These dogs were born to run

  • Mudd (left) enjoys a pat from Graham, of Littleton, Mass. at Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel in Jefferson on Feb. 21, 2018. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel musher Terry Moiser (left) and Graham of Littleton, Mass. enjoy the company of Popcorn at Muddy Paw Kennel in Jefferson on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Charlie, a sled dog at Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel in Jefferson, lounges in the sunshine. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 25, 2018

If it wasn’t for the Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel banner out front – and the Jefferson property’s one-eyed, friendly four-legged greeter, Guinness – you might not know the kennel was there.

That is until it’s time to run. Then, you’ll hear the sounds of 87 sled dogs yipping and howling, eager to be picked by their mushers. The cacophony bounces off the White Mountains and fills the air until all you can hear is dogs.

Fans of sled dog racing have to wait all year for the sport’s largest event, the Iditarod, to take place. Set to kick off next weekend, the race is the stuff of winter legend, remote and unlike any event that takes place in New Hampshire.

But you don’t have to travel to Alaska to experience the “last great race.” You can travel to Muddy Paw, a nonprofit that rescues sled dogs and puts them to work by taking visitors on sled rides on nearby trails. When they get older, some of the pooches become available for adoption.

Most of the dogs they take in are dogs that aren’t fast enough for racing kennels, said kennel manager Brie Boisselle. But some come from hoarding situations or pet owners who don’t realize how much work a sled dog can be.

“They don’t do well in shelters because they want to be out and doing something,” Boisselle said. “They need mental and physical stimulus. They want to be out running and doing stuff. They can get pretty destructive and vocal when they’re in the house because they get stir crazy unless they’re active.”

Most dogs they take in can be trained to run if they have good hips and they’re young enough, Boisselle said.

Take Nuna, a pup that was raised in her owner’s chicken coop and never socialized until she was brought to Muddy Paw. At a year old, she had never run before, but now goes out on tours.

“If they have good genetics, they’ll run,” Boisselle said.

But just like humans, racing dogs can get tired of their work – that’s usually when Muddy Paw looks to adopt them out.

An all-day commitment

A day at the kennel starts at 7 a.m. with breakfast, Boisselle said. Tours start at 9:30 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m., with snack breaks in between. By the time the mushers leave, it’s 7 p.m.

But the days don’t feel long, Boisselle said.

“You’re on your feet a lot, and you’re doing what you love,” she said. “We spend our Christmas days with these guys, not our families.”

Typically, February vacation is the kennel’s biggest money-making period, Boisselle said. But while the wintertime may offer the most “authentic” experience, a lack of snow doesn’t stop the tours – cart rides are also available, and the runs are especially beautiful in the autumn, when the trees “make a crown overhead,” Boisselle said.

But warm weather can be a problem for the dogs, said musher Terry Moiser. “When it’s going to be hot, we tend to run the dogs with thicker coats first, earlier in the day, when it’s cooler,” he said.

Boisselle said one of the biggest questions people will ask her is whether the dogs enjoy pulling sleds.

“We know they do,” she said, “because they’re born to do it. But it kind of makes me chuckle that people would come up here to do it and think they don’t like it.”

If you’re still unsure, just listen to the noise from the kennel when a sled comes out. “Even if you’re just pushing a sled around here, they go crazy,” Boisselle said. “They think if they’re the loudest, they’re going to be picked first.”

The most typical tour is the Fido Tour, an hour and a half experience that will cost you $325 a sled and earn you 45 minutes with the dogs and 45 minutes on the trail.

For the more adventurous, a 13-mile trail experience is available, as well as mini-musher courses, where participants get to learn how to hook dogs to a sled and take a turn driving.

To build the perfect sled dog team, Boisselle said there’s a simple formula. “You put the smartest ones in the front,” she said, fingers wrapped around the harness of a prancing dog, “the strongest ones in the back, and the goofballs in the middle.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)