Headfirst into 2016

It's been a few weeks since my last post, but I haven't had much dog related news to report. I spent the end of December buying and wrapping gifts, cooking and cleaning for my annual Christmas Eve Eve party, and spending lots of time with family and friends. The weather in New Jersey was absolutely ridiculous for late December. The week of Christmas was in the 70s and humid, so we definitely didn't do any running.

We've had a few cold mornings since then and I was able to get Willow out for her first runs with the team. We're starting very slowly and making each run a happy, fun, easy experience for her. The last thing I want to do is stress her out, physically or mentally, while she's still growing and maturing. 

 
 

I recently witnessed a little bit of backlash between other mushers over when to start a dog in harness. My general rule of thumb has been around six or seven months, depending on the dog, but I couldn't remember why I had picked that age. Denali started with short, easy runs at around seven months old. Knox was around six months old. Neither have had any issues, physically or developmentally. 

 
Willy--4.jpg
 

I scoured a few mushing resources to find out what the general consensus was for starting young dogs. I found plenty of information on training puppies to line-out and to drag lightweight objects behind them, but I couldn't find anything on what age is appropriate to start running with a team.

I decided to shift to print. I ordered Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher on Amazon to see if it had a more complete answer. Here's what authors Miki and Julie Collins said:

Some mushers start to harness-break a pup before he can walk in a straight line, and others wait until the pup is a yearling. If you work with a pup under five months old, do not do more than just tie a light weight to this little harness. A pup can be run in a small team at five or six months, but it is better to wait another month or two rather than risk over-stressing him. A five- to eight-month-old pup should be run only a mile or two, and certainly not over five miles, even though he can run farther when he is loose behind the team. 

At this point, Willy has done a few 1.2 and 1.8 mile runs with the team around the neighborhood trails. I've also taken her to Six Mile Run a couple of times, but we've done no more than four miles with lots of breaks along the way. She has been doing incredibly well since her very first run. She screams her head off at hookup and runs like she's been doing it for years. She hasn't shown any fear or hesitation, probably because she's watched the other dogs leave without her for months and she was getting tired of it.

We'll continue to take things slow this season. Dexter sets the pace for us at this point, since he can't do fast sprints for very long and I don't want Willy running too hard. If it were up to her, I think we'd be running a hundred miles without stopping.

Ultimately, when it comes to deciding when a dog is ready, you have to consider a lot of factors. Different sled dog breeds mature at different rates. For example, I would probably wait longer for a larger breed dog -- like a eurohound or malamute. The terrain, the team, and what's being pulled also need to be considered. I wouldn't want a young pup pulling a heavy rig up and down hills. The behavior of the pup also needs to be taken into account. A puppy going through a skittish phase would probably benefit from waiting another month or two.

I'm by no means an expert on this, so take my input with a grain of salt. I rely on what I've learned from other mushers as well as my own experience. I'm bound to make mistakes, but the last thing I want to do is harm my dogs. 

Photo Dec 19, 8 36 36 AM.jpg

Mt. Misery Mush

We had our first race this past weekend, and despite the name, it was not miserable at all (except maybe waking up at 5 AM). I brought all the dogs with me, but I only competed with Denali and Knox in the two-dog bike-joring class. They're really my all-stars when it comes to the race environment, whereas Dexter is much more suited for leisurely runs. Willow isn't old enough to run yet, but the race was a great way for her to socialize with lots of other dogs and people.

The Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club had a really great turnout for this race. I've never seen so many dog trucks and teams at our humble little spot. This season has had a rough start, as far as temperatures go, so I was happy to see so many people still made it out. It was great seeing some familiar faces I haven't seen in awhile, like Johnn and Nancy Molburg. I haven't seen them since I bought my sled from Johnn at the 2011 Fair Hill Challenge! I also got to meet some new friends, like Emily Ferrans, her father, and their awesome 12-year-old pooch, Dutchess.

The weather held out pretty well for most of the morning. The scooter, bike-jor, and canicross classes were held later in the day. Both of our runs were after 12 PM, which wasn't ideal, especially for Knox with his woolly coat. But, we managed!

Saturday's run was fantastic: we finished 3.8 miles in 15 minutes and 43 seconds. For perspective, when we run this distance with Dexter, it usually takes more than twice that. The dogs ran beautifully, and even passed a team without hesitation. They started to lose some steam towards the end, allowing a team passed us. This worked in our favor, though, and gave them the boost they needed to finish strong. So, no complaints from me!

 
Day 1 start, video taken by Emily Ferrans (Full video here)

Day 1 start, video taken by Emily Ferrans (Full video here)

 

Sunday wasn't the best run. Knox pumped the brakes around halfway, so I slowed them down and let them dip their feet in a puddle. I could tell the heat was getting to him, so I let them take it slow. After another mile or so he seemed to get a second wind, and the two of them were running in perfect unison. It was such an awesome sight to see them loping effortlessly in front of me, I didn't even care that we were competing.

Photos by Bonnie Smagacz-Starnes

Photos by Bonnie Smagacz-Starnes

At the last turn, we had a small mishap with a trail help dog getting in our way, but the dogs handled it well and it didn't really affect our run. We finished in 19 minutes, 1 second on day two. 

We placed third out of four teams in the pro class, or third out of seven including the sportsman teams. Considering my bums are not super speedy hounds, nor have they been training for speed, I think we did a fine job! 

The King's Pines

The weekend after Thanksgiving is usually the first race of the season for NJ dryland mushers, but this year's race was called off early (and eventually moved to March). My job gives me Thanksgiving and the day after off for a nice, long weekend. I wanted to make the most of it and decided to book a cabin in upstate New York. It wasn't too planned out, I just knew this might be my last opportunity to travel in 2015. And with the crappy weather we've had, I knew my best chance for cold temperatures would be somewhere up north -- 320 miles north, to be exact.

