Back on Track

After more than two weeks, we finally got out to the woods today. The end of October and early November were freakishly warm. I was also in New York City more than usual for some major work projects, and as expected, I came down with a cold after all that was done.

Hopefully the warmth is behind us, and we can get back on track with our daily local runs and weekend trips to the pines and Six Mile Run.

Today was Willow's first time at Brendan T. Byrne, as well as our first trip to the pines this season. She learned to hang out on the picket line, and got to meet some new husky and human friends. 

Willy is only 5-months-old, so she didn't run with us yet. I kept her loaded in the truck while we were out on the trail. I wasn't too sure how she'd be by herself, so I asked the other mushers to keep an ear out if she started to freak. Luckily, she handled it very well, and sat quietly until we returned.

Our run went well, nothing too noteworthy to report. We only did 3.8 miles because we're a bit behind this season, but they kept a steady pace and finished strong. Can't really ask for much more than that!

In Defense of Good Breeding

Every so often, I'll see the phrase "Adopt, Don't Shop" get thrown around on social media. I've even had a few people shake their head at me for buying two of my dogs from a breeder. While I understand the sentiment, I want to explain my side of it.

The way I see it, there are three types of dog breeder. Two I'm adamantly against, and believe the phrase "Adopt, Don't Shop" totally applies. 

The first is the most evil -- the "puppy mill" breeder. These people essentially factory-farm puppies out of sick, poorly cared for dogs. There are no health checks, temperament checks, zero socialization, and disgusting living conditions. These puppies get shipped out to pet shops and puppy stores. While they might look cute in the mall display window, buying these dogs certainly contributes to a lot of wrong-doing and perpetuates a huge problem. Puppy mills should, without a doubt, be illegal. I'm not going to harp on puppy mills because they're, obviously, terrible.

The second is the "backyard breeder". These range from people looking to make a quick buck, to those who genuinely think their pet is worthy of producing offspring, to those who are just too ignorant (or poor) to alter their dogs. The reason behind backyard breeding varies, and some litters are just genuine mistakes. Most people love their dogs and will unfortunately outlive them, so the desire to keep a piece of that friend alive in future generations makes sense to me. But being lovable isn't necessarily a good reason to reproduce. Backyard breeders likely don't consider health or if they're "bettering the breed". Health check doesn't just mean a clean bill of health from a vet, either. It means extensive tests on hips, eyes, and other parts prone to issues or disease.

In most ordinary circumstances, the average dog owner doesn't need to breed their dog, or even buy a dog from a breeder. If they want a purebred, there are breed specific rescues. With more education, access to spay and neuter facilities, and the mindset that "just because your dog is special doesn't mean their offspring will be", I think backyard breeding could decline. 

So why purchase a dog from a breeder? Let me preface by explaining how much I love dogs. Okay, yeah, I'm sure you get it. I have four of them and pretty much devote my life to them, of course I love dogs. I don't just mean my dogs -- I'm talking about the history of Canis lupus familiaris. About how the domestication of the wolf has helped shape the history of human life on earth. Dogs transformed from our hunting companions to our shepherds, guarding our families and our flocks, allowing humans to settle in one place and eventually cultivate agriculture. We owe a lot to our four-legged friends. 

Beyond early man, we've continued to shape the dog to meet many different needs: hunting, herding, mushing, guiding, detecting. While I can't say I support the selective breeding of all existing breeds (some have obviously strayed from their original purpose and against the dogs' well being), there are many that I do. Working dogs have a special place in my heart, and the continuation of these breeds serves a purpose.

I'll use sled dogs as a prime example because, obviously, I have the most experience with them. You can adopt a mutt and teach him to mush. I've done that twice with Dexter and Knoxville. Will you be successful? It's possible, as seen with Knox. But there are plenty of Dexters out there who just aren't as motivated. 

Denali and Willow came from a sled dog kennel. Their ancestors were sled dogs. If you check back along their family tree, you'll most likely see past breeders' best dogs -- meaning those with the most drive, best health, and exceptional temperament. Mushers select their best dogs to produce their future teams, since the goal is to improve year after year. Obviously, they are going to want the very best examples of whatever type of sled dog they're producing (Siberian Husky, Alaskan Husky, Eurohound, etc.). Some keep the entire litter. Others will select a few pups and sell the remaining ones to working homes, with contracts and background checks.

