Dog days of winter

Dog days of winter

The first thing you should know about dogsled racing, or mushing, is that it is not just a sport, but an all-encompassing, year-round commitment.

“They’re not a pair of skis,” said Sara Vanderwood of Oxford, who has been racing dogs for 34 of her 39 years. “You can’t just put them up and away for next year.”

For those thinking of trying something different for a winter sport, such as dogsledding, Vanderwood recommends they find a kennel to work with so they can get a firsthand idea of just how big a commitment it is. People who are successful at the sport, she explains, usually raise and train their own teams of dogs, which helps the musher develop the strong relationship with the dogs that she believes is a necessary part of the sport.

But often people may realize they can’t make the kind of commitment the sport requires not just with time but also financially. Vanderwood said she spends $500 a month just on dog food for the 15 members of her family’s kennel. They also travel thousands of miles every winter with dogs and equipment for training and racing, an endeavor she compared to a “traveling circus.”

“There are always kennels that are looking for help,” said Vanderwood. “If you’re not willing to pick up after the dogs, then you don’t get the glory of the other stuff.”

Vanderwood, an avid racer, mother, wife, and the newly promoted chief of staff for the Maine Senate Republicans, needs no survival guide for making it through winter. This is the time of year when she is busy traveling to competitions in northern New England, Ontario and Quebec. She and her family, including husband Marc and 7-year-old son Grey, train and race their own teams of dogs from their home kennel in Oxford, making the sport a year-round commitment for the whole family.

She was a couple years younger than her son when her own commitment to the sport began. At age 5 she got her first sled dog, a Siberian husky, after she and her family had traveled from their home in Portland, Oregon, to her mother’s home state of Maine to watch a race.

From then on she was hooked – and so was the rest of her family. She completed her first race before her 6th birthday, and by that time her parents had a kennel of 14 dogs. They continued to raise and train dogs when the family moved back to Maine. Vanderwood said throughout her childhood her parents owned between 15 and 60 dogs.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t take a lot of vacations,” she said.

She sold her own team of dogs when she left home for college in Alaska, where she had earned a cross-country skiing scholarship. But it didn’t take long for her to re-enter the sport. In Alaska, she was introduced to the Nordic-style of racing called skijoring, which pairs a cross-country skier with a sled dog. Her husband had taken up the sport and asked her to fill in for him on a race that he couldn’t make because of a previously made commitment to work.

Today, Vanderwood and her family compete in both the Nordic – which includes skijoring and pulka, a race style that is similar to skijoring except the dog pulls a small, weighted sled – and Gnome styles of dogsled racing. The Gnome form of racing is the traditional sled pulled by dogs, which is made up of divisions that are classified by the number of dogs in a team. Vanderwood’s son races with one dog, but adults can run teams that include anywhere from four to an unlimited number of dogs, which she said usually does not exceed 18 in the Northeast, but can be as many as 26 dogs in Alaska. Typically, she said, you race about a mile for each dog on your team.

“You can run as many dogs that you feel you can control,” said Vanderwood.

A good racer, said Vanderwood, needs to be athletic with good balance and flexibility. Throughout a race, competitors stand on runners with hands on the driving bow, shifting their weight and sometimes pedaling or kicking to help move the sleigh on rough terrain or steep hills. That has to be done in a rhythmic motion so it’s not jarring to the dogs, which are controlled only through voice command.

Dogsled racing also requires mental focus. Vanderwood said a good racer also needs to have a strong rapport with the dogs and keep his or her cool throughout the competition.

“Dogs are very intuitive,” said Vanderwood. “They can pick up on stress level. I know people who may hide it but the dogs pick up on that and may not perform as well.”

Though she said men and women were equally good at the sport because each brings their own strengths to the table, Vanderwood pointed out that women have some traits that help them succeed by being a little more nurturing and a little more patient. Building up trust and understanding of the dogs is a critical part of the sport, she said.

“It’s working with a group of diverse personalities and getting them all to the same place so that they can run together in a team,” said Vanderwood. “Every single one of the dogs has a distinct personality.”

And that challenge of working with those individual personalities is what makes the sport so rewarding, she explained. All but two of her own Alaskan huskies – a crossbreed specially bred to have characteristics to make them successful sled dogs – were born in her kennel.

“It’s a special connection,” Vanderwood said. “They have to absolutely trust you and know that you’re not going to put them in a situation that’s harmful to them.”

Though racing, training and taking care of the dogs may seem like a full-time job, Vanderwood actually does have a career outside of the kennel. She was recently promoted from legislative aide to be chief of staff for the Maine State Republican Senate office. Vanderwood said it is too early to tell how she will balance all of her commitments, but said she would likely have to give up racing in March, since that is budget time in the Senate.

Her own policy work includes efforts to combat laws that restrict activities for dog owners, which she said target dogsled racing, dog shows, and in extreme cases even companion animals. Though she agrees with the laws’ efforts to protect animals, sometimes the proposed legislation catches law-abiding dog owners in the crossfire. For example, proposals to restrict the number of dogs a person can own, she said, don’t account for the fact that someone can own just one dog and mistreat it.

“In general, the number of animals you have is not indicative on how well you care for them,” said Vanderwood. “We just need better enforcement and we need better education.”

In her efforts to show that dogsled racing is not a form of cruelty to animals, she will sometimes invite people who oppose it to view races. Although some do not change their minds, they do have a better understanding of the sport and the animals.

“They see the joy and enthusiasm in the dogs,” said Vanderwood. “It’s what they’ve been bred to do; it’s what they’ve been trained to do.”

One of her dogs, Wyatt, is standoffish and shy, but once he’s in the harness and in his place in the line, there is a complete transformation and anybody can pat him.

“If I thought my dogs didn’t enjoy doing what they’re doing, it’s not something I would be doing,” said Vanderwood.

Sara Vanderwood in a skijoring – a Nordic style of dogsled racing – competition in Germany. Vanderwood has been a dogsled racer for 34 of her 39 years.Sara Vanderwood of Oxford competes in a previous Mushers Bowl. “It’s a special connection,” she says of the sport and her dogs.

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