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Running with the big dogs

Cookeville’s Jolene Houghtaling is making Tennessee a destination for enthusiasts of giant Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies
Story and photo by Mark E. Johnson 9/2/2009

 

At Hudson’s Huskies and Malamutes kennel in Cookeville, a 2-year-old, 120-pound “giant” male Malamute named Gunner stretches his legs on the four-acre property. Owner Jolene Houghtaling has developed a reputation for producing quality Malamutes and Huskies.
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It might seem unusual that hot and humid Tennessee is fast becoming a serious destination for enthusiasts of both Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky dogs — large, heavy-coated animals known for pulling sleds and carrying supplies through inhospitable, Arctic terrain in sub-zero temperatures.

Dog breeder Jolene Houghtaling has nonetheless managed to build her four-acre, Cookeville-based kennel, Hudson’s Huskies and Malamutes, into a high-quality, nationally recognized producer of the cold-climate canines.

“These are amazing dogs,” says Jolene, a customer of Putnam Farmers Cooperative. “I’ve learned that they acclimate to warmer areas. Their coats will adjust. Believe it or not, my two major selling areas tend to be California and Florida, and I have dogs in Puerto Rico, Arizona, and Mexico. I know it sounds strange, but that’s just a testament to the heartiness of these breeds.”

Jolene explains that Malamutes are working dogs that originated with the Mahlemuts Innuit tribe — often called Eskimos — along the shores of the Kotzube Sound in northwestern Alaska. Although these large, powerful animals are traditionally thought of as sled dogs, most modern, competitive “mushers” use smaller, faster breeds like Siberian Huskies. Both in the “Spitz” family of canines, Huskies and Malamutes are among the oldest breeds of dogs, and DNA analysis shows that they are distantly related and descend from the “original” sled animals of the Arctic regions.

Despite the improbable geography of her kennel, Jolene’s dogs have quickly developed a solid reputation as competition animals and family pets alike. One of her dogs, a massive, 130-pound male named Thumper, has won several titles, including the Alaskan Malamute Club of America (AMCA) nationals in 2006 and 2007. Two others, Ruby and Blazer, have placed in regional AMCA competitions, and several dogs purchased from her kennel have gone on to successful competitive weight-pull careers.

Amazingly, Jolene’s business, which has shipped hundreds of Huskies and Malamutes across the U.S. and internationally, began only nine years ago with a few pets and a fondness for these breeds.

“I moved to Tennessee from New York in 1997 after a two-year stint in the Navy,” says Jolene, the single mother of a 16-year-old autistic son, Alex. “My mom lived here, and I wanted to be near her for a while, but I didn’t intend to stay. I just fell in love with Middle Tennessee and never left.”

Jolene says she grew up as a “dog person” and several years before the move to Tennessee purchased a Husky named Kiev. With no plans of making a living in the dog-breeding industry, she decided to purchase a playmate for the dog after moving to Cookeville.

“Well, I ended up buying two!” she laughs. “A couple of months later, the lady who owned the kennel called and told me the mother of my two puppies was available, so I bought her, too.”

By 2000, Jolene, who was working at the Cookeville Sheriff Department, had acquired around 15 Huskies and Malamutes. The idea finally “crept in,” she says, that breeding the animals might be possible as a new career. After all, she says, she was already known by neighbors as “the lady with the dogs,” and seemed to have a knack for working with canine genetics and socializing puppies.

“I called my dad and told him I was strongly considering going into business for myself,” Jolene recalls. “He said, ‘You must be out of your mind!’ But I really believed I could do it, so I quit my job — insurance, benefits, and all.”

Jolene says she was able to support herself and Alex from the very beginning, and the business quickly grew by local word-of-mouth advertising. Much like a livestock producer who incorporates superior genetics into a herd over time, her kennel is now turning out higher-quality dogs than ever before, she explains.

“It takes a while to get the swing of it and learn which combinations work and which don’t,” she says. “With the Malamutes in particular, I am taking two [breeding] lines, putting them together, and essentially producing the same [type of offspring] every time. I haven’t encountered some of the problems inherent in the breed, like hip dysplasia, because I’ve been blessed to find some really outstanding dogs.”

Another trait of Jolene’s Malamutes is their enormous size. The desired freighting size of a standard adult is 65 to 85 pounds, but Jolene’s dogs weigh in at between 90 and 150 pounds and are often referred to as “giant” Malamutes.

“Although we do have very large dogs, I am most proud of how they are cared for and socialized here,” says the breeder, who has one full-time and two part-time employees. “You can spend two minutes on the property and see that all of the dogs are healthy and happy. They have huge kennels and lots of room to run. Each dog has a name, and most of them know it. We make sure our animals have a lot of mental and visual stimulation and are never bored.”

Jolene says she is “picky” about where her dogs go and cautions prospective buyers to research the Husky and Malamute breeds carefully.

“Although they can make wonderful family pets, these breeds are energetic, working dogs that need to have a job like sledding, backpacking, or weight-pulling,” she says. “I don’t necessarily recommend them for first-time dog-owners.”

Hudson’s Huskies and Malamutes, named for Jolene’s hometown of Hudson, N.Y., does most of its business via telephone and the Internet, which she says makes the shipping process one of the most critical aspects of the operation. To satisfy stringent airline requirements, she ships her dogs in Petmate Pet Porter kennels (#143715) purchased from Putnam Farmers Cooperative in Cookeville.

“I’m at the airport shipping dogs nearly every week,” says Jolene, who has bought literally hundreds of kennels and pet food and water bowls from the Co-op over the past several years. “The kennels are a big deal because not only do they have to work for the airlines but are also used by the new owners until the puppies grow out of them. I really appreciate the quality of both the products and service I’ve gotten at the Co-op.”

Jolene says that although building and owning her own business has been a challenge, especially while raising a special-needs child, it has given her a real sense of confidence.

“It hasn’t been easy, and I don’t want it to get any bigger, but I am proud of what I’ve accomplished,” she says. “The best part is, I get to make a living by spending my days with these incredible animals.”

For more information about Hudson’s Huskies and Malamutes, visit Jolene’s Web site at www.hudsonshuskies.com or call her at 931-432-0955.


 
 
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