Off to the Races

This past weekend was our last race of the season, which barely managed to squeak by between a small snowstorm and temperatures soon to be in the upper-70s. It was also Willy's first race, and she did phenomenally well. 

I was apprehensive about running on Saturday. About three inches of snow had fallen, with the possibility of melting and freezing overnight. It sounds weird to be concerned with snow at a dog sled race, but for a dry-land event, snow and ice aren't great under wheels. Luckily, the race crew worked tirelessly and managed to make the trail safe.

I ran Denali, Willy, and Knox in the 4-dog pro class, basically just against ourselves, although there were two other teams running in 4-dog sportsman. We were passed on day one by a very speedy team of Siberians (Steven Davis of Milestone Kennels -- awesome dogs), but managed to stay ahead of them on day two. Out of the three teams, we obviously won first for pro, but came out second overall.

I don't have much to say about our runs. They were smooth and without any real trouble. On day two, some deer ran out in front of us, which almost sent the dogs off course into the woods. A quick "ON-BY!" got them back on the trail, though. Willy was especially impressive: not only did she run in lead with Denali, but she kept the momentum going right through the finish line. Even when Knox and Denali were starting to slow down, Willy kept running hard.

The race was two 3.8 mile heats, which we finished in 19 minutes 6 seconds on day one and 18 minutes 32 seconds on day two. It's hard to really judge considering we were the only team in our class, but compared to the 6-dog and bikejor/scooter classes, we had a very respectable run. Of course, the Alaskan/Hound teams blew it away with times well under 15 minutes, but we did quite well for a team of three rag-tag little Sibes.

Mushing season is slowly dwindling down now, though I hope to have a few more runs before we pack things in for the summer. I'm already really excited for the fall and running Willy as she matures, but I'll be sad to lose Dexter to retirement (though that's up to him). I'm already thinking about another Siberian to round out a little 4-dog team, but that's a dream for another day.

If All Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge...

I haven't had too much to write about as mushing season starts to dwindle down. We've had a mixture of polar-vortex cold and unusually warm days, but we're still getting out pretty consistently. Despite an overall not-great winter, the dogs are already at 148 miles. We'll definitely surpass our normal season goal of 150, and it's a good sign for my plan to increase the mileage next year.

Today's run at Six Mile was extraordinary and worth the quick story. We got out extra early because warm temperatures were creeping in, and the dogs were running extra well. Even Dexter had a tight tugline the entire run. We spooked a herd of deer and chased them through the trail, which probably contributed to Dexter's good morale.

By the time we reached our usual turn-around spot (two miles out), I decided to keep going further. As I've mentioned before, this requires crossing a bridge. I've done this a few times on my lightweight Chambers rig, but I hadn't tried it on the Arctis. And for whatever reason, I neglected to consider the difference in width between these two rigs.

Denali and Willy lead the team across the bridge without hesitation. I got about halfway onto the bridge and realized the back wheels of the rig wouldn't fit at the same time. Shit.

Now I was in a little bit of trouble. Denali and Willy were almost completely across the bridge. Dexter and Knox were holding steady in the middle. And I was stuck, with one back wheel hanging off the side and teetering toward the water.

It's hard to really describe the situation without pictures, but the stream and bridge are maybe eight or nine feet across.  The bridge is elevated quite a bit, very narrow, without guardrails. It's designed for mountain bikers. The embankment on both sides of the stream is steep and completely saturated with mud.

I knew the rig wouldn't make it across the bridge without tipping over, so I decided our best bet was to forge directly through the stream, Oregon-trail style. But this meant getting the team to turn around enough so that I could pull the rig back and safely down to the water.

The bridge was narrow -- about two dogs wide -- so they didn't have much choice. I gave Denali the "come haw" command, and she did exactly what I needed her to do. She leapt, without hesitation, straight off the bridge into the stream. Willy followed her lead, as did Dexter and Knox. This gave me enough slack to pull the rig off the bridge and push it through the stream.

The challenge didn't end there. I needed the dogs to pull through water up to their chests and haul the 90-pound rig up the muddy embankment on the other side. And they did it, just like that.

I need to stress that my dogs are not water dogs. In the dead of summer, Dex and Knox might wade around in streams to cool down, but none of them would ever jump into water like this. Especially not Denali. 

Today's run wasn't a miraculous experience. It wasn't luck or chance. It was years of work and training to build a team of dogs that trust me with total confidence. They don't always listen, but I'll remember this moment when I'm frustrated or struggling.

Good dogs. 

