Interview with Chasing the Wolves: Tips for Beginner Mushing and Kicksledding with Dogs
Excited to ask Taylor Squires, owner of Chasing the Wolves dog kennel in Northern Minnesota, some questions about getting started with winter dog powered sports like kicksledding and dog sled mushing.
Brave The Snow: How did you get interested in mushing with your dog?
Taylor: I actually never envisioned myself as being a musher. I got my first Siberian Husky as a companion and hiking buddy. I was in a local husky group on Facebook, and saw someone out bikejoring with their dog and thought it looked fun. I bought a harness and hooked my girl up, and the rest is history!
Brave The Snow: Tell us about your dogs and your sled set up.
Taylor: I currently have 5 dogs. 3 Siberian Huskies, and 2 Hedlund line Alaskan Huskies. I have 3 different sleds, 4 dryland rigs, and have tried a couple ‘crazy’ joring methods like being pulled on a snowboard and a downhill mountain board.
In the winter, I typically use my basket sled for training the dogs. One is retired and one is a puppy, so at the moment, you’ll typically only see me running 2-3 dogs at a time. The basket sled is light enough for us, but when I had just one dog, I was primarily using my kicksled. Each team will have different needs, and you can get the proper gear based on that. If you are new to the sport, I would recommend finding a good fitting harness for your dog, and trying out a few different sled options before committing to one style.
Brave The Snow: What were some of the fears you had when you first started?
Taylor: Honestly when I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. I was learning as I went. Because of this, I didn’t know all the things I was doing ‘wrong’ until I started mushing with other people. There are certainly things to be wary of, like making sure you're not overworking dogs, and trying your best to prevent injuries, but with a little bit of caution and knowing you and your dogs’ limits, they are pretty easily avoidable.
Brave The Snow: For people interested in kicksledding with their dogs, what are some first steps people can take to get their dogs ready?
Taylor: If you’re ready to invest any amount of money into the sport, the first thing I would recommend getting is a proper harness from a reputable sledding outfitter. The ones you see at pet stores and even big online chains really aren’t designed for pulling, and can ultimately make your dog more averse to pulling. There is absolutely other gear that can be added in later, but the most important thing in my opinion is that harness.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a harness yet, you can start teaching commands on walks. I see a lot of people hook their dogs right up to a bike and go, and while that might work for some people, it’s definitely safer to teach those commands before hooking up to any sort of sled, bike, or other rig. You can teach commands on foot. Line Out, Hike, Whoa/Easy, Haw, Gee, and (Haw/Gee) Around are some of your basic and most important commands.
Brave The Snow: What is it like moving from Hudson, Wisconsin to Nashwuk, Minnesota (between Hibbings and Grand Rapids)? You moved last year, right?
Taylor: Yes. We decided to move north to find a property that would allow me to expand my kennel beyond a handful of dogs. When we were looking for a house, we were specifically looking for ones that I can either run the dogs on the property, or right out of our driveway. This was not something I was able to do in town in Hudson, and certainly isn’t common to find those types of properties around the Twin Cities (at least in our price range!).
The sledding community up here looks a bit different than down in the cities. Most mushers up here have larger kennels and are focusing on longer races, touring, or just longer recreational running. Down in the cities I saw a lot more people focused on short recreational running with their pet dogs and folks focusing on sprint racing. I do think that despite there not being many LONG trail systems, the cities do have a lot of awesome spaces to get out with your dogs, especially with other teams! That is something I miss living up north, I can’t just drive 10-20 minutes and get together with a bunch of small teams to run the trails with.
Brave The Snow: When you were living closer to the Twin Cities, which online communities did you seek out to connect with other people getting into dog powered sports?
Taylor: There are a lot of good online communities closer to the cities specifically for dog powered sports! The first couple I joined was Twin Cities Dog Powered Sports and Mush Minnesota on Facebook. I had even created my own page for the WI side, Saint Croix Valley Dog Powered Sports, however since moving that page has been pretty inactive.
Outside of Facebook, I’m not sure if there are any local online communities. If you are looking to buy second hand gear, some great options are the Upper Midwest Mushers Market on Facebook, and of course there are awesome finds on Craigslist from time to time.
Brave The Snow: Have you found there is a local mushing community to connect with up where you are now?
Taylor: The sledding community up here is much more spread out. There are a few folks within an hour’s drive from me, but I have yet to get together with them to run. When you hit a certain number of dogs, it's a lot harder to do group runs, especially when you aren’t planning in advance.
We are also in an area that is between smaller mushing communities. There’s a big number of people east of us in Duluth, north in Ely, and West in Bemidji, but we are in a little pocket with very few folks. This definitely comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Less people to run with, but it also means that it's not oversaturated with mushers, too. Believe it or not, sometimes it is harder to have a kennel of dogs in an area where it gets popular!
Brave The Snow: How is your dream of having your own kennel living up to expectations?
Taylor: So far growing my kennel has been great. Having more than 2-3 dogs is a LOT of work, but also very rewarding. We added 3 new dogs in the past year, and will be adding another this spring. I generally don’t recommend most households to add dogs so quickly, but we bought this house with that in mind.
Caring for several dogs is also a lot of work. I don’t recommend trying to set up a kennel if you don’t like picking up dog poop several times a day!!!
Brave The Snow: What are some of your favorite trails you have found up there?
Taylor: I actually mostly run the dogs right off of our property on the dirt and gravel roads around us. I can get about 15 miles on them without having to cross any crazy busy roads.
If I’m taking the dogs out in the winter, there are a lot of snowmobile trails that we can run, and the Mesabi trail that runs from Grand Rapids to Ely that is fun once it is packed down. When we bikejor, there are a lot of really fun, hilly trails ALL around us, but my favorite so far is a little gem called Trout Lake Tract that follows around a lake and some old restored cabins.
