Comments on Bark River Run
Four months ago, in Sept. 2009, I spent about $300 for a weekend with a former (and future) Iditarod competitor at his kennel with my two house dogs, Suki (a collie) and Zephyr (a samoyed). This is a description of what I found.

Helen Lundberg is a mushing enthusiast in North Dakota. She does weekend training seminars for recreational mushers near her home, but North Dakota is just too far for me to drive from my home outside of  Chicago, IL. I contacted her and asked her for a recommendation for someone to help me with my dog-scooter training closer to home. She suggested Bark River Run. Pat Moon, an Iditarod musher I know, seconded Helen's recommendation.

I am a very casual recreational dryland dog scooter enthusiast. I compete in dryland races from time to time, but the best we ever do is finish in the middle of the pack, and frequently end up the slowest team competing. That's fine with me; I view dog scootering as a structured way to have fun with my dogs. Of course, I would LIKE to finish quicker, and make my team more competitive. But I am very constrained by the fact that I work long hours and spend a lot of time commuting. Most of our scootering is done on the weekends, and in fairly populated trails.

Dog scootering is just not very popular around me. I contacted Bark River Run in the hopes that their experience with dog sledding would help me do a better job of training my dogs to scooter. Yes, I do occasionally dog sled; but the number of weekends with sleddable snow is very low, so I'm far more often scootering than sledding.

The worst part of Bark River Run is their location, in the far north west corner of Wisconsin. In good weather it is a 10  1/2   hour drive, I think it took me 11 1/2 hours as I encountered a freak whiteout  snowstorm. It was a grim drive.

Matt and Paula were very welcoming. They have an area of their house fixed up to accept visitors. It ain't no fancy hotel - no mints on the pillows - but it was warm, clean, and comfortable. I had a sandwich when I arrived and went straight to bed.

The next morning I got a look at what I was in for. The area behind their house is filled with dogs attached to tie-outs. Each dog is on a tie-out with access to a straw-lined plastic 50 gallon barrel in which they can shelter from the elements. This is obviously a LOT more primitive accommodations than my dogs have (since they live in the house with my family), but the dogs in the yard all seemed healthy. The area was very muddy and the dogs were pretty filthy from the mud, but there was no odor of feces. Matt bragged to me that ALL his dogs were well socialized, and I did wander around the yard to various dogs and found them all happy for the attention. The only dogs I was warned off were two bitches that had just whelped. They were in a separate enclosure. This is clearly not the sort of life I want for my dogs, but it is not a bad life. The dogs were clearly happy animals.

Life for each of these dogs follows a very predictable pattern. Eat (twice a day). Mush (about  every other day, more often when the weather cools more). With so little to do other than pull, they are very happy for the diversion and clearly enjoy the activity more than anything else (with the possible exception of eating).  While it is easy to criticize Bark River Run for forcing their dogs to live in so much boredom, in  my experience most pet dogs have less to look forward to each week than these dogs. When the opportunity to pull arrives, they are unbelievably enthused.

After a morning run with some Bark River Run dogs, we took four of them and my two guys and made a team, dropping my guys into the middle. At the back we hooked the team up to an ATV. Matt called for his dogs to mush ("hike"), and off we went. My sammie followed along with the team, but not very enthusiastically. My collie was clearly freaked out, consistently craning her head around to see me, wondering WTF was going on. I suppose I could have been upset with their poor performance, but it was so funny to see the bewilderment on Suki's face. Apparently, she viewed this as utterly different from anything she knew, even though our first experiences in mushing were on a team.

We didn't go far. Clearly, my dogs were not "getting it" . We turned around and I took out my scooter. I hitched my guys up, and off we went. Zephyr refused to stay focused, and tried to wander off (which he does when he feels any stress). Suki, on the other hand, didn't much feel like pulling. Her portion of the tug was generally slack. We didn't make much progress.  Matt made several suggestions on how to modify my training.

In a very insightful comment Matt noted that HIS dogs weren't housebroken, didn't know how to sit or come on command, and in fact only knew one thing: how to pull. As a strictly recreational musher I was asking a LOT more of my dogs. They had to be good house guests and know a long list of commands (and be willing to follow orders) in addition to being good on a tug. It wasn't anything I'd ever thought about, but he was quite correct. Competitive sled dogs only had to know a few commands, and lived for only one thing. Pet dogs needed to know many things, and are expected to fill a large number of roles.

I suppose in the end the biggest thing I learned over that weekend was to appreciate just how complex a life my dogs were expected to lead. There were some specific tips Matt passed on to help with my training, some of which I think were very useful, others which I don't think apply. The cost, as far as I'm concerned, was not worth the handful of tips I got but was easily worth the new perspective. I was (I suppose) hoping to find the golden keys to make my dogs better at pulling (while leaving their other skills in place). What I got was a better understanding of what is required of an Iditarod dog, and why I don't want one.

I would, without hesitation, recommend a weekend at Bark River Run to anyone with a serious interest in competitive mushing. Matt is very knowledgeable and quite willing to share his insights. I would also recommend BRR to anyone convinced that harsh punishment is required to train competitive sled dogs. There were no whips, prongs, or chokes at BRR, and none of the dogs gave me the evil eye.

For someone like me - interested in casual scootering with their house pets - I can offer a qualified endorsement of BRR. If there is a magic key that will make your dogs far more competitive, you won't find it at BRR. I'm not sure that my dogs are going to be more competitive a year from now than they are now, although there were some useful tips passed along I'm trying, so maybe I'll be proved wrong. The most significant problem holding my dogs back from better performance is my unwillingness to devote significantly more time to it. However, for someone interested in learning more about dogs generally - and what makes a competitive dog different than a pet dog - I can highly recommend BRR. I've heard a  lot of horror stories about competitive dog kennels, BRR is a competitive dog kennel done right.