises what they want from a puppy in life and prepare them accordingly to that life. 

To translate this to harness dog sports, if a musher keeps 'team dogs' in kennels and takes them to the forest to train and race, these dogs in general don't need to be able to cope with a city environment so a different kind of early socialisation and habituation takes priority, e.g. not being scared of the sound and sight of a quad bike that will be used a lot for training once the pup is old enough etc. If however one does Canicross or Bikejoring and owns 'monosport dogs' and keeps the dogs in the family home and wants to take them for daily walks in the park, then they do need a very different kind of early socialisation to 'team dogs' kept in kennels in order to cope with that type of life. In general terms the puppy needs to be socialised to the environment it will live in for the rest of their life to avoid the dog being unable to cope and subsequently develop behaviour problems. If this isn't the case the dog may never perform to it's full potential as purpose bred sports dog.

The early critical socialisation period generally closes by approx. 16 weeks of age (in some smaller breeds this can be as young as 12 weeks of age). Anything the puppy hasn't experienced by then isn't technically considered as early socialisation anymore and the puppy will be much more wary and unsure of new things experienced outside this period. This means importing a dog at 15 weeks of age as we did with Indi who has experienced predominantly being with many dogs of her own 'breed' outside in a kennel will find it hard to adjust to life in a family home and going to the local park for walks encountering many different breeds of dogs, traffic etc. This is because dogs don't generalise very well and if they don't experience say a number of different breeds of dogs of various sizes while young, but especially during the critical socialisation period of up to approx. 16 weeks of age, they may find it difficult to adjust to unfamiliar ones; the same goes for people and children, people wearing different types of clothing, hats, glasses, costumes; then daily sights, sounds and smells, living in the city or countryside, traffic etc. it all effects how well the puppy will cope with everyday life. So if a relatively undersocialised puppy, or I should probably say socialised for a different life environment, is suddenly thrown from kennel to family life at 15 weeks it generally isn't plain sailing. There has been a big influx in imports of Greysters to this country over the past few years. Some of these dogs struggle as they were brought up in a different environment (kennels) for the first 15 weeks of their life, i.e. the critical socialisation period, to the environment (family home) they will life the rest of their life in. Of course, over time these dogs adjust, but because it is such a huge change at an age were puppies become quite wary of their surroundings, this can often have a huge impact on overall confidence levels of the dog. I'd go as far as saying if this transition from early environment of kennel life to family home life at that critical point in development isn't done carefully that is the main reason why dogs do not fulfil their full potential as sports dog. Then it doesn't matter that they've come from the best kennels in the world with the best genetic inheritance of European and World Champion parents, if the dog hasn't had the right upbringing and can't cope fully with it's environment it won't become a good sports dog.      

Since I used to work as dog trainer and behaviourist I managed to turn Indi from a shy and insecure puppy to a confident dog who loves people and other dogs and most importantly she loves to run in harness and is confident doing so. But it was all hard work, there were times when I asked myself why it needs to be this hard, for example when I couldn't use the food processor in the kitchen (one of many things), because she was terrified of the noise. It's these everyday sights and sounds in a family home she didn't experience when she was little and made it so hard to live with. I spent so much time desensitising and counterconditioning her to everyday sights and sounds that I didn't have time to enjoy having a puppy and just doing some general obedience and having fun with her instead.

Why I breed myself now

This is why I bred my first litter of Greysters last year. I didn't want to import another undersocialised puppy who didn't fit in the family home environment my dogs live in. I wanted to raise my litter the way I would get confident and happy puppies that are easily to live with and will make good confident sports dogs. I raised my litter, and will do so again in the future, with a programme called Puppy Culture, developed by an American dog trainer and breeder called Jane Killion. She developed a week by week programme for breeders and future puppy owners, including early neurological stimulation, emotional resilience exercises, safe early socialisation and appropriate enrichment etc. to create a well balanced and confident puppy ready for a life as part of the family home and to become successful confident sports dogs. 

Gene - Environment interactions and why Champion dogs don't necessarily produce Champion puppies

As already mentioned above it is not enough to get a well bred dog from just a genetic perspective and assume the dog will 'perform' well for whatever purpose the dog was bred for due to having champion parents, but the dog needs to be brought up and socialised in the right environment. They also need to be slowly brought onto the future sport they are meant to do from an early age to channel and develop their drive to work. Imagine that sheepdog puppy being raised in the city and at say 1 year of age being brought on a farm for the first time in it's life and now released on the sheep for the first time and expected to herd them. That dog chased down and bit the sheep as it didn't have the right socialisation and wasn't brought slowly onto the job in an appropriate manner.  This dog's parents were both sheep trial champions, so genetically everything was there. Btw. this actually happened, in fact he almost killed one sheep and was punished harshly for it. Of course this wasn't the dog's fault, the owner's high expectancy due to it's champion parent's inheritance lead to this.

