From Dog to Dog Truck in 10 Easy Steps
We're Dan and Heather and this is the how we got to here with our adventures (with a little about us at the end of the page). Our "Best in Snow" name comes from Denali, as we explain below.
Step one - you start with one Siberian Husky
Step two - you learn about the breed and working sled dogs
Step three - when it's time to get another dog, there's only one choice of breed
Step four - your dog needs a companion
Step five - you befriend an Iditarod musher
Step six - you decide to try dog scootering
Step seven - you ask "how do we haul this stuff?"
Step eight - you and your pets don't know how to do this, so you get a trained lead dog
Step nine - you need a bigger team and more gear
Step ten - finally you've arrived, you're getting a dog truck
Our story isn't atypical -- with Sibes you can't just have one.
Tasha - Our first Sibe
We talked about getting two dogs, a Golden Retriever (to be called Sweetie) for Heather and a Dalmatian (Raster) for Dan. Heather came home from work one day ('92) and said that a work colleague had a friend who was getting divorced and couldn't keep her "Akita". The dog was temporarily with someone else who was going away for the summer, so the dog needed a new home soon. We decided to go and take a look and found a beautiful 5-year old black and white female Siberian Husky, Tasha, who became our first sibe.
Tasha was not your typical Sibe. She was calm and relaxed. We could trust her off leash (you don't do this with a Sibe). She could be out in the yard and would come to the house when called, and run past the deer! She was smart - her original owner told us if we didn't want her to go into a particular room, tell her "no" at the door the first time and she'll obey. So when she arrived we told her "no" for the living room and dining room. She had a bit of thunder phobia, so after a couple years, during a storm, she sheepishly came in the living room to be close, but left right after the storm. Otherwise she never came into the living room.
Tasha understood time - she would let us know when it was time for her daily walk, and we could say "later" and she would disappear for 90 minutes. She learned "wait for the beep". We could put a treat on a plate, set the timer on the microwave, tell her "wait for the beep" and she would leave until the timer went off.
But Tash had her cute little quirks. She hated to hear you sneeze and snarfed when you did. Her bed was next to the washer/dryer, and when she wanted to go to sleep, she would come and snarf if they were still running. And she loved corn, or more specifically corn husks. She was so proud of herself the day she went to the garden, picked an ear of corn, and ate the whole thing (yes, the whole thing, cob and all). She only liked one brand of dog biscuit--we would make a special trip to a store we did not normally shop at to get them for her. She deserved nothing less.
About the Breed
Like a lot of folks who get a Sibe, we knew nothing about the breed before we got Tasha. We're information junkies, so we read and researched a lot. The typical description of a sibe:
high energy (for us that means at least an hour walk EVERY day)
escape artists who like to run (Three rules of Sibe ownership - Rule 1: "never let a sibe off leash", Rule 2: "never off leash", Rule 3: "never off leash")
they like to dig and can climb fences
they shed (ALL the time) and typically blow their coat twice a year
they are smart, but they think rather than obey
We read all this, and more, and if you want a sibe, you should too (see our Links page for more information). So many people like huskies because they are so pretty. But we were skeptical - Tasha had none of these characteristics (except for shedding) - was everyone exaggerating?
No, they are NOT, but she had lulled into loving the breed.
Several months after we lost Tasha to cancer it was time to get another dog - another Sibe. We were committed to getting a rescue - there are so many Sibes out there that need their forever home - people get them as cute puppies and aren't ready for the real Sibe, so they surrender the disobedient, mischievous dog to a shelter or rescue group.
Local breed rescue had a young male: he had been a stray, found after the 4th of July in '99. He was a day away from being put down before being pulled from the "pound" and went into breed rescue. He was generally healthy, but severely under weight, and his coat didn't look the best and his tail was pretty ratty looking. There wasn't any other information about him. They thought he was around 2 years old.
Rescue had named him Denali - which as it turned out was a most appropriate name. Denali is the name of the highest mountain peak in North America (it's in Alaska), and the native Athabascan name translates to "the great one". Denali lived up to his name, but he was a real Sibe, in every way, and more.
