HEBRON — Alex Therriault likes the quiet, when it comes, after the dogs are hitched and it’s just them and the snow.
“I love the dogs. I love the experience with the dogs, being out there with Mother Nature,” Therriault said. “There’s no cellphones, none of this technology holding everyone down in society these days.”
Therriault, 21, began dogsled racing before kindergarten. Last year he started his own business, Ultimate Sledding Dog Experience, from his Oxford home where his 25 dogs live. Therriault gives tours to customers on trails in Bethel and Hebron.
Often people mistakenly assume because the dogs live outside year-round, they’re not friendly, he said. But his dogs seem to love people.
There’s Ruby, an outgoing, blondish Alaskan husky. “It’s killing her not to be petted,” Therriault said. Most of his dogs are Alaskan husky-German shorthaired pointer mixes. Vince, the strongest dog, is calmer, less needy. Others are named Hayes, Marlan, Rohan, Liberty, Dandy and Major. Each dog has his or her own personality.
As Therriault spoke, Ruby wagged her tail and jumped up on a stranger, looking for attention.
At a trail off 911 Station Road, next to Storekeepers market during a sunny January morning, Therriault and his father, Paul, harnessed the dogs for a run.
Each sprang from Therriault’s truck, which can hold all 25 of his dogs, 24 in kennels in the back, one retired dog in the front seat.
Therriault harnessed the eight dogs, then hooked the first one, Hayes, to the front of the sled.
Suddenly, it was pandemonium with louder, more excited barking and howling. It was as if each dog was frantic about being left behind and was yelling: “Me too, me too!”
“They live for this,” Therriault said. “They love to run.”
The dogs continued their barking until the last one was hitched. Therriault stood on the sled, gave the command to go. The barking ceased, replaced by silence as the dogs shot off.
Therriault, a business major at Central Maine Community College, has grown up with sled dogs. His father and brother are seasoned sled dog enthusiasts.
“My first race was when I was 3 years old,” Therriault said. “My dad and brother were racing at the world championships. There was a junior class for little kids with one dog.”
The race was 100 yards long. “It took all I could do to reach the handle bars,” he said with a laugh. “But I held on tight and finished the race. I’ve been dog-sledding ever since.”
According to his Web page, he holds a silver medal from the International Sled Dog Racing Association, has won Maine State Championships, and in 2011 he came in fourth in the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby.
He competes in sprint races that are “short and fast, 4 to 12 miles,” he said. “The winning team averages around 20 mph.” Therriault used to race every weekend during the winter, “the whole North America circuit from here to Alaska.” He races frequently, but more of his time is spent on college and growing his business.
He has two teams of touring dogs and one racing team, eight dogs to a team, and one retired dog, Bliss, 14. “She sleeps on my bed.”
The difference between a racing sled dog and a touring dog is age and speed. “Certain dogs are faster than others,” he said. “I have mostly one line that does all the racing. They’re all super fast.”
Sled dogs are competitive when they’re running, not with each other but with other teams.
“They want to win,” Therriault said. “Say I’m passing a team. I’m flying by them and all of a sudden the other team catches up. They don’t want to lose.”
Some animal activists misunderstand sled dogs, said his father, Paul. “They say, ‘You’re making that poor dog do that.’ These are ropes,” he said, holding up the lines to the sled. “You can’t push a rope. The dogs have to want to pull. From the first time they’re hooked up, they love to run.”
Therriault breeds his dogs, and from an early age it’s obvious which ones will be good runners. “Almost all of them want to run. Once in a while you get one that doesn’t want to run. They become inside pets.”
The dogs can’t run in temperatures warmer than 45 to 50 degrees. “They’d get overheated,” Therriault said. When it’s not winter, they live in a fenced-in yard. “We have 26 acres,” he said. “We free-run them.”
Therriault works as a whitewater rafting guide in the summer.
Except for the retired dogs, the sled dogs live outside year-round. They have insulated houses bedded with straw that, with the dogs’ winter coats, stay at 50 degrees even in sub-freezing weather, Therriault said. “They like being outside,” Therriault said. Indoors is too warm for them.
Taking care of 25 dogs requires about three hours of work each day to clean their houses, feed and exercise them.
“It’s a lifestyle choice,” Therriault said with a smile. “You have dogs or you have a life.”
How much to take a sled dog ride? 1-hour: $175 per sled; 2-hour: $275 per sled; sprinting (fast) sled dog ride: $225 per sled.
Weight limit of customers on one sled, 375 to 400 pounds, the maximum a team can pull; there is room for up to three people, providing the total weight is less than 400 pounds.
Kennel tours to meet the dogs: $50 to $75.
Rides are given in Hebron and Bethel, where there’s snow. For more http://www.ultimatedogsleddingexperience.com/.
Dog sled commands:
“Gee!” means turn right;
“Haw!” turn left;
“On by!” means pass that sled, or go straight ahead.
Alex Therriault also has whistle commands that his dogs know. Sometimes they listen better to a whistle than to verbal commands.