Issue is not a real tough call |

Issue is not a real tough call

I will admit that two months ago I knew very little about sled dog racing. Sure, I was aware of the Iditarod, but even growing up in the cold weather land that is Wisconsin, I had never met a musher and could tell you very little about mushing.

I am still far from considering myself an expert on the sport, but after numerous conversations with Barbara Schaefer and Cameron Byers (two local mushers featured in the “Running with the Pack” series this week), hours of research on the Internet and visiting the home of a musher – I feel that I do have enough sled dog knowledge to weigh in on the debate surrounding the sport.

A couple of months ago, I probably would have lent a sympathetic ear to the anti-sled dog racing groups and at least wondered if their arguments had any truth to them.

Were the dogs enjoying themselves?

How do mushers really treat their dogs?

Now, after witnessing the life of a musher and the work that goes into raising and racing sled dogs and seeing the loving relationship between the dogs and their mushers, I find such anti-sled dog arguments baseless and weak.

In researching the criticism the sport of sled dog racing faces, I often stopped to wonder if those critics yelping the loudest had ever actually visited a kennel?

Had they seen the hours of chores that mushers do every single day to keep the dogs happy and healthy?

Had they watched as every single dog followed its musher around the yard as those chores were being completed?

Most importantly, had the critics witnessed the pure love that flows between a musher and a dog, as the musher bends down to kiss a dog considered a best friend?

I am willing to bet the majority of the critics would answer no to each of these questions.

Nearly nine years ago, Schaefer and her husband John decided they wanted a dog for a pet, one that was active and purebred.

After deciding on a Siberian Husky, the couple researched and visited breeders for a year until finding their choice. The dog they purchased, Kayla, soon accompanied the couple hiking, rafting and cross country skiing, with Kayla beginning obedience competitions.

Soon, Barb and John decided to get a second dog, primarily as a playmate for Kayla and also so both could have a dog when skiing. A third dog was added when they realized they could take the dogs sledding if they had three. The next thing they knew, they had more than enough dogs to enter two teams in the six-dog sled races.

Schaefer’s dogs are some of the most-loved dogs I have ever seen in my life. They take turns getting to stay the night in the house, the lucky ones even get to share the bed with John and Barbara and their bellies never grow hungry.

“I just love the relationship with my dogs, caring for them and being out in the woods with my best friends,” Schaefer said in explaining why she is drawn to sled dog racing. “It’s like folks who like to take walks on the beach with their dogs – I just do it with more dogs and in the woods.”

Byer’s mom, Sue Fitch MacNeil, is also fairly new to the sport, but after helping her son at races and visiting Schaefer’s home, she does not hesitate to speak up about the virtues of the sport. She describes how the most heart-breaking part of a race is watching the dogs that don’t get to race and must stay behind. She describes how the dogs yelp and cry and wander around in agony because they too do not get to run with the sled.

I can only imagine how horrible I would feel if I woke up tomorrow and someone told me I could never play soccer or basketball again or workout at the gym. I would be crushed because exercising is one of my passions, something that makes me feel happy and content.

It is the same way with these dogs. Taking racing away from them would be like taking away their hearts. The worst thing that could happen to a sled dog would be if it was not allowed run or play in the snow or race.

The next time you hear or read about someone tearing apart the world of sled dog racing, take a few minutes to consider the source.

Then ask yourself if they have really witnessed what the sport is truly about, because most people who criticize the sport don’t understand.

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