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Pet turns couple into amateur mushers


Fri, Feb 28th, 2003
Posted in Features

Aaron and Natalie Harwood are the proprietors of Wild Wind Siberians, a newly established kennel for purebred Siberian Husky sled dogs located just north of Spring Valley. The Harwoods love of Huskies has turned into an avid sled dog racing hobby and dog breeding business.

When Aaron and Natalie Harwood purchased their pet Siberian Husky, Mariah, back in 1999, little did they know their lives would soon go to the dogs.

It started out quite innocently when the couple began skijoring with Mariah on local trails. Skijoring is a winter sport where a person wearing skis is drawn over snow by one or more dogs. For those who have tried the sport, it's an exhilarating combination of cross country skiing and dog mushing. Skijoring originated in Scandinavia and literally meaning "ski-driving" in Norwegian. For outdoor enthusiasts like the Harwoods, being able to enjoy the great outdoors while exercising with their beloved pet sparked an interest that has grown into a full-fledged sled dog racing hobby.

For the past few years, the couple, who both work in genetics at the Mayo Clinic, have poured through mountains of information on the internet, talked to fellow mushers throughout the Midwest and Canada and even attended sled dog races to learn as much about their new -found interest as possible. It didn't take long before Mariah had company. "I grew up with lots of pets," Natalie said. "My parents let me have just about every animal under the sun," she said. So it wasn't surprising when their sled dog team of purebred Siberian Huskies soon grew to eight. Mariah was joined by Gus, Vail, Samurai, Willard, Chester, Boomer and Zeus. That took care of the horsepower required for sled dog racing. The Harwoods also invested in a couple of racing sleds; a large mid-distance sled and a lightweight and smaller sprint sled. Then there was all the harnessing, the cabled ganglines and the specially designed kennel crates that fit atop the couple's pick-up for transporting the dogs. It's a hobby that can come with a hefty price tag.

In addition to their sled designed for sprint races, the Harwoods own a top-of-the-line Chatmac mid-distance sled. "That sled cost $1,200," said Aaron. Money is saved in other areas. Aaron designed and built the kennel boxes that fits on top of his pick-up, as well as the racks that hold the two sleds. "A lot of mushers are engineers who are good at fixing things and sharing their ideas," Aaron said. Friends assisted the Harwoods to install special outriggers that fold down from the pick-up so the dogs can be leashed for feeding and pottying. "The dogs are all crate trained so are used to traveling in their boxes," Aaron said. "When we make a stop to let them out, they're trained to know it's time to eat and potty," Natalie added. The entire process can take as little as 30 minutes.

The Harwoods have just recently completed their first official season of sled dog racing, training and testing out new dogs in Ontario and then participating in sprint races in Kortright, Ontario and mid-distance races in Bayfield, Wisconsin. At both venues, the first-year racers earned respectable finishes.

For being newcomers to sled dog racing, the Harwoods have their hobby down to a science. The couple begins preparing for weekend races typically on Wednesday or Thursday. Gear is checked and packed, the dogs are fed a high-fat, high-protein diet and, on race day, loaded into their straw-lined kennel boxes on the back of the Harwood's pick-up.

Aaron and Natalie are meticulous about recording every minute detail about their team in pedigree charts and in a special journal. "We keep stats on each dog's pedigree, visits to the vet, breeding cycle, nutritional needs and how far each one runs in a race," Aaron said. The journal also includes diagrams displaying dogs in varying pull positions on the team. This information is used to assess the best synergy among their dogs, which ultimately could lead to a winning sled dog team. Gus, a two-and-a-half year old Husky has earned a spot as the Harwood's lead dog. "Gus responds well to voice commands," Aaron said. "He's what's called Gee-Haw trained." When given the command "Gee" sled dogs are trained to turn right. "Haw" is the command for turn left. Gus also has to understand "On-by", which tells him to keep on going when passing dogs or other distractions. "Wait" tells a dog to stop and "hike" is the command for let's go! While Gus may be the couple's star performer, he's also charged with mentoring other dogs on the team. "Vail, our 18-month-old female is an up-and-coming leader," Natalie said. "She's really smart and has a lot of fire in her." Like with most sled dogs, running is in their blood and the mere sight of a harness gets the dogs so excited it's nearly impossible to hold them back. "At eight weeks old, they're pulling -- it's instinct," Natalie said. "By six months, we begin to harness break the dogs, " she said. According to the Harwoods, up-and-comer Vail wants to run so badly that she sometimes slams into other dogs to get them going. With the proper tutelage, Vail may someday be the lead dog on the Harwood's second sled dog team.

With the Iditarod, the mother of all sled dog races, currently underway in Anchorage Alaska, The Harwoods are contemplating next season's racing schedule. "We'd like to have enough dogs so we both can race," said Natalie. That would require adding several more Siberians to their kennel. With a breeding program planned at their new business, Wild Winds Siberians, a second team may not be that far off. "We're teaming up with one of the top Siberian breeders for mid-distance racers," said Aaron. The couple also recently has had their kennel certified with Mush for Pride, a sled dog organization that promotes professionalism in raising and racing sled dogs. Now as official Red Paw dealers, a premium feed for sled dogs, the Harwood's hobby has turned into a business. "Our main goal is to have fun," said Aaron. "We're not in this to get rich." With all the couple has invested in their beloved hobby, "that would be impossible," Natalie added.

As their kennel size increases, so do the chores and training that's required to keep their dogs in top-notch condition. "We're looking for some help," Aaron said. The couple can contact the Harwoods at (507) 346-2027 or check out their web site at www.wildwindsiberians.com, currently under development.

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