I found a beautiful "back to nature" style cabin called "Mountain Laurel" in the Adirondack foothills, on 50 acres known as "The King's Pines". It relied on solar power for electricity, a wood stove for heat, and propane for just about everything else. A five(ish) hour drive for a cabin with no wifi, no TV, and no indoor plumbing probably isn't appealing to most, but it had what I was really after: acres and acres of land with private trails. And, most importantly, the owners were completely fine with a small sled team staying at their place.

mushing-trip-momscam-1565.jpg

I originally planned to drag a friend or two along, but like I said, I didn't really plan it around anyone else's schedule. I was prepared to make the trip alone, but my Mom offered to come along for company and to help watch Willy while I was running the other dogs. My Dad ended up getting out of work early on Friday, so he was able to come along, too. I haven't been able to go on a family trip in years, since my parents watch my dogs when I travel and I feed their cats when they travel, so it was nice to go on a little adventure with them. 

We spent Friday morning and early afternoon driving. I originally planned to leave before dawn so I could mush right as we got there, but temperatures were unseasonably warm even way up north. We arrived at the cabin just before dark, and it took some time to get everything settled. I think we were all asleep by 9 PM, though we did wake up to Dexter growling at the window... at what I can only assume was a rock that he thought was a bear.

We awoke to drastically colder temperatures on Saturday. The dogs were antsy to go outside, and I was equally antsy to check out the 50 acres that surrounded the cabin. We did a quick 1.4 mile run from our cabin, to another one on the property, and back while my dad figured out the propane-heated-rainwater shower. 

After the morning run we sat down for eggs, bacon, and toast prepared by my Dad, which was a much better meal than the oatmeal I had planned to make had I made the trip alone. The rest of the day went on in the same fashion: a 3 mile run, hot dogs for lunch, a 2.2 mile run, bacon burgers for dinner. 

The trails on the property (and probably the surrounded properties -- I couldn't exactly tell where one ended and another started) were very interesting. Pines and sand are pretty familiar to us, since we regularly mush in the NJ Pine Barrens. But this area was definitely more varied, with dirt and mossy trails and much taller trees. One area was buried under several inches of fallen leaves, which made for a completely new experience for the dogs to run through.

 A lot of this trip, I had just that in mind: new experiences. The dogs have grown accustomed to the trails we run every week. So much so that I don't need to tell them which turns to take -- they already know exactly where we're going. Even when we mush new rail trails, they're just straight lines -- so there's no opportunity to practice gee's and haw's (right and left turns) . At the King's Pines, everything was new and each trail had lots of intersecting trails to choose from. Many were dead-ends, so Denali had to work on her come-haw's (turning the team around) quite a bit.

Oh, and all day Saturday it SNOWED!!! It wasn't really cold enough to stick, but it came down in fine, consistent flurries all day. I really couldn't have asked for a better day out in the woods and inside stuffing my face with my family.

Night creeps in early out in the woods with limited electricity, and we were all struggling to stay awake past 8 PM. Temperatures were supposed to dip into the low 20s that night, so we had the wood stove well stocked to last until morning.

We had a lot to do on Sunday, so going to bed early and waking up just before dawn worked out in our favor. We ate oatmeal, corned beef hash, and eggs for breakfast while the dogs were happy to continue snoozing. We didn't have to check out until later in the day, so I made sure to squeeze in another 4.4 mile run to ensure a quiet ride home. We totaled about 11 miles in two days, which put us over our usual goal mileage for the end of November -- 54.8 miles so far this season! Considering the warm temperatures and overall less opportunities to run, I'm happy we're still on track.

Overall, the dogs did great despite some challenging portions of trail. There were areas of deep sand, steep uphills, and lots of rocks/roots, but they managed without much trouble. My wrists are achey from hanging on to the rickety rig and my shins are thoroughly black and blue from kicking into the rig platform, but it was well worth it.

After our last run, my parents and I packed and cleaned out the cabin (hopefully we didn't leave too much dog hair behind). My dad split the long drive home with me, which was a big relief, since my butt was thoroughly kicked.

A big thank you goes out to Rick and Maria for letting us use their Mountain Lauren cabin at the King's Pines. I'd love to go back when there's snow on the ground and experience the trails from the back of my sled next time!

Into the Blind

I love exploring new trails, but more often than not, I rely on Six Mile Run and Brendan T. Byrne for dependable, familiar training runs. I know these spots like the back of my hand, which means I know what paths to take for specific distances. The dogs know the turns without having to say a word. I also know we share the woods with mountain bikers and hunters, but rarely have much interaction. 

Despite the familiarity, every run can still surprise me (like when the dogs took off without me). This morning I heard a lot of gunshots as we started out, which isn't unusual. We saw plenty of deer scattering around us, and the shots were not far from where we were running. I wasn't overly concerned, since my cart makes a racket and the dogs all wear bright orange.

As we approached the midway point of our run, we came around a bend and almost plowed directly into a portable hunting blind, which was set up in the middle of the trail. I had never seen that before! Luckily, we had space to wedge by while only getting slightly tangled ganglines. The hunter was friendly and intrigued by what I was doing -- and not upset that we were most likely scaring the deer away. We passed by him again on our way back, and he was kind enough to push his blind and gear off to the side for us this time around.

As an animal lover, most would assume I'm against hunting. I don't know what his intentions were, but I actually do support hunting for food. In many ways, I think it's probably more humane than factory-farmed meat. I'll assume the best, and hope he got himself some venison after we left.

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.

10661694_793879527335937_6952358434537346412_o.jpg

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.