I started my love affair with dogs in the early 1990s when I got my first couple of Australian Shepherds. I loved to watch the natural instincts of these dogs and did some sheep herding with them for fun. I also began my love of dog training at this time and took these dogs to every single training I could find such as socialization, obedience, agility, and fly ball. Each and every experience became meaningful to the trainer I would become. The biggest take away from that was that dogs are individuals and that one training method doesn't necessarily work for every single dog. AND dogs sometimes learn best when taught by another dog.
I have been a lover of dogs since I got out on my own after growing up in a US Forest Service Family and living all over the United States. I got my first sled dogs in 2000 and was fortunate enough to have a received a traditional trapline style dog, called the Hedlund Husky, in early 2000 with whom I fell completely head over heals. I loved this style of dog with his long legs and rangy build, calm demeanor, high intelligence and eager-to-please temperament and began my search for more just like Zulu.
In 2003, I read an Anchorage Daily News article about Hedlunds on the Come Back Trail. It was about how Kim Fitzgerald who has since become a dear friend, had revived this rare line of Traditional Alaskan Village dog developed by the Hedlund family in the Illiamna Region of Alaska in the 1930s. I contacted her and found myself on a plane in 2004 to Alaska to pick up who would become the foundation female of my kennel, Tuloon.
As the years went by, I flew to Alaska again and several dogs flew from Alaska to me. My breeding program had begun. I love how calm these dogs are and how highly trainable. They are intuitive and soulful and make deep connections. The are hard workers and most have leader potential. Several years ago, a group of us like-minded folks started the official Hedlund Husky Preservation Project. www.hedlundhusky.com
When I first got into dogsledding, I began applying my previous training experiences to the dogs (minus the sheep herding). I remember my first experience dog sledding, sitting in the sled in awe, completely speechless at the experience of being on a frozen lake, in the wilderness with a team of happy dogs doing what they love. I found that I could travel deeper into the wilderness silently with dogs.
In 2005, amidst my career as a Real Estate Appraiser, I decided that I wanted to spend more time doing what I wanted to do rather than what I thought I should do and gave up my appraisal business to work for a firm that would give me winters off. At that time, I realized that I could spend more time with my dogs if they helped pay for themselves and that's when they went to "work" and I started Points Unknown, LLC, an educational dog sledding adventure trip business. In 2012, I gave up my 23 year real estate appraiser career to move remotely and off-grid to continue to pursue my passion of living and working with my sled dogs, affectionately called "sled pets" in a whole new way.
Dog sledding is not a sport for me. It isn't a hobby or pastime. Dog sledding to me is a lifestyle. Most of the choices I make revolve around my dogs and my life with them. One of the things I enjoy most about this lifestyle I have chosen is sharing this passion with others. And to that end, three winters ago, I opened a Guest Suite at my homestead where folks can immerse themselves in my lifestyle with these dogs. The Guest Suite window looks right down into one of the dog kennel and play areas. Points Unknown is open year 'round for all to see, at any time.
I raise the majority of my dogs from birth. For them, life begins in the house. Each puppy in the litter is handled a least a dozen times per day, from birth, to begin their socialization. We do Early Neurological Stimulation Exercises from Day 3 - Day 16 and follow something called the Puppy Culture Protocol, modified to meet our needs.
At 8 weeks old our puppies go to puppy socialization class so that they can meet other dogs that look different than they do. In addition, they get new experiences and meet new people away from the kennel. We also put a small harness on them at that age and do some canicross training which basically means attaching a leash to that harness and letting them be puppies while taking a walk. Whenever they do what we like, we put a name to it and praise it. For instance, when they pull, we say "Good Pull!” During the first walk, it is fun to see that instinctual light bulb go off as they pull their little hearts out. They are, however, encouraged to be puppies, so walks are short and free play time is long.
At 6 -10 months old they are put in harness and in the team with the adult dogs for a very short puppy run to give them a good first experience. It is amazing to watch what I like to call that "Plug & Play" puppy. This puppy has been introduced already to a harness early on so the only thing different is that there are dogs now in front of them and behind them. We've just literally harnessed their instinct and now only need to teach team manners. They become full-fledged members of the team after all of their vital growing has happened around a year of age.
