“Don’t worry, you’ll outgrow it,” so many well-intentioned people would assure me as they referred to my horse obsession. That was over 30 years ago, and I still haven’t managed to “outgrow it.” So when Ian met sled dogs and decided this was his path in life, I never dismissed his obsession as a passing phase. Sure, he’s gone through some phases. He used to love Paw Patrol, but now he claims that Paw Patrol is for babies. Sled dogs, however, remain a solid fixation.
We started with Balto. We intended for Fluffy Shark to be Ian’s pancake dog. Inevitably the first pancake on the griddle gets scrambled when you attempt to flip it. We figured that a puppy belonging to a six-year-old would encounter some training issues along the way as Ian learned to interact with and communicate with his dog. We have definitely experienced those issues –some because Ian has struggled with consistency, and some because Siberians are incredibly hard-headed. But all in all, the two are best friends, and with the help of Ami, their obedience instructor, Balto has learned some improved manners and Ian is learning to communicate effectively.
One dog is simply not enough dogs for Ian, and Balto doesn’t have the disposition to be an only child, so in light of Chaco’s waning health, we began lining up husky #2 to ensure that Balto would have a companion. Our hopes for a Christmas puppy were disappointed when the breeder’s female failed to conceive. But at her next cycle, she took, and puppies were born two days before Ian’s birthday! We were able to visit the puppies after they were a week old. In true Ian fashion, he knew exactly which pup was Jenna.
So now Ian finally has two Arctic dogs, but where do you find a racing kennel in mild weathered middle TN? As best as I could find through my online research, you don’t. So I took to Facebook. We’re tentatively looking at going back to Alaska in the next year or two, so I thought this might be the chance to line some lessons up for Ian. I found a FB group specifically for tourists to ask questions for Alaskan natives and business owners to answer. Here was my chance to ask if there would be a kennel willing to let Ian take lessons rather than go for the typical mushing tour. I received some inviting feedback from a few Alaskan mushers, including Nicolas Petit and a few other big names in the mushing world (not that I knew enough to appreciate how big a shadow they cast), but then I received the best feedback from a relocated musher who was quite knowledgeable and still well connected in the sport. She offered some great recommendations, then she made the connection that we only live two hours apart, and she offered that she would be more than happy to help introduce Ian to the sport!
We have mushers living in Tennessee! Mushers who are willing to teach Ian how to train Balto and Jenna correctly! Obviously we had to take Ian to meet Jim and Bonnie as well as their pack of retired Alaskan huskies. We learned that these dogs have run in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod! Balto and Jenna were invited to come along as well, and we had a delightful afternoon getting to know the Fosters, and learning exactly how clueless we are going into the world of dog sledding. With a promise that we would start training once the temps were consistently below 50 degrees, we returned home to finish the summer and make big plans for Ian’s future.
While the rest of our friends have been thrilled with the beautiful, mild fall we’ve enjoyed this this year, Ian has repeatedly checked the weather to be disappointed week after week. Finally we’ve had a few cold snaps that coincided with schedules, and Jim and Bonnie loaded up their mushing rig and a pair of dogs to make the drive to Cookeville. Balto was thrilled to see his buddy Junior, and Jenna was delighted to see Scout. Scout is a veteran lead dog of the Yukon Quest, while Junior has the body mass to physically pull Balto along.
During Ian’s first lesson we got to learn about the gang line, half harnesses, positioning dogs, vocal commands, breaking, and steering. Jim rode on the cart with Ian and taught him that real mushers say “let’s go!” instead of “Mush!” when they’re ready for their dogs to set out. And when they called “let’s go!” we were all shocked to see Balto rush forward with his friends and enthusiastically pull the rig! Balto kept on his happy face through the entire session, with his ears pricked, tail arched over his back, and snout in a grin. Junior never had to use his bulk to convince Balto to run!
Obviously Ian and his dogs have a lot of work ahead of them, but I’m beyond thrilled to see that Balto is enthusiastic and willing to run for Ian. He’s not usually so eager to please his kid, and is really more interested in pleasing himself. Our experiences in weight pull have documented Balto’s typical reaction of throwing a fuzzy finger when he’s not down with the program. The only downside to the lesson was the brevity. Ian had been dreaming of cruising northern Putnam County behind his dogs for the whole day, and was disappointed to learn that initial sessions have to be kept short so we don’t overwhelm Balto. Balto has to learn to go at a good steady trot rather than a lope, and Ian has to learn to spot a tired dog so he can stop them before they break their gait. It’s nice to find a similarity with horse training: consistency matters!