The Place of the Recreational Dog Musher

Where does the recreational musher fit in?

Over the years I have read many different northern-breed and sleddog magazines and newsletters. There are times when I long nostagically for the simple days of "Northern Dog News" when anything to do with northern breeds was assumed to be great fun! But NDN died, and in its place came newsletters like "Racing Siberian Husky" with its tone of earnest professionalism. And then the glossy national magazines like "Mushing." Quite in contrast to the days of NDN, now it seems to be assumed that everyone will try to emulate the athletic elite of dogsled racing. Relative novices, whether in jest or seriously, unconsciously tend to measure themselves against figures like Jeff King, Susan Butcher, and Egil Ellis.

As soon as a wannabe racer acquires more than eight dogs, he also buys a 500cc 4-wheeler ATV and a fancy dog truck, and begins trying to emulate the big boys. This fellow's early attempts to cope with his new-found sport often result in frustration and chaos as he tries to run too many dogs, too fast, before he has learned how to train and control sleddogs. It's no wonder identity crises are common in sleddog sport, along with "selling everything -- dogs and equipment" notices.

The guy who is just looking for an enjoyable way to spend winter weekends relaxing with his family and a few dogs may justly feel left out of the picture. Many people try to make the recreational musher feel guilty because he treats the whole thing as an enjoyable hobby! And if he breeds a litter or two of pups as a part of his enjoyment, he's sometimes treated as though he has done something criminal.

So where does the recreational musher really fit into the broader picture of dogsled sport?

"Sleddog excellence"

One of the fetishes of sleddog fanciers these days is "athletic superiority" or "sleddog excellence." This seems to be brought about by what I call the "Olympics mentality" which treats all sport as inevitably oriented and progressing toward some pinnacle of athletic perfection that is represented by the cultural icon of the Olympics. "Go for the gold!" has become a watchword of our society. Actually the Olympics are a hotbed of corruption, influence-peddling and athletic-enhancement-drug abuse, but we postmodern people are used to this kind of double vision in which our cultural ideals have an ugly, seamy side.

So dog-driving beginners are encouraged to have the highest aspirations, to regard the Iditarod, the IFSS World Championships, or the Fairbanks ONAC as their goal and ultimate destination. They are earnestly advised to "breed the best to the best," and given role models like Joe Runyan who tell them to "regard themselves as farmers," to breed ten litters each year with a view to reaching the top in five years or so, and to maintain a "lean, mean" efficient kennel by "getting rid" (by unspecified means) of all but the "most athletic" of the sixty or so yearlings that each year result from these procedures. All in the service of "sleddog excellence" and all, mind you, for the good of the breed (assuming we are speaking of purebreds).

"Recreational mushers are ruining the breed!"

Quite often in the purebred-racing community you will hear indignant budding professionals declare that "recreational mushers are ruining the breed." They explain that "athletically deficient" dogs are being bred that should instead have been neutered or otherwise eliminated from the breeding population. They further explain that bumbling Sunday dog-drivers "never prove their dogs" adequately and that no "unproven" dogs should ever be bred from.

I can remember in the late 1990s being earnestly advised by a subscriber to "Seppala Network" that if I really thought my young leader Tonya was as excellent as I claimed her to be, I should "turn her over to Doug Willett or Anneliese Braun-Witschel so she could be properly race-proven"! (That, to my way of thinking, was roughly on the level of advising a Jewish mother that she should turn her young son over to Adolph Hitler so he could receive proper military training.) Tonya, in spite of her "unproven" status, turned out to be the best leader I have ever owned, and somehow I have never regretted failing to hand her over to DW or ABW.

The competitive racers' tactics of breeding and selecting to the top 5% of the standard distribution curve -- breeding "the best to the best" and washing out the rest -- don't actually do any breed very much good. If you want proof of that statement, just look at what happened to the traditional Alaskan Husky -- the one that originally came out of the villages of Alaska's Interior, that looked almost like a Siberian Husky but a little more stretchy. Gradually over time, as the bars of competitive racing were raised ever higher, fewer and fewer bloodlines could make the cut. Eventually all the serious open-class racers had the same identical lineage in their dogyards -- the Wright-Champaine/Saunderson cross, exemplified by sires such as "Victor" and "Hop." The "world-class" Alaskan became as closely-bred as any purebred. And suddenly the sport took a hard left turn towards something totally different -- German Shorthaired Pointer crosses and "Eurohounds" out of Norway. And the traditional Alaskan Husky suddenly became obsolete, itself a historic legacy sleddog breed.

So don't believe them when they tell you recreational drivers are wrecking sleddog breeds. Elite racing drivers do just as much wrecking and more, in their ceaseless pragmatic drive to find something yet a little bit faster. No matter how loudly these folks insist -- dog driving does not belong to them alone.

Sleddogs and the family

Dog mushing is an ideal winter sport for the family. It is a wonderful way of keeping the kids from "hanging out" in shopping malls. It guarantees that Mom and Dad will regularly spend a lot of fun, happy quality time with their offspring, with healthy outdoor recreation in the bargain. Most kids are crazy about animals, anyway -- and dog driving develops initiative, self-confidence and physical skills. What more could you want from family recreation? Add to all that the fact that dogsled sport is innately satisfying in and of itself, totally without reference to competitive athletic elitism. I think many sports -- due to the Olympics mentality -- teach children to be ruthless competitors, resulting in competition-driven adults who are incapable of relaxing and enjoying life. Well, dog driving doesn't have to be that way -- even if some people try to make it that way.

Race and enjoy it

You CAN race and enjoy it! Why not! There are plenty of local events that do not require a 200-dog kennel and a 22-dog team for participation. It isn't all the Rondy, the ONAC, the IFSS Championship, and the Iditarod. Or even the Fort Kent or Saranac Lake events. Sure, there's a lot of elitism even in major regional events, but all over North America, Europe, and even in Australia and the U.K. (mostly on wheels in those places), there are small local-area fun races where people go to ENJOY dogsled sport, rather than to prove that their dogs are better than anybody else's. So what if the snob element says "his race record is meaningless" because you participate mainly in local races, for the social enjoyment of dogsled sport? Your enjoyment of getting together with other mushers for a fun race -- and your dogs' enjoyment -- is an absolute. It is enjoyable without reference to whatever the big boys with the big egos may be doing.


Our society being what it is, people are going to push the Olympic ideals of athletic elitism. It can't be helped; it's an unthinking, knee-jerk sort of thing that is ingrained in North Americans' mindless worship of the competitive drive. But athletic idealism is of questionable value to historic sleddog breeds. It results in breeding and selection of a kind that, in the end, does them very little good. Recreational mushing, on the other hand, apart from being absolutely enjoyable for its own sweet sake, does its bit for breed survival. It provides a comfortable and diverse population base with good geographic distribution. It provides an ongoing market for such breeds as Seppalas and Chinooks, which are better suited to the needs of the recreational driver than either showdog Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes or speed-demon GSP-crosses and Eurohounds. And recreational dog-driving is just about the most fun you can possibly have outdoors in the winter, especially for families.