Brave The Snow: Do you offer mushing classes and instruction?
Taylor: At the moment, I am not holding any classes. I plan on holding some in the future, both online and in person. In the past, I have held a couple ‘Intro to Dogsledding’ classes, as well as a class on creating your own ganglines. You are welcome to reach out to me on my website for inquires and questions.
If you are located in or around the Twin Cities, Jack and the Pack offers great classes (both group and private classes) for dog sledding basics!
Brave The Snow: What do you wear when you are mushing? Are there any must-have pieces of gear that you would recommend to someone starting out?
Taylor: Poop bags, first aid kit, and a helmet if you are on any sort of rig.
You want to be kind to other trail users and make sure that you clean up after your dogs. Even when I am running a bigger team, on public trails I will walk back and clean up after my dogs after each run. Ideally you’ll get them to potty prior to runs to avoid this, but we can’t always control our dogs’ digestive systems!
I ALWAYS bring a first aid kit with, even if we are just cani-hiking. What is in the first aid kit will depend on how far you are going and how far away from a vet/hospital you are. Always bring with you whatever needed to get you back to your car and the clinic if there was an injury.
For shorter hikes and runs, your kit might be pretty minimal. For several mile runs, I like to bring quite a bit more in case I need to patch my dog up on the trail. Remember though that if you don’t know how to use the gear, it won’t be of any use to you. I’d recommend taking a dog (and human!) first aid class so you know how to take care of minor wounds until you can get into the hands of a professional.
Some basics in my normal kit look like vet wrap and tape, scissors, benadryl, ibuprofen (humans only), super glue, gloves, gauze, kwikstop, saline spray, tweezers, and rubbing alcohol. If we are doing a super quick run, I may not have all of these on the sled, but will keep whatever I don’t have back in the car. If we are on a longer run, I might include other things not mentioned here.
And lastly, if you are ever on anything such as a sled, bike, scooter, cart, etc, basically anything that is not your own feet, you will want to wear a helmet at the least. I also recommend goggles. If you are to fall or hit anything, this will help prevent a concussion or other injuries. It is so easy to jump on a bike and go without one, but after having 2 concussions in my lifetime, one from dogs WITH a helmet on, I would never wish that upon anyone. I’ve only ever crashed a few times, and have hit my head once. But without that helmet, I would’ve most likely broken my jaw and gotten a major concussion. Having that helmet meant I only had a minor concussion. I personally prefer full faced style helmets, like downhill mountain biking helmets. If you do crash with a helmet, remember to replace the helmet.
Brave The Snow: How do you protect your dog's paws on longer runs? What suggestions do you have for boots that keep falling off?
Taylor: Dogs that are bred to pull sleds usually have pretty tough paws. Even dogs who weren’t bred for the sport will usually toughen up their pads throughout the season. Most of the time you don’t want your dogs to wear booties, as it doesn’t allow for their pads to toughen up, and can actually lead to more injuries because of the soft pads.
There is a misconception that dogs pulling sleds wear booties to keep their feet warm, but this is not the case. Booties are made of a thin, flexible material that just helps prevent abrasion to the pads. They do not keep paws warm, and most sled dogs’ paws don’t get cold until negative double digits. If you are running a breed whose paws do get cold faster, there are felt booties that you can put under normal corudra sledding booties to help.
When I do booty my dogs, it is when trails are icy, super rocky, or have ‘crunchy’ snow. Any time the trail is going to be more abrasive than packed snow or dirt can be reason to booty. Or if you have a dog whose fur collects snow in the paw pads, the booties will prevent this.
All of my booties are from reputable mushing outfitters, most of mine being from Dogbooties.com. Hard soled dog booties don’t work well when dogs are running, as the sole slides around from top to bottom. It would be like running with your shoes upside down! The best booties are typically made of cordura and allow the dog to flex their paw pads still. These booties are thin, which means they will wear out faster. Luckily a set is pretty cheap, and you can replace them as needed.
Brave The Snow: Any other tips for keeping your dog healthy when first starting out?
Taylor: Just watch your dog. Slowly build up distance and speed. If your goal is to build endurance, you should always be ending your run when your dog is still pulling and ready to go. If your dog seems to be sore, take a step back and make sure you aren’t going too far or too fast. Not every dog will listen to their own body’s limits. If you are starting with a young dog, make sure you are especially cautious on how much weight they are pulling and mileage you are putting on them.
Making sure that your dog is eating healthy and maintaining a healthy weight is also important. If you are working with an overweight or underweight dog, you’ll want to make sure that they are healthy enough to participate prior to asking them to pull.
Luckily dog sledding is a fairly low impact sport, which means that as long as you are taking it at your own dog’s pace, it is fairly safe. Clearing your dog’s health with your vet is always a good idea prior to beginning any new sports.
Brave The Snow: How have you seen the sport of winter kicksledding and recreational mushing with 1-2 dogs grow over the years?
Taylor: Just in the few years that I have been in the mushing community, recreational mushing and kicksledding has grown exponentially. It seems like dog owners are looking for more ways to get out with their dogs in the winter, and using a kicksled with 1 or 2 of the dogs you already have can be so much fun!
It is exciting to see people getting out and active with their dogs, and because kicksleds are so light and transportable, they are a great option for many folks looking to run their dogs just for fun. The community is growing, and it will be very exciting to see where it goes!
You can follow Chasing the Wolves on Instagram to learn more from Taylor and see her dog powered adventures!
Photo Credit: Taylor Kurth, @stay_pointy on Instagram