Interview With Caroline Blair-Smith & Andy Bartleet From Mornington Crescent Sled Dogs

Breathtaking Dogsled Adventures In Maine

Photo credit and courtesy of Caroline Blair-Smith of Mornington Crescent Sled Dogs

Caroline & Andy of Mornington Crescent Sled Dogs like to call their team of dogs “sled pets”, since they combine the strength of one of the eldest kinds of working dogs with the companionship of a man’s best friend. Their dogsled adventures serve as a channel to share the knowledge that they acquired through time about this unique activity, which celebrates the power of the human-canine bond.

1. How and why did you get involved in mushing? Why are you passionate about it?

I had golden retrievers as a teenager, and I noticed that they thrived on challenge. If I threw a ball up a field, they responded with happy excitement. If I heaved a training dummy into thick brush, they responded with quivering, eager, heart-and-soul drive. Using their brains and their bodies made them happy.

My first job was as an Outward Bound instructor. Groups of strangers start a woods or ocean expedition, and through setting goals, finding common ground and solving problems together, they discover their innate strengths, learn essentials of communication and hone leadership abilities. Meeting the mental and physical demands of the course increases their capacity as individuals, and the bond they form as a group, lay the groundwork for respect and compassion.

In my third year working for Outward Bound, I started teaching dogsledding courses. Watching eager huskies inspire humans to be the best people they can be, brought these passions together.

2. What has mushing taught you about leadership?

The best lead dogs and the best human leaders exhibit many of the same traits. The whole team cannot go any faster than the lead dogs feel like going, so being eager and curious to see what is around the next corner is a key trait. The lead dogs do not have other dogs to follow, so they need to be confident in themselves, and be happy to have the whole team following them. Lastly, the whole team and sled are going to go where the lead dogs go, so being responsive to direction is great, but so is having an opinion and being able to find the best route around obstacles.

There is sometimes a paradigm of a lead dog who dominates and intimidates the other dogs. I have never met a lead dog like that, as they would be too insecure to focus on the job. If a musher decides to keep a dog like that, the wisest options would be to put him in the back of the team where he does not have to worry about what is going on behind him.

Good leaders do not secure their position by making others less confident. They set the pace, show the way, and get the job done.

3. How do you choose your dogs?

A sled dog is any dog that pulls a sled. If you want to compete in sprint racing, get long-legged dogs with a light coat, so they do not build up too much heat when running fast. If you want to camp out and take lots of gear with you, get tough, burly, furry dogs who love to haul a load and who rejoice in curling up in the snow under a sparkling night sky.

I like to do all these things, i.e. racing, camping, and doing tours with guests in the sleds, so I have chosen dogs who are in the mid-ranges of size, robustness, speed and furriness.

4. What is a “good” sled dog?

Assuming the dogs are physically happy doing what you are asking, the next priority is temperament. They need to be able to trust people and other dogs, and beyond that, you should get dogs that you like and can bond with. Calm, outgoing, boisterous or reserved, they all can be excellent sled dogs, so choose dogs that you simply enjoy spending time with. The more time you spend together caring, working or learning about them, the stronger your relationship will become.

5. Can you please explain a little bit about the breeding process?

We have had a couple of litters and they are wonderful, but we prefer to adopt puppies. As with every type of dog, there are more sled dogs out there than there are good sled dog homes.

6. How important is teamwork in mushing?

The musher has three overlapping roles. As a coach, I select the speed and distance of each run to optimize their fitness, and I provide balanced nutrients and water to refuel them. As a teacher, I select their position in the team for what they are ready to learn next, I provide a lot of encouragement, and a combination of repetition and novelty to keep them confident and interested. As a parent figure, I care for the needs of each dog, providing the right level of care and stimulation for each stage of life.

Running and pulling are social activities from the dogs’ point of view, which they engage in primarily because that is what the other dogs are doing. It is fun and it feels good, but those items are secondary; teamwork is the focus. The best illustrations of this happen when the hill is steep, the snow is deep or the sled is heavy. There is a moment when I can feel the team falter, and I know they are wondering if it is too much. During those times, a soft, encouraging word to the team causes a couple of them to dig in a little harder. Other dogs feel the pace pick up and they lean into their harnesses a little more. Soon everyone is pulling together and we are at the top, happy and proud.

7. How do you house and what do you feed your dogs? How do you ensure their overall safety and wellbeing?

Our kennel consists of ten fenced sections of woodland. They are irregular in size, but about 2,500 square feet each. The dogs live in groups of two to five, and each space has roofed platforms and box-shaped houses that are filled with cedar shavings in summer, and dry straw in winter. The forest is mixed softwoods and deciduous trees, so the kennel is shady when it is hot, and sunny when it is cold. Each space has a variety of terrain, such as places to run, dig, play or lounge as the mood strikes them.

The living groups are little micro communities of dogs who really enjoy each others’ company. Sometimes they are similar in age, and sometimes the friendships span the generations.

The dogs eat high-protein and high-fat kibble year-round, and we add additional meat and fat during the winter to maintain excellent body and coat condition. Water is also a key ingredient, plain in the summer and flavoured with meat in the winter to encourage them to drink a lot when it is offered so it does not freeze.

8. What do you do with your dogs when they retire?

The old dogs are one of the best assets of a healthy community. As dogs age, they need shorter, easier runs, which is exactly what growing puppies need. The veterans teach the youngsters their manners as well as their work. When a dog ages out of even the puppy runs, they simply retire to a more leisurely pace.

I have placed retirees in pet homes when I am convinced that it will be beneficial to both the dog and the humans. My parents are a happy example of this. They have two retired sled dogs, aged 15 and 13.

9. Are mushers born or made? Can mushing be learned and improved upon? 

That is a bit like asking if a field is wide or long. If it is any sort of a field at all, it’s a bit of both. Everyone can learn the technical aspects of hooking up a team and driving the sled, and it is not terribly hard to pick up the skills of taking care of yourself and the dogs in the cold. People can learn to behave kindly, to understand each dog’s preferred method of learning, to build rapport and provide a supportive structure for the dogs, and to find a balance between adventure and caution.

If there is an innate skill that cannot be learned if it is not there, at least in some nascent form, perhaps it is the core understanding that this is not about you. Sled dogs cannot be made to pull or to share your goals and will not become what you want, just because you have opposable thumbs and can find the security code on the credit card.

This sport has powerful animals, remote places, and extreme weather. Since so many variables affect it, regardless of how long you practice it for, you will get handed new challenges regularly throughout your whole career. So, you don’t “master” it; you just get comfortable with that fact.

You will need, or will be handed, a certain amount of humility. Having a good sense of humor is actually very helpful.

10. What tips and tricks would you give to someone interested in getting started in mushing?

Do not take tips and tricks from a musher that you have not met. Everyone develops systems to manage the variables of dogsledding in ways that are specific to their dogs, the environment and the type of dogsledding that they do. In order to understand their choices in this elaborate context, find someone whose approach you like, and work with and learn from them.

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