Some people think that sled dogs are forced to run. It’s not true. As I’ve been told already a dozen times this week by mushers: You can’t push a rope.
Sled dogs are Alaskan Huskies. This means that they are an amalgam of breeds; sled dogs are different sizes, different colors, different looks. What they have in common is a genetic desire to run along with physical characteristics that support the ability to run long distances in cold.
There’s a science and an art to raising sled dogs and putting together a winning team but the part that impresses me the most is the relationship dimension between the musher and their dogs. There is an enormous amount of physical affection that goes on, a lot of physical care and handling, laying on of hands at every stop, praising and long talks.
Yes, long talks. Kristin Pace told a story of how one of her dogs seemed tired when she was running the 1,000 mile long Yukon Quest. So as not to slow down the other dogs, she put the tired one in her carry bag on her sled but he howled and barked, kept jumping up, wanting to be back on the team. The rest of the dogs kept looking over their shoulder at their barking comrade wondering as she said, ‘what the heck was going on.’ So she stopped her sled, opened the bag and started talking to the dog, explaining the plan and that he had to relax so they could go on. She said it took an hour.
She talked to her dog for an hour and when he was settled, she mushed on. Remember that she was in a race at the time.
Mitch Seavey told us that he thought his dogs could read his mind and recounted a race when he had laryngitis and had resorted to whistling to direct his dog team. Letting his mind wander, he thought about a completely unrelated topic that ended with the thought, ‘well, that just has to STOP.’ And his team stopped.
What’s missing from all of this sled dog racing business is any hint of force or coercion. What I see and hear is this: if the musher doesn’t love the dogs, the dogs won’t run and if the dogs don’t love the musher, the dogs won’t run.
It seems foreign to how we usually thing about man and beast, I guess, but it should really come as no surprise that both are motivated by love.