Dog handling teaches novices about mushing

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2004

Living in Alaska, it's pretty hard not to be exposed to sled dog racing.

Some people may only loosely follow the sport by checking the papers to see who came in first in the Iditarod every year, while others zealously attend every race keeping individual statistics on each musher and dog.

Regardless of where one falls within these two dichotomies, few ever stop to consider what goes on behind the scenes of sled dog racing. It's not all glamour and glory.

Although at races dog teams may typically consist of anywhere from six to 20 dogs, some mushers have three to four times more dogs than whatever anyone actually sees. Maintaining a kennel, regardless of the amount of dogs, is a lot of work.

It's so much work that outside help often is required to keep up with the dogs, which allows the professionals to focus on training, racing and acquiring sponsors.

The people who do the bulk of this grunt labor for the professional racers are known in dog mushing circles as handlers.

Some handlers are men, and some are women. Some may be right out of high school, while others are retirees looking to live a lifelong dream. They all have something in common, though an interest in dogs and learning how to drive them.

Former Yukon Quest champion Tim Osmar frequently employs handlers and said it's difficult to put into words exactly what it means to be good at handling.

"It takes a different breed of person," said Osmar, who currently uses handlers to maintain more than 50 dogs between two kennels one in Cohoe and the other in the Caribou Hills.

"They've gotta like dogs, but be tough enough to handle everything that goes with it," he said. "Everything that goes with it" is actually quite a bit.

In the course of a day, handlers typically feed and provide water for dogs, train puppies, cut blocks of frozen fish and other meat into individual portions, add straw to dog houses, prepare food drops for races, help with sled repair and, of course, there is the seemingly endless task of poop scooping.

Some mushers describe handlers as one part musher and one part butler. The ideal handler not only gives mushers what they need,when they need it, but they can predict what mushers need before they need it.

This job description calls for a lot of work, and it's not well-paid at least not in cash.

"There's definitely not much money involved," Osmar said. "Most handlers do it for their love of the idea of mushing."

Some also are offered room and board. Others may be allowed to borrow a team of dogs for a race. For still others, the apprenticeship under a professional is their only reward.

 

After a training run through the Caribou Hills, Tim Osmar, left, gives a few pointers to handler Greg Bagle. After learning the basics, handlers often are responsible for training puppy teams so that professional mushers can concentrate on training and racing the more skilled, athletic and adult dog teams.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Beyond all the labor, Osmar said he enjoys the feeling he gets from employing handlers.

"Teaching is part of the fun of it. It makes you feel good to help good people. I've had people who have handled for me go on and a few years later race against me. I think that's cool," Osmar said.

He said part of that feeling comes from knowing he is perpetuating dog mushing to future generations.

"I love dogs and I really care about this sport. I'd like to keep it alive with all kinds of people, not just people rich enough to own a yard full of dogs," he said.

Greg Bagle recently entered the world of dog mushing and currently handles for Osmar. He also maintains a nine-dog kennel himself.

All the dogs came from Osmar, as well as a lot of secondhand gear to get him started, as payment for his handling services.

"I've wanted to get into mushing for years, but didn't know how to go about it. Tim gave me a start," Bagle said.

He explained how Osmar has taken him under his wing an shown him the ropes literally.

"Tim's not just a world-class musher, he's also a world-class instructor," Bagle said.

Tim isn't the only Osmar to rely on handlers. His father, Dean the 1984 Iditarod champion also annually advertises for handlers.

Most of the people he uses are from the Kenai Peninsula, but a few come from out of state.

"I usually look for someone who is real doggy and loves animals," said the senior Osmar. "They also need to be enthusiastic, patient, easy to get along with, and be able to spend a day in cold, wet, miserable weather and still come back the next day for more."

Dean Osmar also said people who fit this bill, but like hitting the bars until the wee hours, need not apply.

"If they're good with the dogs, but can't get up in the morning because they're out partying and drinking, they're worthless," he said.

As much as handling sounds like it is all work and no play, Dean Osmar said he tries to make it fun for people, and he tries to ensure that handlers take away a lot from the overall experience.

 

Handling definitely isn't a nine to five job. Many handlers start cleaning long before the crack of dawn in order to maximize the daylight hours for taking dogs on training runs.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"They learn to take care of dogs and learn to run them, but it's also a good experience for them to see if they want to be a dog musher," he said. "It's a good introduction to the sport. Some find it's not for them and go back to college, but some get hooked on it."

Dean Osmar said he's even known past handlers who went on to start their own kennels and race their own teams.

Like his son, the senior Osmar knows mushing can be a tough sport to get into, but it's easier now then when he first got into it back in the '70s. For, although Osmar has known victory in the Last Great Race, he started from humble beginnings.

"When I was a kid, the neighbors had trapline dogs, so I would go out with them," he said.

A few years later he decided to get his own team.

"I traded an old skiff for three puppies," remembers Osmar. "There were no real leaders in the bunch, so I went to the pound and got two more dogs."