It's not that different for other sports dogs and our dogs running in harness. There are very high expectations getting dogs from abroad from parents that are European and World Champions, but somehow they don't turn out champions themselves, some don't run very well at all. This can be to do with the fact that the puppy was raised in the wrong early environment and already set up to be less confident, but also when the puppy was not brought into the sport correctly. One can't expect to wait until they are 12 or 18 months old and then put them in harness for the first time and expect to have a machine that you point in the right direction and it runs due to it's champion parent's inheritance. It takes a lot more than that and if one is impatient it can go wrong easily. 

Some young dogs seem to run perfect from the beginning, it must be their genetics, right?

It's true, some dogs seem to be naturals, run better and more focused only after a few times in harness or even first time out than others. I have my theories on this, one of them comes from the gundog world. There is this old style way of keeping working gundogs in kennels rather than in the house, the idea being that dogs which live kennelled and therefore somewhat deprived of human contact will work better for their 'master'. For example some gundog folk take their dog out hunting and if the dog makes a mistake, they put them back in the kennel and will not interact with them until the next time they take them out hunting again. The theory is that the dog is being deprived of human contact and tries hard to please their 'master'. I don't subscribe to these methods, but I understand where this is coming from. I see it like this, firstly, keeping dogs in kennels doesn't mean they aren't as well looked after and loved as dogs living in a home environment, but generally it means that they don't see their owner as often as dogs living in the house and there is a different relationship. Also quite often these dogs, whether gundogs or sled dogs, are kept kennelled due to the sheer number of dogs, so there is a lot of competition for attention from the owner, whereas many 'monosport' dogs live with only a small number of other dogs in the home environment and have a lot more access to their owner. Often, because they are seeing their owner frequently and they can choose when to approach them in the home, they aren't that desperate wanting to be with their owners and pleasing them. Say a puppy or dog that has their owner at home all day and then they go out in the park, these dogs are often not interested to stick with their owners, but like to please themselves by running off to meet other dogs or going hunting. Basically they are practicing self-rewarding activities. That is why some gundog owners, whether they keep their dogs kennelled or in the house, never let them off lead so they don't learn self-rewarding behaviour such as hunting, but are always being 'controlled' by their 'master'. Some gundog folk believe this is the only way of channelling prey drive in a gundog and to create working trial champions. Even though this does work, the downside is that these handlers go through many dogs, discard them if they don't succeed and blame it on the dogs, genetics, etc. Many of these dogs break mentally others won't make the cut as their drive is too high and overrides wanting to please their 'master'.  

I believe that the way I keep my dogs, I am at home with them most of the day, they follow me around the house, give me an audience when I am on the toilet, sleep in my bed and go for off-lead walks every day, means that they do self-reward themselves a lot of the time. (I should say my dogs are well trained in order to go off-lead, they will recall back to the whistle, hence only get to self-reward within what I see appropriate.)  To put this into context with harness training, when I then put a young dog in harness for the first time they must find it confusing that they are now meant to run in a straight line attached ahead of me compared to the usual fairly undirected off-lead walks where they can self-reward, jump on and off the trail etc. When I first started out with Indi and the same with Vegas, they'd just ran off the trail when spotting a bird or squirrel in a tree without thinking that they are attached to my bike, because that is what they were used to growing up running around off-lead on walks. So for them it was a big change and they needed to learn that they can't jump off the trail when attached to the bike. This is the point if it is done wrong, i.e. impatient handling, telling the dog off etc., the dog might not enjoy being in harness as that means the fun of running after a bird or squirrel is denied. Dogs that haven't had this upbringing and maybe stayed on lead for walks which isn't the most exciting thing in the world from a dog's perspective as it is slow, always were aware of that restriction of the lead and the person walking behind so that transfers much easier to working in harness attached to the bike. And to add to this the dog can finally go at a faster pace than the human walks him on-lead, so running is much more fun now than normal walks. So it may appear that dogs that had a lot of 'freedom' when young initially might not find it that rewarding being in harness as that means being denied 'freedom', whereas dogs that haven't had that much 'freedom' suddenly' gain 'freedom' by being able to go faster. That might be one of the reasons why the latter appear 'naturals' when it comes to running in harness.

The good thing is dogs do learn the difference between working in harness and running off-lead. Generally only after a few times of working in harness something happens, the instinct to run kicks in and the inherited drive is being developed which makes running in harness a rewarding activity. Since running is a rewarding activity just like eating is, the dog's reward centres in the brain are activated and 'happy' chemicals are released, it is not necessary to hugely reward them for running in harness once they've learned it properly and their drive is nicely developed. This is why I don't speak too much to my dogs while they are running in harness, they don't run to please me or to get a reward at the end, the actual running is the primary reward. Imagine your are running at full speed and try to catch your breath and someone keeps shouting 'go, go, go' for 3 miles behind you. It would do my head in. I prefer to let my dogs work in peace, they know what they are doing as I taught them properly when I first started them out, so no need to nag them.

Final words

It's important that puppies are carefully brought up and socialised by the breeder in an appropriate environment, which is then continued by their new owners and slowly but surely they are being introduced to harness work to channel and develop their inherited instinct and drive to become successful sports dogs.