Teaching the family hound to tow the line
Nicky isn't a born couch potato, despite growing evidence to the contrary - that is, dog hair - accumulating on my sofa. Part Karelian bear dog, he descends from a long line of fierce big-game hunters who worked the frigid climes of northern Europe and western Russia. Tall, muscular and energetic, Karelians earned a reputation for fearlessly taking on lynx, wolves, moose and bears. In North America, the breed has been used in recent years for deconditioning bears that have become overly acclimated to humans in such places as Banff-Lake Louise, Yosemite and Glacier National Park.
Eight years old now, Nicky hasn't exactly lived up to his hearty working-dog lineage, enjoying an existence more typical of a Saudi prince. Admittedly, he once alerted me to the presence of a black bear while we were hiking in the Montana backcountry; another time he got into a tussle with an ill-tempered raccoon. But, except for his daily sprints across the backyard to keep my vegetable garden squirrel-free, my boy has never worked a day in his life. Which is why, on an unseasonably warm recent morning, I drive to Morrisville to see if Mr. Kibble Breath has what it takes to make it as a sled dog.
We arrive in Oxbow Park, a small cul-de-sac of grassy meadow along the Lamoille River, where I'm greeted by Ken Haggett, owner of Peace Pups Dogsledding of Lake Elmore. Haggett is a board member of the Vermont Mushers Association and an enthusiastic supporter of pooch-powered sports. This weekend he's helping organize the Vermont leg of "Dogs Across America." It's a nationwide event to promote activities such as canicross (cross-country dog running), bikejoring (dog-assisted cycling), skijoring (cross-country skiing with dogs), in-line dog skating, and dog-scootering. Dogs Across America isn't a competition per se, though its organizers hope to drum up enough interest to hold an eventual coast-to-coast relay.
Haggett, 45, is waiting for us beside his "Peace Pup" pickup truck, a custom-built wooden kennel on wheels that he uses to tote his canines around. Tethered to the front bumper is Aiko, a 12-year-old Siberian husky with red-and-white piebald markings. Aiko is remarkably calm and quiet for a sled dog, which I attribute to his advancing years, or the unseasonably balmy weather. I imagine that, were it 30 degrees colder and snowing, Aiko would be ready to drag the truck across the parking lot.
Haggett, a professional woodworker for 28 years, explains how he got into dog sledding five years ago. After watching people skijoring with their dogs, he adopted his first Siberian husky from a local animal shelter. "Siberians sort of have an inbred pulling instinct," he explains, "so it didn't take much training at all."
Soon Haggett's wife was joining him on their human-canine winter outings, and before long the couple had a total of 12 Siberians. Unlike many dogsledders, who have switched to the faster Alaskan huskies, Haggett prefers the temperament of Siberians, especially since he's not primarily a racer. Haggett's website - www.peacepups dogsledding.com - features profiles of his sled dogs, including Exxon, Etta James, Muddy Waters and Nemo, as well as each dog's "likes" - beer drippings, salmon pieces, chewing parts off the truck - and "dislikes" - Brussels sprouts, sitting still, global warming.
Haggett has brought along a dog scooter, which we'll use to evaluate Nicky's pulling prowess. It looks like a normal child's scooter, but with beefy mountain-bike tires, hand brakes and a slip-resistant skateboard deck to stand on. If I had four or more dogs, Haggett could hook them up to a four-wheeled cart, which he uses to run his Siberians in the off-season.
Already Nicky is whining and pulling at his lead, which, according to Haggett, is a good sign. Nicky is wearing a common walking harness, but Haggett replaces it with an X-back urban pulling harness. This specially designed gear has padded straps to maximize the dog's energy and minimize chafing, especially on longer runs. Haggett, who also offers winter dogsled tours at the Stowe Mountain Resort, occasionally runs his team 30 miles or more in a single outing.
At 60 pounds, Nicky is slightly heavier and taller than Haggett's dogs, but he takes to the new harness quickly. Haggett attaches one end of the "tug line" to the stem of the scooter and the other to a loop at Nicky's tail. The tug line has a section of bungee cord in it that acts as a shock absorber, for the benefit of both the dog and the musher.
Instinctively, Nicky pulls the tug line to its outer limit, which, Haggett says, is what sled dogs should do. "He's 'lining out.' That's good," he says. "Now, be sure to keep one foot on the scooter."
If we were training two or more dogs instead of just one, Haggett would affix one end of a "snub line" to the scooter and the other to a fixed object. Otherwise, when the dogs are all harnessed up, they're liable to take off without their musher. (Incidentally, the term "musher" comes from the French command "marchons," meaning "walk" or "move.")
After a brief lesson on the standard commands used by mushers - "gee" to turn right, "haw" to turn left, and "on by" to pass a distraction on the trail, such as a hiker or another dogsled - we're ready to roll. Before I take off, I ask Haggett what I should do if Nicky runs off the trail or I fall off the scooter.
"Hang on," he advises.
I've long wondered about Nicky's ability to pull a sled, but I was reluctant to try again after our first attempt. Once, after noticing his natural inclination to pull, I hopped on my bike, leash in hand, and let him drag me around the neighborhood. Nicky loved it, but he paid a hefty price afterward in badly shredded paw pads. He hobbled around the house for nearly a week, and our call-of-the-wild days remained an unfulfilled dream.
Until now, that is. With barely a word of encouragement, Nicky takes off down the trail at a full sprint, pulling me on the scooter behind him. Though he's not accustomed to the full-body harness, which drags him sideways when he veers too far left or right, Nicky soon leans into the run. For about a minute, he's chugging his muscular legs like an Iditarod veteran, offering me visions of us sledding across snow-swept tundra.
Then he spots a squirrel darting up a tree.
Nicky hooks a sharp left turn and nearly dumps me on my face. For now, all his interest is skyward, as he scans the treetops searching for his erstwhile prey. After much tugging, encouragement and shouts of "On by, you goofball!" I coax Nicky back onto the trail. He makes a half-hearted trot back to the truck, pulling me after him, my initial dog-pride shattered by his remarkably short attention span.
But Haggett is more encouraging.
"He's doing pretty good for his first time," he says. "If you get him to where you're doing 2 to 3 miles per day, he'll be in fantastic shape."
My spirits slightly buoyed, I release Nicky from his harness, whereupon he darts into the river for a long drink. In the meantime, Haggett hooks Aiko up to the scooter, and they take off down the trail and show us how it's done. Aiko quickly assumes the recognizable bounce of a seasoned sled dog, as the two take a leisurely paced lap around the park.
Back at the truck, Haggett outlines some of the expenses of getting into dog-powered sports, which are nominal. A dog scooter, like the Diggler brand we're using, starts at about $175; a proper sled harness runs about $15 to $25. Throw in a good tug line and a set of booties - for tender feet and/or running on pavement - and you're ready to go.
For those who want formal training in dog-powered sports, Haggett offers year-round, hourlong lessons in scootering, biking and carting, as well as skijoring and dogsled tours during the winter. Living up to its name, Peace Pups donates at least 10 percent of its profits to organizations that work for world peace.
On the ride home, Nicky curls into a tight ball in the back of my Subaru, as dog-tired as I've seen him in many months. That night, his snores weigh on the couch and his paws flap in his sleep, perhaps accompanying visions of leading the pack. Either that, or he's dreaming of a fat chipmunk raiding my tomato plants.