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There is a distinct difference between Denali's attitude and Knox's when they're in harness, even though they're both huskies. While Knox has spirit and drive, he doesn't quite have the same focus as Denali. Mushing came naturally and instinctively to her. I even see it in little Willow at 5-months-old. There is a certain mentality that working breeds have that needs to be maintained through responsible breeding -- at least, if people want to continue mushing. Or herding. Or raising service animals. Whatever the reason, we have shaped dogs, and in these circumstances a shelter dog might not work.

Responsible breeders produce dogs for a reason, either in conformation (dog shows) or to fulfill a purpose (working dogs), or sometimes both. They only select dogs that will maintain and improve the existing breed. The puppies have prospective homes before they're born. If the puppy can't be cared for any longer, a responsible breeder will require (by contract) that they are returned. This way, they don't end up clogging shelters.

In the future, I will probably buy more dogs from mushing kennels. I also hope to adopt again, too. There's a place for both in this world, when done responsibly!

The One that Got Away

I've been mushing for a few years now. I started with just Dexter and a bike in the winter of 2010/2011. I had a few opportunities to run him with borrowed dogs, and together, we learned the basics.

The following winter, I was able to run Dexter and Denali together. Knox joined the team towards the end of the 2011/2012 season, and from then on I've been running the trio every late fall through early spring.

A lot has happened out on the many miles of trails we've seen. A lot has gone wrong. I've had my bike fall apart mid race. We've tangled with other teams and encountered dozens of loose dogs. I've flown over the handlebars of a bike and tipped a rig while riding with my sister. The dogs have chased after various small animals (including a small dog on a leash). My tires deflated or popped countless times. Numerous cell phones were lost in snow, but later recovered.

Yet somehow, I had never lost the team. That may have been the only thing that hadn't gone wrong yet. I've been dragged on a sideways sled and I've stood on the rig's brake while the dogs continued to drag it, but I never lost them completely.

Well, there's always time for a new learning experience, right?

Shortly after the above photo was taken, the dogs decided to take off while I wasn't standing on the platform of the rig. 

Like I said, I've been running these dogs for a few years now. I'm pretty in tune with their behavior. I can tell when they're listening to some critter off in the brush. I know when they need a break. And usually, I don't bother anchoring my quick release during our water breaks. Throwing the brake on the rig is usually plenty, and the dogs know the drill. They're good about waiting when I stop for photos or to take off layers, too.

I have been a little more laid back on our more recent runs. I've been making them wait a little bit longer, and I've been stopping more to give Dexter treats (which have helped him stay motivated).

I guess Denali and Knox had enough, though. We were stopped for water and I was walking back to the rig after dropping a biscuit for Dex. Before I realized what was happening, the dogs were zooming down the trail -- right behind me. I chased after them, yelling, "WHOA!" and hoping they would stay within sight. 

Thankfully, they didn't go far. After their initial dash, the rig started to run off course and I could see Dex pumping the brakes. Once he stopped and turned around, the others did, too. They kind of had this, "Oh shit" look on their faces when I finally caught up to them. 

Even though they clearly had more steam in them, we had to turn back around at this point to collect the abandoned water bowls. So, a situation that happens to many mushers finally happened to me. Luckily, my team is relatively slow and I've got at least one clingy dog to hold the others back.

In the future, I think I'll be using my quick release.

Willow in Harness

At a little over four-months-old, Willow is now big enough for the adjustable x-back puppy harness that Denali and Knox each trained in when they were first starting out. She won't be doing any serious pulling or long-distance running until she's done growing (it's a bad idea to put too much strain on her little puppy bones and joints), but it's important to get her used to how the harness feels.

When she's wearing the harness, she'll learn to trot out in front of me instead of staying at my side (or that's the idea, at least). The harness means time to focus and work. This training will help to build her confidence before I start walking her with one of the older dogs. She's quickly catching on to the mushing commands, but walking with Denali will really solidify them. 

For our first trip out in harness, we walked along the same path I took the big dogs earlier that day. She must have been following their scent, because she was galloping through the woods loop trail just like they did a few hours before. It was amazing to see her instincts kick into gear as she loped around the trail in front of me. She really is a mini-Denali, and I cannot wait to have her run with the team.

Suburban Mushing

Dawn at Six Mile Run

I long for the day I can run the dogs from my doorstep, directly into the woods, and not see a single soul the entire time. Although I don't mind running into people who are genuinely curious about what I'm doing, there are plenty of people I don't want to deal with. 