After a few months he gained some weight and his coat filled in. He was a handsome blue-eyed, black and white boy; he might have been bred to be a show dog. But as we said, he was a Sibe in every way. Sibe smart, which means he wouldn't do anything unless he understood why it was in his best interest to do it, and always thinking and scheming. While not a digger, he was an escape artist. He was the only dog at one play yard to figure out that if he jumped on top of the air conditioner, he could jump over the fence (luckily there was another fence). And at another, he figured out how to open the panic door from the indoor play yard to the outdoor yard, which tripped the security alarm and brought the police. The upside of all this energy was a dog that was great at doing agility obstacles and was one of the fastest, most sure footed dogs at the dog park.
It took many months (more than a year) to get him to pass intermediate obedience -- part of the test is to stay for 5 minutes off leash, but all he wanted to do was run and play. He finally passed his test and got his CGC (Canine Good Citizen) title and his Therapy Dog certification. He didn't know it, but his payment for being rescued was to give back as a therapy dog. After working a bit as a therapy dog he passed his test to become a "Pet Friend" at Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh. He did over 100 visits. He helped kids, parents and staff, and would visit patient rooms, intensive care and the ER. One day his extra "assignment" was to go to the ER - the staff had a rough day and needed some comfort of their own. We have lots of other stories like this, but he paid his debt and did make a difference in many people's lives. We had to say goodbye to him in February of 2011 after arthritis had diminished his mobility to the point that he had to be carried, but he spent 11 wonderful if exasperating years with us and was the real trigger to all we've done with dogs since he came into our lives.
A Team of Two: Rubi Joins The Team
For all the great things about him, Denali had some serious issues. He was terribly scared of fireworks, lightning and thunder, and camera flash. The storm routine was vet-prescribed drugs and someone staying with him on the floor of the windowless bathroom until the storm passed. He could sense the thunderstorms that were 30 miles away, so he would panic way before we knew a storm was near (we became weather radar junkies so that we could prepare for his panic). And as we found out, he had severe separation anxiety (not uncommon with a rescue of any breed). After he arrived, we both were at home for a couple weeks before we went out shopping for a couple hours and left him alone. We could leave Tasha alone for hours, so we thought nothing of it. When we returned, he had almost finished ripping a window out of its frame! After that, for 11 years, he was never at home alone for more than a few minutes. A series of doggie daycare and friends as petsitters helped us manage this wonderful but extremely needy dog. Because of his innate friendliness, we were able to take him to business meetings with us so that he wouldn't be alone. Fortunately, he liked being in the car, so during the cool months of the year, he went everywhere with us, but our lives totally revolved around caring for Denali.
A common solution for a dog with separation anxiety is to get a companion dog. One of our friends from Animal Friends (Pittsburgh's no kill shelter) knew of our issues with Denali, and called one day in '05 to say that they had a Sibe who wasn't doing well in the shelter. Lady, as she was then called, was a two year old, red/copper, bi-eyed Sibe. Another victim of "moving", she went through 5 homes in 2 months until she arrived with us. Initially, we were going to foster her, but she became what they call a "failed foster", i.e., she was adopted into her foster home. She was renamed, no Sibe should be called Lady. Her new name is "Rubina" or Rubi, part as a play on her color (Ruby translates as Rubina in Italian), but also because one of the checkpoints along the Iditarod trail is the village of Ruby.
So we had two dogs. Rubi was pretty laid back and easy. She was reliable off leash in the yard, and loved to sun bathe. She wanted to go on a walk almost everyday, and she quickly made it through obedience and therapy dog certification. She and Denali got along well, but Rubi completely ignores storms so she could never figure out what Denali's problem was. Walking in the park with two pretty Sibes does bring lots of attention so we did lots of informal education about the breed when people asked to pet the pretty dogs.
