Mush puppies

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Dog sledding in the Pacific Northwest

While “dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh” may be the seasonal tagline, not many of us own horses that we can hitch up for a leisurely jaunt to the grocery store.

COURTESY OF Andrew Borges

The Mt. hood diet: The fall and winter months offer plenty of opportunities for man and beast to test their mettle in the great outdoors.

Fortunately, what we do have are dogs—dogs that love to run, love to be outdoors and love to learn new skills. And the Cascade Sled Dog Club aims to harness that energy.

The CSDC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the sport of dog sledding and to promoting the health, welfare and safety of sled dogs in the Pacific Northwest. If the snow is right, they hold two annual races at the Frog Lake Sno-Park on Mt. Hood.

Along with racing, the group offers clinics where dog owners learn the basics of becoming a musher—the human member and director of a sled-dog team. According to Dan Silvertree, a CSDC board member, sled training can improve the bond between owner and dog.

“It offers a way to deepen your relationship with your dogs in ways that would be difficult to match with just walks and trips to the dog park,” he said.

But for those of you who aren’t snow-savvy, it may come as a surprise that dog sledding isn’t just for the frigid Alaskan outback. It isn’t even solely a winter sport; to train dogs to pull a sled, most teams start learning on a dirt trail. The CSDC holds new-member clinics in a park in Estacada during the balmy weather of fall.

Dogs learn to pull a wheeled cart or a bicycle over solid ground before they ever see the snow. Called “scootering” and “bikejoring,” these activities help owners learn to mush while training their dogs to pull. The dogs are harnessed as if to a sled, but instead pull their owner on a kick scooter or an off-road bike. Scootering and bikejoring have become almost as popular as traditional sled-dog racing and have their own category in races held across the country.

And while we typically think of Siberian huskies as the only breed of sled dog, Silvertree suggests breeds like pit bulls and labs make great sled pullers, and that learning to pull will satisfy a breed’s instinctual need to run or to work.

“Most pet dogs don’t get nearly enough exercise, and lack of exercise can manifest itself in unwanted behaviors like chewing, barking, etc.,” Silvertree said. “Even modest amounts of recreational-level training create plenty of both physical and mental stimulation for the dogs.”

The training involves teaching the dogs to respond to verbal cues while ignoring distractions like squirrels, people and other dogs. They have to become comfortable in the harness and get used to staying ahead of the sled without veering off course. All the training techniques use positive reinforcement in order to strengthen trust between owner and dog during the process.

Once the snow falls, people are welcome to continue training with the CSDC at the Frog Lake Sno-Park, which is where the fun really begins.

“Most dogs cannot hide their excitement and enthusiasm and are barking and leaping in the air in anticipation,” Silvertree said. “But once you release the snub line, which holds the sled to a hopefully immovable object, a silence falls over the team as they hit their stride and head down the trail. The only sounds are the patter of their paws in the snow and the hiss of the runners. Some call it the ‘loudest
quietest sport.’”

For more information on sled-dog training in the Pacific Northwest, or how to become involved, visit the Cascade Sled Dog Club at cascadesleddogclub.com.

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