Since I work in Manhattan, it's very unlikely I'll obtain my woodsy dream life any time soon. I have to settle for the suburbs, where I'm within a commutable distance to trails and New York. I'm especially tied to my current spot because I'm lucky enough to have a tiny bit of woods and enough parks to get by (plus I live in a mother-daughter house with my family, and I kind of like them). It's also a somewhat quiet spot, if I schedule my runs for specific times. If I want to avoid kids at the bus stop or neighbors walking their dogs, I have to run either before dawn or right before 9 AM, when people have already left for work. The latter only works on days I'm working from home, though.

Weekends are rough. I try to balance some semblance of a social life with waking up before dawn. My favorite spot to run is about 30 minutes away at Six Mile Run, but it's a popular area for people walking their dogs (often without a leash) and mountain bikers. I managed to get out there on Saturday, and it was beautiful and quiet (aside from the occasional shotgun fire in the distance - I always have my bright orange bandanas on hand). 

Although I was really eager to get out again on Sunday morning, I decided to get a little more sleep and take the dogs for a local run instead. Denali has a sore spot on the side of one toe and Dexter has some irritation between his back toes (from kicking after marking - not mushing related), so I didn't want to over do it. The woods loop near my house is finally free of flooding, so I knew I could add that into our routine again.

The tricky thing was taking the dogs out at around 9 AM on a weekend - prime time to run into all sorts of human activity. We managed to avoid three separate dog-walkers, and the team is learning to ignore the yappy Labrador in the yard around the corner. I was surprised to see a pit bull in the lost dog pen outside the police station. The dogs were surprised, too, and almost took a detour to greet her. Luckily, Denali seems to be maturing enough to lead Knox away from distractions. Knox is, uh, getting there.

Once we got to the park, I could hear kids shouting on the jungle gym. I never really know what to expect from kids, but I'm really happy with the way these ones behaved. As I turned onto the baseball field to head back home, I saw someone walking a dog in the distance and knew I had to take a break to avoid running them over. The naturally curious gang of little girls came over and politely asked about the dogs. Since we needed to stop anyway, I decided the kids would be a good distraction while the dog walker went on her way. The girls worked up the courage to pet the whole team. Dexter was the least intimidating, especially while performing tricks for treats I had on hand. Kids are often intimidated by the huskies, since they look like wolves, but Denali and Knox were super sweet and laid back as they were poked and pet.

In lieu of having quiet, solitary runs, I can use this time to teach my neighbors about huskies and mushing. I'm glad my dogs (for the most part) make great ambassadors for sled dogs everywhere, especially when organizations like PETA try to frame mushing as abuse. I think my happy, healthy dogs prove otherwise!

And We're Off

After what felt like an eternity, New Jersey finally sank into temperatures below 50 degrees. We usually get a few runs in by September, so October is a pretty late start for us. It's torture seeing photos posted by our friends from up north - where fall is in full swing. Some are even on sleds already! (I'm not ready for winter just yet - I'll take 40 degree mornings and hoodie weather for now.)

We had our first run yesterday and second this morning. Both were short runs (1.3 and 1.6 miles) around the usual neighborhood "trail", through the rain. One of the things keeping me in my current spot is the ease of mushing right from my driveway. I live on a dead end street, on the edge of a wooded area. The woods themselves aren't totally ideal for running the team - there's a bunch of winding streams that can get pretty deep, which limits how far we can go. But the back roads of my neighborhood lead to three parks - one I use for walking the dogs, the others for walks and mushing. 

Our usual neighborhood "trail" consists of running down the street parallel to mine, into a short woods loop. Then, we backtrack past my street, through the back of some parking lots (a funeral home, police station, library, rescue squad). We cut through a small monument park (right beneath a giant army helicopter), over a cute little bridge, and behind the town senior center. From there we round into a second park and cut through fields.

Previously, we were able to do another woods loop in this area, but it's been fenced off. I'm still trying to figure out a way back there, since it's a beautiful spot. After that, we retrace our steps back home. If I want to add a little more distance, we'll pass my street and do the woods loop again. I'm hoping that with less rain and a new rig, I might have the confidence to venture deeper - through some streams - for longer runs. We'll see!

We attempted to run into the woods today, but after a week of rain, it was far too flooded. The rest of the run was business as usual, although we did encounter a loose dog in the fields. Maybe my dogs are maturing, or maybe they're just out of shape, but I was able to keep them from charging after the dog without much trouble. Denali did a great job of steering the team away. I hollered at the loose Boxer to "GO HOME" and she listened, too, so maybe it was just my lucky day.

