If you read along last time, you’ll remember that Ian now has his furry companion, Balto. We’ve heard repeatedly since Balto’s “gotcha day” that huskies are working dogs and don’t make good pets. Huskies need a job; without one they’ll dig your yard up and chew everything in the house. While I appreciate all the warnings, we’re not rookies with working breeds. Mogwai, our Tennessee Mountain Hybrid, is a treeing cur dog with a big territory and lots of energy. We sacrificed a few beds early in his life as we learned that he must stay employed regularly to prevent him from destroying everything. Once we figured out how to keep his brain and his body busy, cohabitation got much smoother. Ian never wanted a husky as a pet. From the moment he met the breed, he’s been obsessed with their ability to work.
Dr. J, my former supervisor and director (who I miss dearly!) came very close to diagnosing the situation. He texted me his assessment:
Just had a revelation. You and Brinn are grooming Ian for the Iditarod…1. Trip to Alaska. 2. Purchase of husky. 3. Training Balto to pull increasingly heavier weight. Next I expect you begin assembling (one by one) a team of sled dogs and conducting winter training in Gatlinburg or North Carolina. The picture is beginning to come into focus.
I read this message to Ian who laughed and said: “Mama, that’s not your plan. That’s my plan!” From July 2, 2018, Ian has had it in his mind that he will have a full team of sled dogs. When we returned from our Alaska trip, he had poor Mogwai tied to his plastic snow sled, making him drag it around the yard in July. Mogwai was not a fan, but I remind him that domestication doesn’t come free.
Now that Ian finally has his [first] husky, he’s been determined to train Balto to be his
first sled dog. Within days he had a leash connecting Balto’s puppy harness to the plastic sled so Balto could get used to something bouncing around behind him. As Balto has grown, Ian has moved him up to pulling a wagon and carrying heavier weights, including carrying 50 pound sacks of grain out to the barn each week when we pick up horse feed. Ian has the desire for Balto to be a working dog, but we’re lacking in the needed training skills, so I began hunting around online for local trainers who may be able to give Ian lessons. Then Tabitha found an event on Facebook she thought Ian would like: IWPA September in Baxter.
Baxter is only 15 minutes from our house, so I looked up the organization: International Weight Pull Association. Once I read the description on the IWPA website, I knew this would be the perfect event for Ian and Balto. I messaged the members of the local group and asked if we could bring Ian to watch. Multiple owners responded and invited us to bring Ian AND Balto and offered to loan Balto a harness and to teach Ian how to compete in the novice division. After double checking the date, I realized that this event was set for the very next day, so we packed the canopy tent in the truck with Balto’s swimming pool and a water bowl so that we would be prepared for Sunday morning.
The day of Ian’s first pull dawned hot and muggy. We filled two coolers with bagged ice left over from our last camping trip, and stopped by Dollar General to buy more ice on our way to the event. When we arrived, Ms. Sheryl greeted us warmly and helped Ian sign up for the novice division. We popped up our tent to create shade, filled Balto’s pool with ice, screwed in the metal spike to clip to his runner, and settled in to learn about this new world.
So here’s the basic concept: Dogs wear a special harness which distributes weight evenly across their bodies. The harness is attached to a flat cart with wheels, and increasingly heavier weights are added to this cart. After handlers clip their dogs to the cart, the owner goes to the end of a fenced chute and calls their dog to come to them. The dogs are timed to see how long it takes them to pull the cart across the line. Handlers are not allowed to use any type of coercion other than voice so it’s entirely up to the dog to pull the weight. The dog who pulls the heaviest load wins. If there’s a tie on weight, then the dog with the best time wins.
Dogs are not eligible to enter the sanctioned weight classes until they are at least one year old. Balto was six months old at his first pull, so he obviously started in Novice, and will stay there all year. Since Novice follows all of the sanctioned classes, we settled in to watch and wait. Balto laid in his ice pool until all his ice melted, but he splashed so pitifully in his pool of cold water that Brinn ended up running down the road to the closest market to pick up another 20 pounds of ice to refill Balto’s arctic tundra. Finally Ms. Sheryl called for a 15 minute break before Novice would start.
Ms. Missy, a trainer and harness maker, gave Ian and Balto all kinds of advice and support. She loaned Ian a green pulling harness to fit Balto and showed us how to put it on. Ms. Missy and Ms. Sheryl instructed Ian in the process, and off they went! Balto did great in his first and second pulls, but halfway through his third pull, he stopped and started his husky talking. It’s hard to describe as it’s not a howl, or a wine, or even a yap. It’s just this weird complaining talking that huskies do. Up until that point, everyone had praised Balto for his great attitude and chill, non-husky behavior. After Balto’s temper tantrum, everyone laughed and Ms. Missy said “there’s the Siberian coming out!”
We finished the day with 4 goodish pulls from Balto, and one entertaining pull. During awards, Ms. Sheryl award Ian with first place in Novice Junior Handler, and Ian doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he was the only junior handler of the day. So far he’s content with “winning” and doesn’t feel like he actually has to beat someone. Some might complain about the participation trophy generation, but this award has lit a fire under Ian to practice and come back with more weight and faster times for the next event.
We left the event with lots of advice and plans for the next event. Ian spent the next month working on sharpening Balto’s reaction to verbal commands of “come” and “hike!” Balto, being true to his husky heritage, tends to only hear Ian when there’s a treat or toy involved. Balto was neutered shortly after his first pull event, and was on limited activities for a couple of weeks afterwards, so Ian has not been working on any weight with him. Ian’s tried to focus on Ms. Missy’s advice for getting his dog excited about coming to him. Ian’s trying…but Balto’s enthusiasm varies.
Yesterday brought us back to Baxter for Ian and Balto’s second weight pull. The group allowed Ian to try to help with the cart during several pulls, and all the trainers continued to offer Ian advice and training tips for Balto. Mr. Joe has invited Ian to come practice with the Knoxville group, and we are going to have Ms. Missy size Balto and sew his own weight harness if the behemeath will ever quit growing. Ian finished the day with some improvements from last time, including more weight and a slightly more agreeable husky. Once again, Ian finished with a first place award for Novice Junior Handler, with no other junior handlers in attendance, haha.
Now that Balto has fully recovered from surgery and the temps are dropping, Ian is ready to start ramping up Balto’s training. With advice from the local trainers and invitation to come train with some of them, Balto is entering his life as a working dog. Now we sit back and see if Dr. J’s prophetic plan for Ian and Balto comes to life.
Thank you East and Middle Tennessee Weight Pullers for introducing us to Ian’s favorite sport!