Breeding, Training and Mushing

words VALERIE PARENT

Puppies from a 2015 litter.
Jesse, Marshall, Doc and Billy
in the Augusta race.
Winter 2019 at one of our club’s races in Bradford with a four-dog team—Rocky, Lucy, Bella and Ollie.
The very first team I trained: Jesse, Marshall, Doc and Billy.

I love animals and nature. Growing up in Bradford, Maine, I had horses but our family only had one to three dogs at any given time. Horses and dogs have always provided me with a grounding and peace that I can’t obtain from anything else.

The pleasure of working with animals, dogs and horses particularly, provides such a feeling of accomplishment. Finding ways to communicate effectively with dogs requires nearly all of a person’s senses—touch, smell, awareness of canine body language and being in touch with the sounds dogs make and what they mean.

As an adult, now 51, I have always owned multiple dogs, but 10 years ago I started on a mission of learning how to mush dogs. I became friends with an older gentleman who taught me the basics, and I was immediately in love with the activity. I also got remarried during this time to a wonderful man, Ed, who is my accomplice in all dog activities when he is not being the drummer for his band, Midnight Rose. Ed is a mechanic and general handyman who manages to keep all equipment, vehicles and general maintenance tasks current.

 I acquired my first four Siberian Huskies from a local recreational kennel that needed to place a few dogs. With this starting crew, I had a litter of puppies the following year and increased to eight sled dogs. Siberian Huskies are not for the faint of heart. They are beautiful, athletic tornadoes that shower “their people” with great gobs of fluff nearly continuously. They have a great love to be partners in crime with their people, not simply pets. They have a mind of their own and will use it. You do not want to let a Siberian get bored—bad things happen: remotes disappear, furniture gets remodeled, socks and underwear become the best dog toys ever, shoelaces suddenly get shorter. These dogs get me out of bed every day and get me outside.

I currently own 40-plus Siberians, two pit bulls, a beagle, a Border Collie, and most recently a German Shorthaired Pointer. We have evolved into a large sled dog kennel, called Coppertop Kennel. I have trained all of my dogs myself and we do participate in local and state mushing activities. We own 180 acres in Bradford and have a six-mile dog loop trail that we use whenever weather is accommodating. We welcome other mushers to use the trail that we keep maintained.

My husband and I have met amazing people as we educate others around the use and training of sled dogs. We visit an elementary school in Canaan annually during the Iditarod race and let the kids meet the dogs and see all the equipment. We also hold several sled dog races on our property each winter for The Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club, which brings fellow mushers from as far south as Maryland. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined owning a large Siberian dog sledding kennel.

On Mushing

When I first started mushing, I took each of my sons out with my friend’s team of six dogs. The trail was twisty and turning through the woods. When the dogs first take off, they are fast. My oldest son was probably 12 (this boy had no fear of anything) and said to me during his first ride as we were racing through the woods, “Mom, isn’t this something you should wear a helmet for?” I laughed so hard and now do use a ski helmet.

One of the first things you learn is: Never let go of your sled. You realize the importance of this after learning what a snub line is. The snub line is a strong rope that secures your dogsled to an immovable object (tree or truck) before you hook up your dogs. These dogs know when they are going for a run. All you need to do is pick up a harness or move the transport vehicle and things get crazy. The noise escalates to a point where you cannot hear the person next to you talking.

Then you proceed to wrangle six to eight dogs, harness them and hook them to the gangline, which is no small feat. When all dogs are hooked and you check yourself for necessities like hat and gloves, you pull the snub line release and off you go, racing down the trail. The dogs become silent, so all you hear is the swish of the sled and their paws moving over the snow.

I always tell people if you can stay with the sled for the first mile, you will be fine. The dogs are freshest and most energetic during the first few miles of a run. The sleds are equipped with brakes and a snow hook to aid in stopping a team, however, they don’t want to stop for anything! If you tip over or fall off, the dogs do not stop and wait for you. If anything, they notice the lighter weight and go faster. I think I have even seen some look back and laugh to see you lying on your back.

For those people who thinking riding a dogsled is easy, think again. When training the dogs, you spend a lot of time running yourself and you usually assist the dogs by running up hill behind the sled. Despite the physical work, there is nothing like the feeling when you hook up six or more dogs and the run goes without incident—no tangled lines, turns taken when you command, all dogs working together and you don’t fall. The love I feel for the dogs at that time is incredible and so satisfying.

FAVORITE ...
Maine view? Jasper Beach, Machiasport.
Drink? Water.
Maine restaurant? Angler's in Searsport.
Places you've traveled to as an adult? Paris, Niagara Falls, Quebec City,  Las Vegas, Atlanta, Florida (multiple areas), Texas (multiple areas).
Shoes? Dansko.
Way to relax? Hanging outside with my dogs.

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