The Pretty Sled Dogs
With Denali and all of his issues we did a lot more research about Sibes and we had been following Iditarod. One of the people on the mail lists who was always providing good advice and expertise was Karen Ramstead. Karen's story takes 1 dog to a dog truck to the extreme -- 50+ dogs, Best in Show Canadian Champion Siberian Huskies and 10-time Iditarod participant (as of 2012). Breeder, musher, educator, show judge, race marshal - Karen knows all about working sled dogs and Sibes. North Wapiti Kennel's tag line is Pretty Sled Dogs, and 16 Sibes on the Iditarod trail is an awesome sight. Karen is one of the few mushers who still run pure bred dogs in long distance races and is dedicated to showing what the breed was bred to do. Her champion show dogs are all accomplished long distance sled dogs (she won't show a dog unless its a proven race veteran).
We continued to read more, and track Karen's activities. We made it to Alaska for our first Iditarod in '05. Since then we've become good friends of Karen, and help out with her web site and the like. We made it back to Alaska for Iditarod '08 and '12. Dan got his "press pass" and helped Husky Productions doing still photography for professional videographer Donna Quante. You really need to be "inside the fence" for Iditarod if you are serious about sled dogs or photography.
Amateur Dog Drivers
Along with learning about Sibes and distance sled dog racing, we started to learn more about "dryland" mushing: running on wheeled carts when you don't have snow. The entry point for dryland is a "dog scooter": think of a cross between a little kid's scooter and a mountain bike. You stand on a platform, hook up dogs just like on a sled, and they pull. Thankfully, the scooter has brakes!
We did our research, and in October '08 we got our Pawtrekker scooter. And we got the basic equipment: harnesses, lines, and a helmet. Time to go hit the trail with the team - Denali and Rubi.
Hauling Dog Stuff
The Pawtrekker is designed to quickly come apart, and fold, so it would fit in the back of our SUV. Two people, two dogs, scooter, a little stuff -- we're OK to go to a nearby park; all we're adding is the scooter since we had been going to the same parks for our walks.
But you soon find out that the dogs and scooter can find mud anywhere, and it takes time to assemble and disassemble the scooter, even with quick releases. So the next piece of equipment was a bike rack, and then soon afterward a roof top box. We were now ready to travel.
We Need a Lead Dog: Holly
Scootering is fun, but neither Denali or Rubi knew what to do. Neither had the experience of pulling, and while they enjoyed it, runs were nice and leisurely, with lots of stops. But more importantly, we didn't know what we should be doing.
More research, and the general conclusion, if you want to have a dog team, you can't easily train novices from scratch. You need to have a trained dog for them to work with. We've got a couple friends who also were trying to scooter, but like us, their dogs are also novices and they didn't have any more experience than we did. We were having fun getting together, but wanted to do more
So we told Karen of our "plight" and asked about getting a dog that knew what to do. We also wanted a dog that could be a therapy dog, but we weren't going to be showing the dog or breeding. Karen responded and said that she has a good candidate, and the dog can get a ride (from Alberta) to Pittsburgh "tomorrow". What are we getting into? "Sure," we said, "send her to us." We have 3 days to figure out how to deal with a real sled dog!
March '09 and Holly (NorthWapiti's Holland Lake) joins the team. Holly had been an "A team" dog for 3 years. We now had a real expert, who also is gorgeous and affectionate--a real doll. Rubi didn't have the conditioning, so she couldn't go for more than a couple of miles, but Holly and Dan were able to do longer runs. By now, unfortunately, Denali developed some hip and back problems and wasn't able to do long runs. But we traveled 60+ miles on the scooter in season 1.
The Bigger Team: Sprite
Season 2 ('09-'10) started in OK in September, then Holly got injured at doggie daycare and was out of commission for a couple months. Holly and Rubi got to pull a sled a few times, and Denali got one last short run on snow. By the end of the season we were regularly doing longer runs, and Rubi was in shape for the first time in her life - now a capable (but lazy!) working dog.
