California's 'Urban' Sled Dogs are Cool with No Snow
COSTA MESA, California - California's lack of snow is no problem for Obi, a sled dog a thousand miles from the North Pole, pulling an "urban sled" to the delight of his devoted human owner, Rancy Reyes.
Reyes mushes on a two-wheeled cart through Fairview Park in Costa Mesa, south of Los Angeles, pulled by Obi and his team of seven other huskies. And Reyes is not the only one.
Along the trail, other urban mushers trek across the sunny park on scooters or even bicycles — pulled by their trusty arctic canines.
It's a Saturday tradition. Each week, owners of Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and Samoyeds get up early with their pups to take them to Fairview Park to kick up some dirt on the trails.
These pet owners got involved in "urban sledding" as a way to pamper their pets by helping them live out their birthright.
"Huskies have so much energy," Reyes explained, "what they were bred to do is to run and pull."
Reyes started mushing when he adopted Niko, a clumsy and hyperactive six-month-old husky who needed more exercise.
To help him use up some of that energy, "I bought a scooter, I hooked up Niko to it, and we ran along the trails and he loved it. He just loves to run," Reyes said. Soon after, Reyes began training other people and their pets in urban mushing.
"This is a treat," said Kathy Tamanaha, who has owned a Samoyed for two years. "These are sled dogs. It's in their breeding. They're totally meant to pull," she said.
During water breaks, as the dogs socialize by sniffing each others' butts, their "parents" talk about scooter models and the tireless energy of their pups.
A handmade mushing cart can cost up to $2,000, said Henning Bartel, 45, a structural engineer who so far has made 50 of the specialty vehicles. "We had four huskies and we needed a way to exercise them," he told AFP, recounting his beginnings in this unusual pastime.
The dogs can pull a single person on a scooter at speeds reaching 12 to 25 miles (20 to 40 kilometers) per hour — and the pros can get going even faster, up to 30 miles (50 kilometers) an hour.
They're slowed down a bit more pulling a larger sled, but in either case, training is crucial — and not only physically.
The dogs are "connected by a line. I have no reins like for horses, so there's no way to make them go left or right," said Reyes.
The dogs follow "voice commands. Which means they have to focus, to pay attention to you. So it also exercises their minds," he said.
Most crucially, the lead dog has to obey the commands — in this case, the friendly Obi.
Reyes explained that the dog best suited to leading is not necessarily the "alpha male" of the group but, on the contrary, the one who is typically the most docile among humans.
"Not all dogs want to be in front. Not all listen to you," the 52-year-old Filipino-American explained. "Obi is the team leader here because he so desperately wants to please me."
Of course, to pull a simpler scooter, all the dog needs to know is how to run.
But whether on a sled, a scooter or a bicycle, "we're happy because our dog is happy," said Tamanaha, caressing her gorgeous — and exhausted — white Samoyed.
Image (not Obi): Jonathan Willier / via Flickr