Snow Daze

A week ago, we were buried under two feet of snow after winter storm Jonas tore through the northeast. I've been waiting for snow all winter (and fall, and summer...), and mother nature really delivered. This was Willy's first real snowstorm, and she loved it just as much as the other dogs.

I knew that once the storm was over and the roads were plowed, my local trails wouldn't be runnable for awhile. I took advantage of the empty streets and ran in the middle of the storm. We went out in the morning and again before dark, straight through the main roads of my town to side streets we've never mushed on before. We got a lot of waves, laughs, and strange looks from people shoveling. The streets were snowy enough for a smooth ride, while the woods and parks we usually run through were much too deep for the dogs. We didn't go very far or very fast, but it was enough to keep the dogs happy.

We had to cut our last run short because the visibility was making it hard to see headlights. Even though the roads were virtually empty, I didn't want to risk not seeing an oncoming car, so we packed it in.

Over the last few days, a lot of the snow has melted, but there's still a lot left. The roads around my neighborhood aren't runnable with the sled anymore, but the woods and parks are too snowy for the dryland rig. I also can't scale the giant snow mountains that are blocking our usual route. As luck should have it, my new Arctis dryland rig arrives on Tuesday, though I'm not sure when we'll get a chance to use it.

On Thursday, I drove out to Six Mile Run before work to see how the trails were holding up after a few days of thawing and refreezing. A lot of the blue trail was "punchy", hard on top with soft snow underneath. Snowshoers had packed it down a bit, so it wasn't too difficult to navigate. It's always rougher for Dexter, since he weighs more and tends to sink. There were also random patches of no snow, as well as extremely deep drifts, making it an unpredictable run.

Dexter decided to add to the fun by backing out of his collar and his harness. Luckily, his recall is dependable, so I let him run around like a jackass for a bit. He ended up trotting right back to his spot, after successfully annoying the very serious Denali while she was trying to work.

Our first real sled run of the season was not without some minor bloodshed. While sliding around a corner, I managed to whip myself into a thorn bush. I came out the other side with my hat and scarf nearly twisted off, plus a few scratches on my cheek and chin. Most notable being the rather deep cut in my lower eyelid, which will remind me to wear my damn goggles even when it's not snowing.

This morning, I went back out to Six Mile to see how the red trail system was holding up. The trailhead didn't look too promising -- the path was a well-packed sheet of ice. I gave Dexter the day off since his feet were a little chafed from Thursday. Without Dex to slow us down, I knew I was in for a lightening fast start with just the huskies.

I attempted to booty the dogs, but they all ended up flying off within the first hundred feet (ordered better sizes as soon as I got home). A "spectator" noticed and collected them for me while we were on the trail (thank you, whoever you are). As I expected, we flew down the first half mile or so and I'm very surprised I stayed upright.

After turning onto some lesser used trails, the dogs slowed to a reasonable trot. Eventually, they were breaking trail and running kind of "off". I don't think they were used to going as fast as they want, and without Dexter, they seemed a bit unbalanced. Knox was back in wheel, and Denali wasn't as focused in single lead (even though she used to always run alone). Knox is a bit taller than Dexter, which made him a bad running mate for Willy, who had trouble keeping herself untangled.

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About a mile in, I stopped to check everyone, and I could see each had at least one irritated paw pad. They had a lot more steam left, but I decided to head back to the truck rather than risk further injury. Dogs are only as good as their feet, and I wasn't about to let them get hurt.

I'm not quite sure what my plan is for tomorrow. I wanted to head up to High Point State Park, but the trail conditions seem equally icy. Next week will be very warm (in the 60s!), so I expect the dogs will have quite a bit of downtime until winter returns, but it might be the safest thing for now.

You mush? In New Jersey?

Whenever someone finds out that I mush dogs, their second question is always, "You do that in New Jersey?" While we usually get some snow each winter, NJ is not considered a musher's paradise. 

Don't get me wrong -- New Jersey is "the garden state". We have a lot of beautiful forests packed in this diverse little state. That being said, it's also the most densely populated state in the entire country. Finding trails without bikers, hikers, hunters, horseback riders, and loose dogs is almost impossible.

To avoid trouble on the trails, I usually take the dogs out very early in the morning. It's also usually colder at dawn, which works out in our favor. I have yet to travel beyond my neighborhood trails for night runs, but I haven't really needed to. 

Most of our weekly runs are between a half mile and two miles, and consist of the "trails" I have found around my neighborhood. This includes backroads, small sections of woodland, and relatively unused parks (in cold weather, anyway).

