Snow Buddy Dog Sled Tours offers an unforgettable experience to visitors, as they get to ride and even drive a sled through beautiful national park trails in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Sarah and Dan run their family business to deliver the perfect adventure, where dogs are treated as a member of the family and each of their personalities can shine through.
1. How and why did you get involved in mushing? Why are you passionate about it?
I grew up with horses and come from a ranching background. When I was young my mother competed in a discipline called Competitive Trail and we rode Arabians. I remember my whole young life being dedicated to animal care and conditioning, especially our hot-blooded horses. I say conditioning because you cannot ride an Arab tired, but you can ride them into a high level of fitness. The same could be said of sled dogs.
While my background was not in mushing as a young person and truthfully the sport was not even on my radar when I discovered it, the more I learned about the sport, the more it felt like a homecoming. I worked in the guiding industry for a number of years in many different seasons and locations, and was again looking for seasonal work one fall when I was 25. I read a one line ad in the local paper searching for dog sled guides and I called. That was almost 14 years ago. My husband Dan and I have had our own kennel of sled dogs for 7 years now. We run an backcountry adventure business that is centered on honoring our dogs, the tradition and the sport of mushing while sharing our passion in an authentic environment with small groups, excited to learn something new.
2. What has mushing taught you about leadership?
I would say the day in day out care of so many different personalities, both human and dog, and their coming and going from our program is what has honed my leadership skills. I have worked for and with many people who keep sled dogs over the years and not every musher participates in the daily management of each individual animal and its said needs. Some people hire out a lot of seasonal, sometimes part-time, help to take care of what the dogs’ owner(s) may see as the mundane details. In my humble opinion, there are no mundane details in being the head of kennel of sled dogs. To truly be a musher, I believe I have to do my best to understand the dogs individually without being anthropomorphic; I need to know very well where each dog stands with me as pack leader as well as where each dog stands with every dog here at the kennel. Each dog’s individual exercise and nutritional needs throughout different seasons and life stages will vary greatly, and I keep tabs on all that too. I also need to be able to articulate to new staff the importance of myriad management techniques to effectively lead people who are leading dogs.
3. How do you choose your dogs? What is a “good” sled dog?
Simply put, our kennel is the bottom rung. We built the kennel from other mushers’ misfits – sled dogs who needed a place to land for one reason or another. Some were mixed breed puppies, others were older dogs who could not race anymore but needed to keep running, and some others were dogs who had behavioral issues and needed an environment with more one-on-one training and discipline. We keep around 35 dogs year round and find that sometimes a dog who did not fit in a kennel of 100 dogs, might fit in better in an environment with fewer animals. Some dogs are very secure in themselves, while some are very sensitive. We have rarely bought dogs, and those instances when we have, it has been to help provide more depth to a band of misfits in need of a little more power, or brains, or whatever we might find we are lacking a bit of, coming into a winter season.
4. Can you please explain a little bit about the breeding process?
We do not breed dogs. If we did, however, we would breed well built and accomplished lead dogs to other lead dogs of the same ilk. Dogs who are natural leaders have an innate combination of intelligence, confidence and motivation. Sled dogs are bred for performance, not for appearance. That is a big difference between our sport and the pet world. It does not hurt if they are cute (all dogs are cute though, let’s be honest), but they need to be talented to lead. If you breed the exceptional dogs (trainable, intelligent, athletically gifted, etc.), their performance-bred-bloodlines get better and better every year.
5. How important is teamwork in mushing?
Teamwork is everything, both among the dogs and the musher and the dogs themselves. It is really rewarding to take a group of dogs that might not be a cohesive unit when you start out, and watch them become a team with consistent training and leadership.
6. How do you house and what do you feed your dogs? How do you ensure their overall safety and wellbeing?
Our dogs live in pairs in individual and insulated wood houses and each pair occupies a 10’x10′ chain-link kennel. The kennels each open up to 3 different larger play yards and the play yards open up to our fenced 10 acre property. Dogs play in social groups in the yards and take walks on the property during our off season as well as on days off during our winter tour season. They are enclosed in their pens at night year round and, on cold nights, they sleep in the house, dog barn or garage. In terms of food, we feed them Inukshuk 30/25 and beef.
Dogs are pack animals, and while they have a very short list of needs, company is near the top. All our dogs are very social and they generally all get along well (with some exceptions, which we manage carefully). We spay and neuter every dog that comes through our kennel both for their health and to avoid any competition that could erupt into fighting when a female would go into heat. This measure allows us a great deal of latitude in arranging the kennel and play time. When dogs can no longer work in harness for whatever reason, we have great success adopting them out as house pets because they are so well adapted to different environments.
7. What do you do with your dogs when they retire?
We keep some and retire the rest to the right home if the right person is interested in adopting an older dog. We do not breed dogs and we do not adopt out sled dog puppies. Dogs that were really bred for this sport rarely make good pets for people, unless they are marathon or ultra runners. These dogs need between 2 to 4 hours of exercise a day on the low end to be emotionally and physically healthy and they rarely make good single pets. They are incredibly destructive and prone to escape when left to their own devices or confined for too long as young dogs.
8. Are mushers born or made? Can mushing be learned and improved upon?
Mushers can be both born and made, and yes, like anything, mushing can be improved upon. We see constant innovations in both equipment and dog care. There are people who would of course disagree with me, but many of those folks are finding themselves in hot water as the sport is thrust further and further into the lime light. I would argue that our sport is absolutely not for everyone. We all have different gifts. As potential or seasoned dog drivers, some people are incapable of the kind of empathy and self-awareness it takes to really be good at running dogs and caring for them year round. It takes a stalwart dedication to never cutting corners.
9. What tips and tricks would you give to someone interested in getting started in mushing?
Study. Study organizations, different disciplines, read books (lots), learn where the sport has been and where it is going. Work for quite a few different people in varied aspects of mushing before you ever even own one sled dog of your own. Keep it simple to start. If you find that, over time, your love and enthusiasm for mushing only grows, then start with a small team (2-4 dogs).
Too many people are a flash in the pan with this. They get romantic about running dogs, they are on fire for it for 6 months, maybe a year, and they either burn out or life and other obligations outside of managing dogs catches up to them.
It is really easy to get into dogs, but it is hard to get out in a way where the dogs do not suffer the consequences of a person’s temporary enthusiasm for something that takes a lifetime commitment.
In regard to a more traditional kennel set up, even keeping a team of dogs chained to barrels and feeding lower grade food in the off season is expensive. Taking care of them in an environment with more stimulation and better overall healthcare nutritionally and beyond throughout the year is REALLY expensive. This game is about a lot of heart and breaking even.
Snow Buddy Dog Sled Tours
Oak Creek, CO
1 (970) 291-1114