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
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
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