MUSHING FAMILIES

During the Limited and Open North American Championships this year, I had the great pleasure to meet some of the families who traveled together while sprint racing in Alaska. Some traveled in dog trucks, staying in hotels, while others drove their accommodations, towing their canine athletes. But what these families all had in common was children in tow, children of all ages. These families had found a way to raise a family as well as compete at the highest level on the sprint racing circuit.Some parents make raising children and dogs look easy, but there are definitely some compromises needed to be made when having a child; both children and dogs take a lot of time and energy. Jeff and Sarah Conn of Fairbanks have found just that. The Conns found with the time taken to look after their open class dog team, their son Ben, and for both Jeff and Sara to work full time, that something had to give. For them it was the training time of the dogs. It occurred to the Conns that looking after Ben was more than a one person job, in fact they figured it was a 1¼ person job, and ultimately this takes time away from the dogs. Therefore, says Jeff, his racing season this year was not as successful as it could have been. He, though, would not want to miss out on time spent with the family. While Ben Conn is still young, he turned two years old at the Tok Race of Champions this year, he is a little too young to help in the kennel. Some other families with older children are able to combine playing with their children and working in the kennel. Mark and Brooke Hartum of Alberta, Canada have found a way to allow the family to help in the yard. The Hartum’s have 3 children; Mya (4), Elle (3) and Noah their 1 year old son. Mark says, “Our daughters Mya and Elle help with watering and feeding which is easy since we feed and water using a golf cart.” The Hartum’s dog yard is set up in rows of 10 on a 17 foot grid, all dogs are tethered and have individual houses with bowls and water cans attached to the side and front of the dog houses. Mya helps by going on all fall training runs as well, “We use a golf cart to train 14 dog teams, it works great since it has drink holders for hot chocolate, a windshield so we don’t get blasted by the wind or debris, and Mya can be wrapped up in a quilt and sit right beside me.” Arleigh and Donna Reynolds have 6 children aged between 2 and 18 years old. Having a family and running dogs was, in a way, an easy decision for the Reynolds’. Arleigh says, “It was certainly a family decision in that both Donna and I work together toward a common goal but our roles are very different. I have had experience where both partners were not equally committed and it did not work well. In that case the dogs come between the partners. This way they actually bring us closer because they are something we do work at together.” The whole Reynolds family works together, says Arleigh, the youngest ones, Mia (2), Jay (8) and Mickey (10) work at socializing the puppies, and both Cheyenne (14) and Tyler (16) have helped around the kennel and at races. Donna is the backbone of the family and keeps everything organized and does the record keeping amongst a myriad of other kennel related duties. “I do most of the training of the older pups and adults, and all of the racing,” says Arleigh. “This is not by decree; we have not made the kids work in the yard and Donna has no interest in racing, yet all of these pieces fit together as essential parts of our program. The guy on the runners during a race represents less than 1% of the time and effort and family resources spent on maintaining that dog team.”While many families around the world have dogs and children, not so many families have 20 or more dogs. Making sure the children are safe when playing around the dogs is a major concern, and it seems to be common with all families that the kids have been taught to stay back from the dogs and they know which dogs are safe to approach. Jason and Melanie Rodenhouse of Gowan, Michigan, have three children; Rachel (8), Molly (6) and Emily is youngest at three. Jason says, “Of course none of his dogs are going to be vicious, it is that they just run around on their chains and the kids can get jumped on and knocked down. The girls have their favorites that they like to go up to and give a cookie to. They learn which dogs to go up to, and which ones to wait for mum and dad.” It isn’t the dogs that scares Jason the most, it is when training, especially in the spring and fall, when he is hooking the dogs to the 4-wheeler. The kids are wanting to be climbing on the 4-wheeler or sled and the danger lies in if the 4-wheeler or sled were to become unhooked while the kids are on or, even worse, in front of it. “We try to keep the kids off or away from the front of the 4-wheeler just so they don’t get run over.”Kiddie-safing a dog yard can be likened to the family swimming pool. Keeping the kids on one side and the dogs on the other. The Hartums, Reynolds and Conns have kiddie safed their yards by having both the male and female yards fenced with a 7 foot high game fence and the gates are closed so the kids cannot get into the dog yard without an adult. The Hartums also take the keys out of the golf cart, quad and ski-doo and dog truck so they don’t inadvertently get into trouble. Neal and Carolyn Johnson, of Fergus Falls, Michigan, have taught their two children Sherry (7) and Julia (5) not to go into the dog yard alone. They have also set their kennel up so the friendliest dogs are always kept up the front. The common thread through each family seems to be education of both the dogs and the kids. The Hartums train their dogs not to jump on the kids, and all families train the kids to respect the strength and size of the dogs. Arleigh points out that while he does not keep any aggressive dog, that every dog has the potential to bite a child especially when the child is playing with the dog’s food. “A lot dogs may not recognize children as people until they are of a certain age, and toddlers can elicit prey responses in many dogs and should never be left unprotected