Snow not required for Breckenridge sled dogs
August 9, 2009
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – Dog-sledding is something typically associated with winter, cold and, most importantly, snow. You may be surprised to learn there’s a working sled-dog kennel just outside of Breckenridge where the dogs are running all year long.
And they seem to be loving it.
“If they think they’re going to run, they just light up,” said Jared O’Neill, head trainer at Snow Caps Sled Dogs. “If only people were that enthusiastic about their work.”
O’Neill said this is the first summer where the kennel has tried running a summer tour program (the group operates as Good Times Adventures in the winter months). O’Neill said the summer program came about as a way to keep the dogs in shape during their off months, though the summer tours are considerably shorter than the winter ones.
Sarah Spalla, the kennel’s yard manager, said the tours are shorter to make sure the dogs aren’t overworked. There also are frequent breaks on the tour for the dogs to take a drink and make sure they don’t get overheated in the summer sun.
While taking care of the dogs is a full-time job (the kennel goes through about 100 pounds of food and 1,000 gallons of water a week), both Spalla and O’Neill said all the work is worth it, and the dogs get positively giddy at the first sight of a leash or harness.
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“They love getting out and running,” O’Neill said. “On the downhills, they’ll outrun the motor.”
Indeed, when O’Neill and Spalla break out the harnesses, the yard erupts into an ear-splitting cacophony of excited barks and howls, each dog begging to get the chance to do what they do best. The dogs pull a modified golf cart during the summer, with O’Neill using the motor to give the dogs an assist. A dozen dogs are hooked to a cable attached to the cart, and they’re eager to take off as soon as they can.
“Sputnik, Marley, hike up!” O’Neill calls out, and the two lead dogs immediately sprint along the trail, pulling the other dogs behind them. “Hike” is the dogs’ command to go. To steer the cart, O’Neill calls out “haw” to tell the dogs to go left and “gee” to tell them to go right.
It’s the lead dogs’ job to guide the rest of the pack and make sure the cart goes where it’s supposed to. O’Neill said lead dogs are selected at an early age if they show intelligence and personality. Those chosen to be lead dogs get extra time and attention to fashion them into the canine leaders they’re meant to be.
“It’s imperative they know those voice commands,” O’Neill said.
Spalla said they try to let the dogs sort out their dominance amongst themselves and that doing so has proven beneficial.
“They have a very strong pack mentality,” she said. “We let them set up their own hierarchy, and it’s led to a more peaceful dog yard.”
Spalla said there are about 140 dogs currently living at the sprawling kennel. Guests get an extensive tour of the yard as part of the tour, including a tour of the puppy pen. The pen is currently full of 20 rambunctious and absolutely adorable husky puppies. Spalla said the puppy pen has proven to be extremely popular among guests, to no one’s surprise.
“Who doesn’t love puppies?” she said.
The puppies will replace the older members of the group looking to retire.
“We’re always looking for homes for our retiring dogs,” Spalla said.
Though Snow Caps only ran its first tour two weeks ago, things are looking good for both the dogs and their owners. O’Neill and Spalla both said they are hopeful about their new venture and have had nothing but positive responses from their initial customers.
“We’ve had several people tell us it’s the funnest (sic) thing they’ve done while they’ve been in Breck,” O’Neill said.