Pimp my Ride

Yesterday, this happened:

That envelope contains (half) a payment for a brand new, custom made Arctis dog cart. AHHH! I've wanted one of these rigs since I first started mushing, but a brand new one (plus shipping it across the country) isn't cheap. It was hard to justify the expense, when I accumulated two (mostly) functional rigs over the past few years.

After acquiring my fourth dog, I could safely say I'm in this mushing thing for several years to come. As I mentioned, I have two rigs already, which work. But, there are a few reasons why upgrading makes sense:

Consolidating Equipment - The 90 pound dog cart I currently have does not fold up. I cannot mount it on my bike rack. In order to transport it anywhere, I needed to buy an 8' long trailer and ramp.  This currently sits in my garage 99% of the time, taking up space I'd rather use for my truck. The Arctis folds up and easily loads on my truck's hitch, so I won't need the 90 pound cart or trailer.

Safety First - My existing rigs are old. The 40 pound cart is older than I am. It's a typical Chambers Rig, with a strange bar for steering. It works well enough, but it will never compete with bike-style steering. The 90 pound cart has better steering, but I could use something with better brakes. The Arctis has better steering and even better brakes: hydraulic disc brakes and a 4-prong "digger" earth brake when I need to get off the cart. 

Mush with Friends - My cart will come with a detachable "jump seat". While this probably won't get much use with a three or four dog team (except for short runs around the neighborhood), I plan to hang onto this cart for a long time. One day, when I have more space, I hope to run with five or six dogs. Then a passenger will be able to go a lot further with me - and I'll have a comfortable place for them to sit.

Construction on my new cart doesn't begin until November, so the bulk of this season will still depend on my current carts. I may even keep my lightweight rig for races -- I haven't decided yet. Still, I look forward to optimizing my dog gear collection and putting many, many miles on three shiny, new tires.

On the Edge of Mushing Season

Last week, I started the annual prep for fall training. I cleaned the cobwebs off the dog carts, fixed a broken wheel, and repainted all the scuffs from last season. I've added a pair of "headlights" as well as a small cargo bag near the handles (shown on the big cart above). All are easily detachable, so I can transfer them to whichever cart I'm using.

This will be a transitional season for my team. For the first time, I hope to run with four dogs. Willow will be old enough to start some light training by the new year, and I'm counting on Dexter to put one more season in. I'm not sure if we'll hit our usual 150 mile mark this year. I plan to take things slow. I don't want to push Dexter too hard, nor do I want to overexert Willy before she's done growing. It might mean a lot of bikejoring with Denali and Knox, but we'll see what happens.

For now, it's still almost 80 degrees out, so we'll live vicariously through our friends up north who have already started their season.

Willow's First Week

Willow has been with us almost a week and a half now, and she's fitting in very well. Dexter took to her instantly, and has been the most tolerant of her puppy antics. Knox loves to chase her and pin her to the ground, but so far he's managed to be relatively gentle on her.

Denali was the hardest to crack, despite being related by blood. She still grumbles if Willy gets in her face, but she's been playing with her a bit, here and there:

So far, Willow has been a breeze. She rarely has accidents inside, and when she does, they're usually my fault for not hurrying up and getting her outside. She's super friendly and sweet to everyone she meets. I was worried my house would be in chaos, but she acclimated herself to our routine instantly. When the big dogs nap, she naps. When they play, she plays. 

I couldn't have asked for a more perfect pup!

Coming Soon to BE&S!

The big news has finally been revealed! This weekend, I'm bringing home the fourth member of my ragtag team of ruffians. Presenting the new little lady:

(All photos belong to Jaye of Sibersong!)

Her name will most likely be Willow; Willy for short. She's actually Denali's niece, also bred by Jaye Foucher of Sibersong Sleddogs.  You can check out her ancestry here. She's sure to be a great addition, both in harness and out. 

My non-musher friends may want to know, "Why another dog? Are you crazy?"

Well, yes, of course. Any suburban musher is definitely crazy. But the real reason I'm adding to my team is so I can retire Dexter. I'm hoping he has one more season in him, but beyond that, I don't expect him to keep up on longer runs. Denali and Knox have no problem running eight to ten miles at a time, while Dexter loses enthusiasm after two or three. I don't want to force Dex to run beyond his limits, nor do I want to limit the youngins. 

It will be hard to leave Dex behind because he still acts like a nutjob when he's on the drop line and for the first few minutes of any run. But I know he'll ultimately be happier going for leisurely hikes and imprinting his dog-stink into my recliner.