around them,” says Arleigh.With most of the heavy lifting and hard work being left to the parents, the Hartum and Johnson kids have a very important role in the kennel. “The kids basically raise all of our puppies, in fact sometimes the pups don’t know if they are puppies or Barbie dolls,” says Mark. “The kids bring them in the house, push them around in a baby stroller, put them in a crib, rock them to sleep, dress them up, etc.” Mark sees the benefit of this, “It sure pays big dividends when the dogs are full grown, they are easy to handle due to the incredible socialization and handling they have been previously exposed to.” The Johnson girls main role is also socializing the puppies and Sherry double sleds on most of the puppy runs. Neal says, “Now the girls are getting to the age where they want to race a one or two dog team, and they train their own teams for practice.”One thing that was evident this past racing season was the number of children who were following their competitive racing parents. Many of these families had traveled many hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach Alaska, but before this destination they had already raced the circuit in the Lower 48. All of the images jumping to my mind right now are truckloads of dogs, high energy racing animals with special needs to keep them in top form, and a truckload of screaming children testing the patience of their parents. After speaking to these families, the image has been dispelled. The children were all happy and content and even, in many cases, helping to look after the dogs. Neal Johnson says, “The nice thing about the mushing community now is that there are a lot of mushers with similarly aged kids traveling to the same races. The kids see their friends in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Manley, Fairbanks and Tok.” The Hartums, Rodenhouses and Johnsons got to play together in a few different states and through Canada and met up with other children from families such as the Conns and Jason and Amy Dunlap. The older children were often looking out for the younger ones and the parents were able to share duties, giving the other parents some time off. Neal says that while race preparation is the same with or without kids, it is when both he and Carolyn are entering the same race that they need to organize a minder. Preparing young children for a drive to Alaska and keeping them entertained for days, and even months on end seems exhausting. I asked the families how they make it fun for the kids? Just how do you prepare for a long car ride with children and not go crazy? The Hartum’s advice is to set everything up for success. This year they started traveling to races with a 28 foot, fully winterized motor home towing a 16 foot dog trailer with 40 dogs and a snow machine. “It was fabulous because the kids could move around, have naps, use the bathroom, have snacks, do crafts, color, sing, dance, do puppet shows. We found if the kids could stay on their schedules (sleep schedules mostly) it was easy traveling with them. When we did the Alaska trip we lived in the motor home from February 15 to April 2 and it went really well.”The Rodenhouse’s also have this down to an art form. “We had our first daughter born during a November, it slowed us down a little bit, but ever since that first winter we have always traveled to races.” Jason adds that their family does some things a little different to other people. Most of the races that the family travels to are a 12-16 hour drive away. For these races the family will leave home on Thursday night after work, driving through the night switching drivers along the way. “We found this way is easiest for the kids traveling as they just sleep. They have grown up that way and are used to sleeping in the truck for 10 or 11 hours and when they wake up, we are ¾ of the way there.” It is hard on the parents driving throughout the night, but they have found that either you can listen to the kids arguing all the way, or drive throughout the night. The exception was driving to Alaska when they had to pretty much drive around the clock for 4 days straight.Jason and Melanie had planned for their long drive by getting 3 plastic tote containers, one for each child. “The girls would fill their tote with what they would like to do in the truck on the way up. They like to draw and paint, they put in their favorite dolls and toys and we have a DVD player so they chose their own movies. They have grown up that way and they are fairly used to it. When we stop to drop dogs, we also let the kids out to stretch their legs, as long as it is not too nasty out.”The Johnson kids also started traveling at a young age. “Our kids started traveling the Al-Can at 8 weeks old and think dog-truck travel is the norm,” says Neal. He adds that the kids really appreciate the time on the road as it gives them 24 hours, 7 days a week with their parents, “it is something that doesn’t happen the rest of the year, and they like that time.” The Johnson’s also work with their kid’s regular school teachers to be able to home school the kids on the road, continuing with the school curriculum. Jeff and Sarah Conn, while they do not travel too far to races, have found a way to help each other get ready for races; one of the parents will race while the other assists and carries Ben in a baby seat attached to their back. They have also used this method to continue their summer activities such as multi-day hiking trips through mountainous areas. They say that they tried to fit as much in while Ben was still light enough to carry. Everyone has their own method of successfully raising their children along with their dogs and each has found the recipe that works. It seems that more families are getting into mushing, and we may be seeing a lot more children around the dog trucks. This is not a new development though, many children have grown following their parents. With the sport reaching out to newer and younger participants we are more likely to see more mushing parents with young children in tow. e

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