In addition to team training that begins in the fall with the ATV, puppies are taken to beginning obedience classes. Those with confidence issues seem to come out of their shells when taken to agility classes. Many of those have gone on to be my very best, confident leaders. Dogs are also routinely taken into town to meet & greets so they become more accustomed to different circumstances, people and surroundings. Training is something that occurs daily and with every interaction. Each dog has a different personality and needs training tailored to them as individuals. We love letting these dogs use their brains and try to help them meet their full potential as a result.
Our ATV training begins in October and our time on sleds ends the end of May. Our educational tours begin in the fall with our ATV training. They last from 1.5 hours to 4 days in length with us being on and off the trail throughout that time.
During the off season, we have four large fenced-in play areas, and dogs get rotated in and out of the various yards and in various playgroups on most days, all day. We provide enrichment and stimulation exercises for them such as frozen apple bobbing in our 65 gallon water tanks. We hide scents and various treats in each play area for them to discover. Since we have a rotation of various guides, interns, handlers and volunteers year 'round, we are constantly training new people how to interact with the dogs. They each bring a new experience for the dogs. We do canicross hiking with the dogs to various local natural sights or right from the property.
I have had many memorable experiences dog mushing, however, this is one of the most memorable.
I was on a sled run and heading towards the portion of the run we so affectionately call “THE ROCKS.” I stopped to wrap a long piece of rope around one runner to help slow me down before I reached the beginning of the daunting, rocky moguls. I was all set, rope around one runner, drag pad in place, heavy duty steel brake ready and waiting.
We began the decent: down the rocks we went! But wait…. There’s a problem! Suddenly the sled was on its side and I was hanging onto the brake bar, sliding down the rocks, behind the sled, on my stomach!
After much struggle, I finally righted the sled. As soon as I thought all was well, I found myself on my stomach again, skiing down the rocks and my drag pad was caught up in my heavy duty steel brake. I couldn’t even lean on the brake with my elbow to try and slow us down.
The dogs didn’t seem to hear all of the commotion or if they could, they really didn’t seem to care that they couldn’t see me and there was a strange looking object swishing along attached to the sled! All they wanted to do was run and run pretty darn fast for a bunch of freight dogs that must pretend they like to go slow because they sure weren’t at that moment!
I know that at the bottom of “THE ROCKS,” which is possibly 400 more feet, there is a “T” in the trail and I had planned to take a left. So I am yelling to Zulu, who, keep in mind, can’t see me, “Haw! Haw! Zulu, Haw!!!”
“Well”, I can imagine him thinking, “I guess she is still with us, I don’t know where but I can tell she’s in trouble.”
So we get down to the bottom of the hill and just about to the “T” and remember, I had originally decided to go left so I again, shout “HAW!” as I am cruising behind the sled on my stomach, hanging on for dear life (because the first rule of dog mushing is NEVER LOSE YOUR TEAM). Zulu takes a quick right at the “T.”
“What?!” I say to myself. “Zulu is disobeying me?!”
At that point, I had arms that were at least several inches longer than they once were from being dragged and I had large amounts of snow packed in my hood and around my head. But adding insult to injury was I had just been dissed by my ever so sweet and usually obedient leader. I knew I said “Haw” and I believe I said it at least 25 times (after a while, it became “blah, blah, blah, blah” to my beloved leader).
Well, the second I ended the dialogue with myself, the sled got caught up on a tree like is does EVERY time we take a right in this section. I thought “Perfect! I now have time to get up, untangle my brake pad and plant myself firmly on the back of the runners!” I had forgotten the anger I had seconds earlier knowing that Zulu had just disobeyed me.
Disobeyed me? He did indeed but that wonderfully intuitive leader of mine KNEW that I was in trouble and he KNEW that every time we take a right the sled gets caught up in a tree. So, that was why he disobeyed me, because the second I got myself untangled, he looked back at me as if to say, “You alright now, mom?” and took an immediate left or the original HAW I had asked of him and didn’t even skip a beat. Talk about the bond between dog and (wo)man…….
My advice to new mushers is, whatever you do, make it about the dogs first and foremost. Be open to new information from a wide variety of mushers, trainers, and various dog people knowing that you can take what you like and discard the rest. You get to decide how you will live your life with your dogs and nothing is set in stone. There are many ways to do things that can bring you the end result of a happy and healthy sled dog.