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Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010

A Dog’s Work

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The domestic dog, a descendant of the gray wolf, has been the working and companion animal most closely tied to humans, a relationship that dates back 15,000 years. According to professor Jean Aigner, former chair of the University of Alaska anthropology department, there is firm archaeological evidence that Arctic natives harnessed dogs as draft and pack animals for at least the last thousand years. Early European settlers of Canada quickly adopted canine power, and by the 18th century the use of dog sleds was very common in snowy climes.

While Wisconsin’s lakes, rivers and streams provided efficient transportation for most of the year, the region’s freezing weather conditions demanded another means of transportation during the long winter months. Dogs were chosen over horses to pull a “sledge,” as the lightweight wooden freight vehicles were called in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, because dogs are lighter upon the snow and require far less food during the trek. No single breed dominated the dog teams at the time. As Henry Robinson wrote in his memoirs about the Northern fur trade in Sketches of Life in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, “These animals are mostly of the ordinary Indian kind, large, long-legged, and wolfish with sharp muzzles, pricked ears, and thick, straight, wiry hair.”

Dog teams ranged from only two to six animals, but they routinely drew considerable loads over great distances. In 1801, North West Co. fur trader Daniel Harmon recorded, “Each man had a Sledge drawn by two Dogs loaded with one hundred & fifty pounds wight (weight) of Furs, and Provisions, for man & beasts to perform the trip.”The voyageur, or fur trader, driving the dogs rarely rode on the sled, instead running behind it on snowshoes (or ahead of the animals to use his snowshoes to pack the trail). The inhumane treatment of the dogs was a reflection of the European Enlightenment, an age marked by the idea that humans are superior to animals. Each dog driver carried a whip, and it was used liberally and with a level of brutality that was notable even in an era when unmerciful treatment of animals was considered normal and necessary. That said, each driver knew his life depended wholly on the life of his dogs, and he made sure to keep them alive until he arrived at his destination.

The use of sled dogs for travel and freight was replaced with new forms of mechanized transportation. Recreational “mushing” (so called because the French Canadian dog drivers would shout, “Marche,” or “march” in French, to instruct their teams to move) and the dawn of sled dog racing allow mushers to maintain their connection to the ancient tradition.

Bonnie Ulrich and Rick Desotelle of Door County Sled Dogs (DCSD) are a local husband-and-wife recreational mushing team that provides dog sled rides to the general public in both Milwaukee and Door County. They also offer many community educational events. DCSD has partnered with Milwaukee County Parks to offer weekly dog sled rides at Whitnall Park on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., November through March (weather permitting), as well as group and special event rides on Milwaukee’s lakefront in January and February. The experience includes visiting with the couple’s 11 beloved dogs (nine purebred Siberian huskies and two Alaskan huskies), question-and-answer opportunities with the mushers, time for photos and a dog sled ride around the trail.

For more information, visit www.doorcountysleddogs.com.
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