In mid-winter, our scootering pal and husky rescue expert Polly needed her sled fixed, and we've got a great sled builder near by. So Dan went along and ordered a new sled for Holly's birthday present. Unfortunately, it wasn't finished until after the last snow, but we did get over 90 miles on the scooter in season 2, and were doing regular 2-3 mile runs a couple times a week.
Now more gear. Lots of little stuff, a sled bag (required if you want to race), and we needed to build a rack to carry the sled on the roof of the SUV (with the roof box, it doesn't fit on the normal roof rack).
Season 3 ('10-'11) started out great. We signed up for our first dryland race and had 60 miles of training in by November. But Holly had a little injury so she had to sit out a few days, and Rubi doesn't like new trails, so while the race wasn't great, it was a good experience in knowing how to travel to events.
We knew for awhile that Denali wasn't going to be with us much longer, so we talked to Karen again, and she offered us NorthWapiti's Sprite. Sprite is a super sled dog. She finished Iditarod twice, and was lead dog into Nome in 2008. Being lead into Nome is the special reward for the dogs that do the best in leading the team the 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome. Sprite, the tomboy, flew from Canada in late November '10, and adapted to life as a retired race dog instantly. She works and plays hard, but is super sweet. We did our first snow race in January '11, and finished our first dryland event in March. We did 250 miles on the scooter and sled, had traveled to 4 weekend events, and were regularly doing 5-7.5 mile runs. It's really a different experience to start at one place and travel 7+ miles to another by dog team in an hour. You finally appreciate what the Sibe was bred to do.
So here we are, end of the '11 season, with 3 dogs, all the gear, and capable and experienced - the dogs at least - we're still learning. And our friend Polly was also getting serious, with a new scooter and the need of a lead dog, so Sprite's younger sister Dew joined her team. So we're planning for events for the '11-'12 season (our season 4), but how do we haul all this stuff? Time for a new dog truck. So there you go: ten easy steps from dog to dog truck. The dog truck project was an adventure in itself, so it has it's own dedicated story.
Season 4 ('11-'12) went well, but it was mostly training. We had almost no snow, had a short season due to warm weather and spent a lot of time figuring out the dog truck, but did get in 250+ miles. Holly did keep complaining that she needed a wheel dog to help on hills.
We saw Karen at Iditarod '12 and after the end of the season, she offered us Casey. Casey is Sprite's daughter, and like her mom, a great lead dog. In September '12 we made the long drive to NorthWapiti to get her, and had a chance to run the "yard loop" there with the new team (Sprite, Casey, Holly). So for '12-'13 we had 3 great dogs (Rubi said she just wants to be our mascot), and maybe Dew on occasion.
We lost Rubi in Spring of '13 unexpectedly. A couple months later, Karen asked "I'm thinking about placing Bang, you're probably not interested, but I'd ask". So soon after we were back with four dogs, all from the NorthWapiti main string. Its quite the experience to run 4 highly trained and expertly bred working dogs. Bang is another super leader, and a piebald, so she will attract a lot of attention.
As we became more involved with mushing we're spending more time helping others. Dan is on the board of the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club, and we've helped setup West Penn Mushers as an informal forum for local folks to organize activities and share information.
Who We Are
We're both retired working professionals. Dan did information technology (IT) for education, designing large technology systems to manage learning and training content. Heather did technical communications, project management, technical editing and writing. Long before Covid we both worked from home, and had flexible hours, so we could fit dog stuff into our schedule. And with mobile technology we're able to work from almost anywhere. Covid basically shut down most dog powered sports and events in all of the US and Canada for two year, so that combined with older dogs, we're no longer able to run dogs.
Best in Snow
One of the things that we do is try to educate people about Sibes and working sled dogs. Animal Friends has an annual Winter Family Fun Day that we participate in with our friends from husky rescue. They wanted a picture for their newsletter, so we sent them the one on the top of this page. The picture was put up on their web site, titled "Best in Snow". It was perfect - he was at his best in the snow, running for the pure joy of running, sure footed, fast and confident. So as a tribute to Denali and all he taught us as he led us to discover new interests, make new friends and go on new adventures, we named this site for him.
Miss you, big guy.