CADILLAC — Participating in sled dog racing can be an energy rush.
One man calls it the “loudest silent sport.‘
When you’re out on the sled in the woods, you don’t have the buzzing sound of a snowmobile, said Tim Dewey, co-owner of Shemhadar Dog Sled Adventures in Cadillac.
It’s absolutely quiet.
There’s no noise at all besides the pitter-patter of paws and the “whoofing‘ of the dogs’ breath.
“It’s the absolute most beautiful way you can see the woods,‘ Dewey said.
By dog sled, you can really see and enjoy the woods and still have a little bit of the excitement and thrill at the same time.
There is a small but passionate dog sled community in the Cadillac area.
Matt Woudenberg, who has been involved with racing and training dogs for over 40 years, is another member of the community.
Dewey described it as a “very small subculture,‘ and Woudenberg said their community is shrinking.
For almost all of them, raising and training the dogs is a part-time hobby or side business to help pay for dog food and other dog needs.
Woudenberg said there are quite a few mushers in the midwest and Michigan, but the “big reason‘ the sport’s community is shrinking is because “we’re in a warming trend.‘
“So we have crummy snow,‘ he said. “Limited snow and questionable conditions.‘
On the dog sled, there is an ice hook to keep a team in place. It needs about a foot of snow to be really secure, and it’s hard to race when that’s not the case.
Woudenberg said the sport has changed over the years. Back in 1975 people would come with 30 dogs and the whole family would race.
Now, there are more micro-kennels and events for maybe four dogs max for dryland events.
The different types of racing
A dryland race is like a sled dog race, except without the sled.
Woudenberg said that for a dryland race, dogs get hooked onto a wheeled rig that can be made out of mountain bike frames and aluminum components.
There’s also two-dog scooter classes, just like the old kick scooters people used to use years ago, then one-dog scooter classes. Then one- and two-dog bikejoring.
For people looking to get some exercise along with their pooches, one of the races is a canicross, a race where one person and one dog run together.
With the weather, costs and other aspects of the sport changing, the kennels are getting smaller, Woudenberg said.
Wouldenberg’s own kennel usually has a max of six dogs.
Some people get burned out because of the commitment, so smaller kennels are easier to manage.
“That’s the direction the sport seems to be going now,‘ he said.
Dewey said he, his wife and the kids all fell in love with the dogs and the sport of sled dog racing.
It all started when his then 8-year-old daughter wanted a husky after watching “Snow Dogs‘ and reading “Balto.‘
She begged for six months and they finally went to go get some dogs.
They ended up buying two Siberian husky puppies and the breeder threw in a sled.
They took off down the road with them one winter day and fell in love.
Someone taught them how to run and his daughter entered a race with them.
And the worst thing that could happen happened, Dewey said.
“She was hooked,‘ he said.
Dewey tries to do four races a year, which is hit or miss depending on the weather.
The rest of the time he does dog sled races. His business, Shemhadar Dog Sled Adventures, does 18 to 25 days of rides during the season and do about nine or 10 rides a day.
They open up registration on Nov. 1 and usually by mid-December its booked for the season.
Usually, customers are people from out of the area, from Europe and China and a little closer like Detroit and Chicago. It brings money into the area, he said.
Dewey said people get to ride on a sled and tour the kennel while learning about dog sledding.
They hook up eight dogs and do a pilot and co-pilot set-up with the sled.
He said they do three-mile tours which can take 10 to 20 minutes and costs $100 for the whole deal.
“We show them the kit and caboodle and let them love on the dogs all they want,‘ he said.
Wouldenberg said if someone is interested in getting involved with the sport, they should start with experienced dogs. They shouldn’t buy a cute little puppy and just hope it will pull them down a trail one day.
He said buy at least one experienced dog, preferably a lead, and build from there.
Align with a group that will help you achieve your goals. There are local mentors for people and a big dog pool for people to draw from, he said.
Wouldenberg also said the sport is not as cutthroat anymore and people encourage one another.
“It’s an interesting sport,‘ Woudenberg said. “It’s colorful, it’s exciting.‘
The different types of dogs
Different dog breeds are unique in how they run and there’s even a difference between even an Alaskan and Siberian Husky.
Breeders will mix in whatever dogs they think will improve the running. Border collies, Labrador retrievers and even Irish springer spaniels have been thrown in the mix.
Eurohounds, a mix of German shorthair pointer and husky, are owner-focused and will not run off, Woudenberg said. A husky might be more likely to wander.
Ron Hnatuik, who lives in Canada but comes to the Cadillac area to race and train dogs, said in a November interview that Eurohounds are “like a marathon runner,‘ and don’t carry a lot of weight.
He said most people are positive about sled dog racing but there are some people who say it’s cruel to make dogs run.
“They frown on stuff like that,‘ he said, but the dogs love it.
“I think it’s cruel and unusual punishment not to run them,‘ Wouldenberg said.
Dewey said if someone complains that this is cruel to the dogs or the dogs don’t want to do it, then they’ve obviously never been to a race.
“The dogs absolutely love it,‘ he said. “They don’t have to be forced.‘
Dewey said when he goes out to pick his dogs for his team, it’s like being back in gym in school.
They want to be picked for the team and don’t want to be picked last, so they will let you know they want to join, he said.
“They just go nuts,‘ Woudenberg said.
He said when he would get out his dogs, he wouldn’t have to hold onto them and they’d get into position themselves.
“They love to go,‘ he said. “It still amazes me.‘
“It’s all about the dogs,‘ Dewey said. “Just another way to love a dog.‘