Malinois are a versatile breed. Their talents extend far beyond bossing livestock or helpers around, and most owners have wondered at some point if their dogs would be willing and able to pull a dogsled. Those of us in the northern climes sometime even endeavor to give these sports a try with our Malinois.
Sledding (or skijoring) is not exactly a risk-free sport. Those with no snow experience often think all snow is soft and fluffy. It’s not. Depending on the temperature, wind, and humidity, snow can be about as cuddly soft as coarse sandpaper. And because there’s some amount of speed involved, falls and crashes can have real, well, impact.
I remember reading a hilarious first-person narrative of a new musher getting dragged across an icy field on his face by his team of dogs. It’s an image I’ve held in my head as my “aspire not to” whenever I try sledding with a dog. I aspire to teach my dogs to hold their stays, to not to let go of the sled, and to not fall down. And I aspire to be in better shape next year so the day after I don’t feel like I’ve been run over by a truck.
Each Fall I spend a few hours teaching or refreshing some basic skills in preparation for the Winter sledding season. Things like stop and go are important. Left and right aren’t bad additions to their repertoire. I also give them some experience pulling, both a wagon and resistance training with me (similar to a skijor setup).
And then, when enough time has passed from the previous sledding session to forget the negatives, I throw caution to the wind and pull the sled out of the garage, hoping everything works out. In this spirit, I share the story of winter 2006.
On a frigid February, after a disappointing December and January with little snow, I decided to take Link out sledding for the first time that season. A key word in that sentence is frigid. My outdoor thermometer was bottomed out at -25 when I got up that morning, and even at midday with a bright, sunny sky, the mercury was sitting at -10. Brrr. But…we hadn’t sledded at all yet, and I had a captive photographer. I seized the opportunity to head out.
Link and I hadn’t sledded since his introduction the previous winter, but I knew when he shoved his head into his harness, whimpering, he was raring to go.
He hooked up and held his stand beautifully. I readied myself, took a deep breath, and gave the command. We both started to run. That’s when things went downhill.
I…underestimated…Link’s zeal and he took off a bit faster than I expected. My upper body (holding onto the sled) got way ahead of my lower body. With that “aspire not to” image flashing through my mind, I, too, was dragged across the frozen prairie.
While I’d like to say I flew behind the sled like superman, it was more like me arched into a backbend, hanging onto the sled while the crunchy snow shredded first my jacket, then my sweatshirt, and finally my stomach. All the while I frantically tried to get onto my knees or feet and back up. At least I was holding onto the top of the sled and didn’t end up with a 100 feet of icy face wash!
To be fair, I didn’t tell him to stop. I was trying to get my feet back underneath me! I’m not sure if I consciously chose to hold on (mushing rule #1) or my hands were simply frozen into the correct clawlike position, but I didn’t let go. Eventually Link slowed, stopped, and turned to look at me like “hey dummy, you’re slowing us down!”
Our subsequent runs were much prettier, and as the sled skimmed over the icy snow with a metallic hum, I remembered the reason I do this every year.