From there he began running races in the five-dog class, because that's what he had. He continued to breed and build his team, talking to as many people as he could along the way.

"People like Jerry Riley, Emmitt Peters and Rick Swenson were good to talk to," Osmar said. "I was a vacuum cleaner for information and I got a lot of info, but I had to learn to sort out the good stuff from the B.S."

Unlike Osmar, who learned things through trial and error, some people have had a leg up. Kasilof musher Lance Mackey has worked for everything he's got, but he also was practically born into mushing.

His mother, Kathy Smith, was seven months pregnant with Lance when she ran in the Women's North American Sled Dog Championship more than 30 years ago, and his father, Dick Mackey, won the 1978 Iditarod.

"I grew up around dogs," Mackey said. "But a lot of people didn't grow up on the back of a sled and feeding 60 dogs a day. Mushing is new to some people."

In some ways, learning professional dog mushing is analogous to learning professional race car driving, he said.

"You don't just decide to race in the Daytona 500, jump in a car and race," Mackey said. "Mushing is the same way. You have to learn about it. A lot of people can ride on a sled, but not everybody can drive a dog team. It takes time, dedication and money to become a professional."

Mackey said to maintain the 60-plus dogs he has and still be competitive, a handler isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. However, he pointed out, when it comes to handlers, you can't have just anybody.

"You've got to teach the handler what you want and hope when you're not there they maintain the same level of quality and care as you would. You can't have somebody you'll have to baby-sit. You've got to be able to trust them," Mackey said.

 

Greg Bagle runs a puppy team through the Caribou Hills

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"When you find a handler like that it's a big help, because a good handler can help make a good kennel. It allows me to be focused when I'm on the trail or in a race, because I know the handler is taking care of the kennel."

Despite how much emphasis Mackey places on the importance of having a handler, he still says he's right there working with the handlers.

"I don't leave work for anyone. Handlers are there to help me out, but I'm still as actively involved as I can be. I won't ask a handler to do anything I wouldn't do or haven't done myself," he said.

Like many of the other professional mushers, Mackey believes by giving people a proper start in mushing through an apprenticeship, it will eventually benefit the sport down the road.

"People get old and retire from the sport, so if more people aren't becoming interested and getting into the sport, it will just die out," Mackey said.

"Also, mushing is an Alaska tradition. It goes way back, but you can also still run down the street here in Soldotna and people will give you the right of way. If you tried that in New York City people would run you over."

Mackey added, "There's only so much that someone can learn from a book, but handling for a year or two, people can learn to train the right way."

He stressed the importance of this concept because people who learn things the wrong way often can make mistakes or show poor judgment that can affect the whole sport.

"All it takes is for one musher to neglect his dogs, and the public's opinion changes, and it ruins it for 100 mushers like myself doing it good and doing it the right way," he said.

Jason Young handles dogs for Mackey and in the past four years has handled for Dean Osmar, Charlie Boulding of Manley and one musher from out of state.

The 31-year-old from Oconto Falls, Wis., has been spending six months a year in Alaska since 1995. Young said what he does definitely isn't for everyone.

"It's a lot of work and not much glory," he said. "You've gotta really love the sport."

Young has a bachelor's degree in land use planning but finds mushing much more interesting.

"I love dogs, being outdoors, traveling by sled and meeting all the good people involved with mushing."

As to why he handles for other mushers, Young said, "I'm interested in the sport and not ready to do it on my own. I needed more experience and this is the way to get it."

 

Dean Osmar employs handlers annually, but isn't above doing grunt work himself.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Young added that it's better to test the waters of mushing with someone else's dogs, rather than just diving right into it. Handling has the perk that if a person isn't into mushing, the dogs aren't theirs, so they can just walk away. A musher who becomes burned out can't say the same due to all the responsibilities.

Sometimes Young gets paid for handling, but he said he makes most of his money in summer doing other things. He said it's hard not making wages for so many months, but he's committed to the sport of mushing, so it takes priority.

"I like handling. I get 20 to 40 dogs turned over to me and it's my responsibility to train and race them. I hope to do four or five races this year."

He said the dogs he trains are usually B-team puppies because Mackey uses the more experienced, older dogs for races.

Young said it's rewarding to know that the pups he's training now may be future champions.

Young hasn't let running a puppy team hold him back from being competitive, though. In 2002 he placed first in the Tustumena 100 with a team of young dogs.

But as much as he likes handling, Young said he doesn't plan on doing it forever. After all, the point of handling is to learn to mush and manage a kennel on your own.

"One day I want to have my own kennel and race against Lance and all these other guys," Young said. "I know enough now to care and maintain a kennel, but I may handle one more year."

He hopes to run the Iditarod with his one team one day, and not just once.

"I'd like to run it six, seven, eight times and really get to know it," he said.

Maybe when that day comes, he'll have his own handlers. In the meantime, he'll continue to listen and learn from the pros, because despite the old cliche "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," it certainly seems like old dog mushers can teach a lot of tricks of the trade to new people.



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