Crossing a bridge in the memorial park on our local trail.

Our usual route around the neighborhood.

Beautiful scenery down the street from home!

When I'm not running around the suburbs like a crazy person, there are a few spots drive to:

Six Mile Run

The Six Mile Run Reservoir site is maintained as a State Park and includes several trails that are used primarily by mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. It has 8 miles (13 km) of twisting single track maintained by JORBA. Access to the park can be found at the large parking lot on Canal Road near Six Mile Run Road, from the parking lot of the private soccer club on Route 27, and from several smaller parking areas on roads that traverse the park.

This mixture of woods and farmland is roughly 30 minutes from my house. The description from Wikipedia I sourced above mentions eight miles of trail, but there are many different ways you can manipulate your distance and go further. The longest run I had was eight miles -- a full four miles out/four miles back, but it involved crossing over some streams on bridges just slightly wider than my rig (without railings), so I haven't been that eager to try it again. I normally run two to three miles out and back on the blue trail.

While the blue trail falls along the border of farmland and woods, the red trail offers a bit more diversity. It's harder to get longer distances on this side of the woods, but there are a lot more intersecting trails to keep the dogs interested. I also really love taking the sled through the dark, tightly packed pines on this part of the trail.

Right after our usual "come haw" point on the Blue Trail, between woods and fields.

Blue Trail winding along fields.

Red Trail intersects more woods.

Navigating the winding trails through pines on the Red Trail.

Six Mile Run is ideal for mountain bikers, and there are a lot of trails that aren't easy for a rig or sled to traverse.  Many are narrow, steep, or involve arched bridges with no railing as I mentioned earlier. You also need to be mindful of bikers on the trail (which is why I run early), as they can silently speed around corners with little warning. Luckily, I've never had any collisions, and the bikers have been friendly and curious about my dogs and rig.

The trails that are suitable can be torn up from bikes and horses, and then freeze into choppy trenches and potholes. When thawed, expect to be completely drenched in mud.

Despite the challenges, Six Mile Run is one of my favorite places to bring the dogs in any season. 

 

Brendan T. Byrne State Forest

The Brendan T. Byrne State Forest (formerly the Lebanon State Forest) is a 37,242 acre (139 km²) state forest in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

The Brendan T. Byrne State Forest is the state's second largest state forest (afterWharton State Forest). There are 25 miles (40 km) of hiking trails and a camping area. The park is operated and maintained by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. 

The Pine Barrens, specifically Brendan T. Byrne, will forever hold a special place in my heart. This is where it all began -- where I met the mushers of Jersey Sands Sled Dog Racing Association. Dexter and I learned the beginning steps to mushing from all the mentors I gathered on these sandy roads.

The trails around Mt. Misery (which is neither mountainous or miserable) can keep you busy for hours. We've trained, hiked, camped, and raced within the confines of this forest. It's a solid hour and a half drive, which means waking up well before dawn to enjoy solitude on the trails. Fortunately, pet-friendly campsites make this spot perfect for camping out on long weekend trips.

Sunrise in the Pine Barrens.

The race trail for many JSSDRA and PSDC races at Mt. Misery.

Our last big run of the 2014/2015 season, during a camping trip.

Returning to camp after 9.8 miles.

There are quite a few other trails around New Jersey that work for mushing. Rail trails are disused railways converted into a multi-use path, which are quite abundant throughout the state. I've mushed on the Paulinskill Valley Trail and Columbia Trail. These both offer decent mileage, but they are straight trails that don't always provide a good spot to "pull over". They're also popular with hikers, bikers, dog walkers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers. Since there are no other trails to turn off, you're stuck dealing with whoever else is also using the trail.

Mushing through deep snow along the Paulinskill Valley trail.

Mushing through deep snow along the Paulinskill Valley trail.

Sections of the Columbia trail have icy rocks on one side, a steep drop on the other.

Sections of the Columbia trail have icy rocks on one side, a steep drop on the other.

One of my favorite mushing experiences was at High Point. I had never used my sled on a groomed trail before, and it made such a difference. The temperature was -11°F with the wind, and my phone was too cold to stay on, so I don't have many photos or stats recorded from that day. I hope to get back there again this season.

While I tend to stick to the same trails, exploring new spots is one of the most exciting and challenging things about mushing. Everything you and your dogs learn on the familiar trails is put to the test in new places. In the future, I hope to extend my adventures across the country. But for now, yes, I do mush in New Jersey.

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. 

 
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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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!