Mushing in northeast Indiana

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The Heartland Mushers Association presented dogsled demos at Christmas on the Farm at Salomon Farm Park Dec. 1. CONTRIBUTED

FORT WAYNE — If you’re a dog owner, you’re just one piece of equipment away from an exciting new hobby. Though many wouldn’t expect it — especially with the minimal amount of snow northeast Indiana has received in recent years — mushing, the practice of traveling via dogsled, is not all that uncommon even in Fort Wayne.

“Mainly what it’s all about is just getting out to do something with your dog,” Belva Sutton Dreer, a board member of the Heartland Mushers Association, said. “Not a lot of people know that it’s here, but it is. It’s been around forever. Twenty years ago, we had a sled dog club down in Huntington. We had 10 miles of trails that we took care of and had races that tied in with the DNR down there. We’ve talked about putting on a mini race here. There’s a lot of work involved, but we’ll see what happens.”

Sutton Dreer and other Heartland members worldwide have made it their duty to educate the public on the benefits of mushing, and during a demonstration at Salomon Farm Park’s Christmas on the Farm event Dec. 1, locals had the opportunity to see what the hobby is all about.

“In a lot of cases, it’s addicting,” Sutton Dreer said. “One person will start out with one dog and end up with 18.”

Heartland Mushers Association board member Belva Sutton Dreer poses with her Alaskan malmute Nams, a semi-retired race dog, at Salomon Farm Park. LOUIS WYATT

Sutton Dreer personally owns seven dogs, six of which are Alaskan Malamutes that own a slew of competition accolades.

Her dog Nams — named after service members in the U.S. Navy, Army and Marine Corps — is semi-retired from racing, having collected a rally title; a FAST Cat title, which he earned by completing a 100-yard dash at an average of 22 miles per hour; and several other honors. He is currently training to be a therapy dog. Two of Sutton Dreer’s dogs are certified hospice dogs, and many of them are American Kennel Club champions.

With more than 30 years of experience, Sutton Dreer has seen the sport evolve, but it all started with a simple dream.

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere, Michigan, and read ‘The Call of the Wild’ and said ‘I want a Siberian sled dog team,’” she said. “That was just a kid’s dream.”

Since then, Sutton Dreer has spent much of her time sharing her passion with dog lovers throughout the state. She has performed demonstrations in downtown Fort Wayne and, for the past three years, in Syracuse. Last year was the first time she brought her dogs to Christmas on the Farm, and in September, she hosted a demo at Salomon, drawing a crowd that included 20 dogs and their owners.

“The demos are all about education,” she said. “(The dogs) like it and love getting petted. People can visit and ask questions and see what the dogs can do.”

This weekend, Sutton Dreer showcased six of her dogs, all of which she can run at the same time. While it’s nowhere near the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, an annual event in Alaska in which mushers race teams of 16 dogs each, it was certainly a sight to behold in northeast Indiana.

“The dogsled demos were a great addition to Christmas on the Farm last year,” Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Outdoor Recreation Supervisor Eden Lamb said in an email. “We are happy to have the Heartland Mushers Association back this year.”

From snow to dry land

Since weather can be fickle in the Midwest, Sutton Dreer said mushing has evolved from dogsleds to “dry-land racing.” Of the 20 or so hobbyists that run in her personal circle, Sutton Dreer said many opt for the dry-land method when the snow isn’t falling.

“There’s bikes, scooters, specially made rigs that weigh 25 pounds, and there are dogs that can run 35 miles per hour for six or seven miles,” she said. “The cheapest way to do it is get a harness, get a gangline and ride a bike. They also have calls for people to hook a dog to their belt and run with them. If you’re a cross country runner, it’s great, and there are people that hook them up to cross country skis too.”

Of course, for professional mushers, the traditional sled is the cream of the crop.

“The dogs enjoy it,” Sutton Dreer said. “It’s really cool when you get out in the middle of the woods and it’s nice and quiet.”

Sutton Dreer said the most dogs she has run at the same time was 12 — a reminder of why Malamutes are referred to as the “semis of the dogsled world.”

“These guys have a lot of power to them,” she said.

The sport isn’t exclusive to northern breeds, although some will take to mushing instinctively.

“Once they get the idea of what you expect them to do, your northern breeds — malumutes, Siberians, samoyeds — it’s all instinctive,” Sutton Dreer said. “Some people say they’ve been doing it for 10,000 years, some of them say 12,000 years, some of them say 5,000-8,000 years. They don’t really know, but that’s what they were bred for. It’s mainly your working dogs — hounds, labs, any dog that was bred specifically to work. If they’re not at home on a couch or in a house or in a crate, they get out and run. Usually it just takes a harness, a gangline, a bicycle and a trail.”

There is some training involved, namely teaching the dogs commands for turning left (haw) and right (gee), but being successful requires understanding from the owner more than anything.

“If you’ve got more than one (dog), you have to learn the way of the dog,” Sutton Dreer said. “A lot of people don’t know that dogs are right or left paw dominant, and there’s some dogs that want to work on the left side of the gangline versus the right side of the gangline and they won’t work if they’re not in their right position. A lot of people say they need to work either or, but why fight it? That’s my opinion.”

Controversy

Like many activities involving working animals, mushing hasn’t been without its opposition. To this day, many groups see it as a cruel practice. To the Heartland Mushers Association, the sport isn’t harmful to the animals as long as they aren’t being forced.

“There’s a lot of people who are dead-set against it,” Sutton Dreer said. “We try to explain to people that it’s not cruel. If the dogs are physically unable to do it, they won’t do it. You can’t make them do it unless it’s something that they want to do. It’s just like the billboard saying to keep your dog inside when it’s cold. There’s some dogs that don’t want to be inside — it’s worse on them to be inside when it’s cold than to be outside. You just have to take the proper care to do that.”

Knowing when “enough is enough” is crucial to making sure the dogs aren’t being overworked, Sutton Dreer said, considering some dogs won’t stop running unless they’re told to. Sutton Dreer typically aims to run her dogs three to four days a week, but if they don’t respond when she asks them if they want to run, she won’t push them.

At the end of the day, though, running is better than no exercise at all.

“I think it’s more inhumane to have them laying on the couch, but a lot of people don’t feel that way. We just try to educate and change someone’s mind,” Sutton Dreer said. “A lot of people don’t want to be out in the cold, so they’ll do agility or obedience. Whatever you can do to get out and enjoy your dog, that’s what needs to happen. This is just something different.”

This story originally appeared in our sister publication, Northwest News.