When the snow finally melts and the last race is run, one might think sled dogs are just beginning a long, quiet, relaxing summer.
Though some kennels are comparatively quiet in the “off-season,” many mushers take the warmer summer months to work with their dogs for another purpose - sled dog tours.
Michelle Phillips, a Yukon Quest and Iditarod veteran, runs Tutshi Sleddog Tours on the South Klondike Highway.
“We offer sled dog tours and educational talks,” Phillips said. “(We’re) sharing our sport with people all over the world.”
Tours with Phillips are 15 to 20 minutes long, followed by a short educational talk and a chance to interact with her “up-and-coming athletes” in the puppy yard.
Phillips explained that the tours utilize her entire kennel, and that being able to swap out dogs in warmer weather keeps everyone happy and fresh.
“We have a lot of water on our trail and we put (the dogs) in sprinklers if it’s warm after a run,” Phillips said. “Our trail can be short or long, so we adjust according to the temperatures.”
Just up the road, Connor McMahon - who made his Quest debut with a pair of races this past winter - operates out of Caribou Crossing Trading Post in Carcross. Tours there are similar in length to Tutshi, and also include education from guides and a photo op with the next generation of sled dogs.
Like Phillips, McMahon uses his racing dogs for the tours.
“I use the majority of my race dogs plus my puppies and a couple older retired guys,” McMahon said.
Tours at Caribou Crossing are also roughly 15 minutes long and also include tidbits of knowledge and expertise about dogs and racing.
While most folks have an idea in their mind of what sled dogs are like - physically and behaviorally - both Phillips and McMahon said visitors are often surprised by the athletes hooked to the cart.
“I get a lot of people who expect the dogs to be a lot bigger and thicker-coated because that’s what Disney always puts on the TV,” Phillips said. “(People are surprised) that they’re so small, and then the breed itself (Alaskan Husky) is a mixed breed, so that’s kind of surprising.”
McMahon echoed that the dog appearances are often perplexing.
“That’s the biggest question we get normally; how come they don’t look like what we see in movies or on TV?” McMahon said. “We explain they’re Alaskan Huskies, not Siberian Huskies or Malamutes.”
Perhaps most impressive about the summer work regime for sled dogs is how much training can be accomplished with just short tours, McMahon said.
“We're not doing much physical conditioning; it's more mental stuff we're working on like the synergy of the dogs, directional commands and making sure that everybody is in their favourite spot in the team and where they want to be,” McMahon explained. “Every day is bonding more with the dogs as well.”
Even something as simple as the setup can have positive effects when it comes to race time. Dogs are kept on a wooden platform with full overhead coverage from rain and sun, where they’re always within easy reach of fresh water.
These “hookup alleys” also usually have sprinkler systems tied into them, allowing guides to simply turn on the water and give the dogs a misting that would make grocery store produce jealous.
But importantly these setups allow the dogs to get comfortable being ready to work and still be around people, including plenty of strangers.
“We have spectators pretty close to the dogs, so the dogs get real comfortable with people being around and focused on them and taking pictures,” McMahon said. “At a race in a checkpoint, or even just meeting people on the trail, the dogs aren’t overwhelmed by it all - it’s just part of their everyday life.”
So if you're curious what teams get up to in the summer, what better way to see for yourself than to meet some of the mushers and dogs who make the Yukon Quest what it is for a tour?