A team of dogs, one sled and a bundle of energy
Voluntown - They have names like Spyder and Blaze and Havok. They're a sled-dog team, but if Outlaw Ridge were a band, it'd be a hard-core heavy-metal band, black its team color, crazy and adrenaline-high backstage but with the power to channel all that craziness into some quality music onstage.
Today, though, is just band practice. And Becki Tucker, leader of one of the few competitive sled-dog teams in Connecticut, is taking her six younger dogs out for a 3-mile spin, getting them used to being harnessed and lined up and running.
There's no snow on the ground this late March morning, and mushing season is over, so Tucker trains the 9-month-olds with more experienced dogs on an ATV she puts in gear and then shuts off. The collective strength of 16 Siberian huskies can pull Tucker, husband Kevin and the 800-pound ATV with ease.
It's a chilly morning, but that's good for dogs that will overheat in weather warmer than 50 degrees because they won't know to stop and cool themselves down. Tucker is dressed in jeans and an old hooded sweatshirt, dismissive of the cold the way you'd expect someone from Alaska to scoff at 30-something-degree weather.
But this isn't Alaska, where the famed Iditarod sled-dog race takes place every March.
Tucker trains her dogs at Pachaug State Forest, just a mile or so down the road from her house. During race season, she also trains in New Hampshire and Maine, putting her and her dogs on the road four days a week for a combination of training and races.
Tucker, all 130 pounds of her, swiftly hoists the dogs up into their individual "dog box" - a kennel of sorts Tucker's husband, Kevin, built to fit snugly on the back of a pickup truck. Some are more reluctant to get in than others and complain about the process, but the experienced racers position themselves for the boost.
At Pachaug, Tucker unloads the dogs and clips them to the sides of the truck before lining them up one by one on a line attached to a tree at one end and the ATV at the other. With puppies, especially, the process can get chaotic, but Tucker is patient, and the dogs will soon learn not to be anxious and uncertain, just ready.
'The closest thing to a wolf'
It all started in 1996 with a Siberian husky named Yukon.
A dog with an untameable streak, Yukon, belonged to an elderly woman who had gotten the dog to replace a beloved Shih Tzu. Unable to handle him, the woman called the animal shelter where Tucker was working to see if it could put the year-old dog down.
Tucker, now 34, had a husky growing up and decided to adopt the dog instead.
"I went and looked at him, and he was the closest thing to a wolf," Tucker says. "I remember walking to the backyard, where he was in this little chicken-wire kind of kennel, and he just stared at you. You could tell he didn't have anything with people."
Yukon was so strong that for his dog run Tucker had to get a cable designed to tow vehicles.
"I started thinking that he just needed an outlet to burn energy," Tucker says.
Tucker decided to give sled-dog racing a try. She acquired a puppy named Outlaw, then started rescuing Huskies that nobody else wanted.
Outlaw Ridge was born.
Tucker's world soon became about dogs, dogs, dogs. During training season she's up at 3 a.m. to train the dogs before heading out to her full-time job as a veterinary nurse at Westerly Animal Hospital.
Any vacation time she gets she sets aside for 30-, 45- and 60-mile races, mostly in New Hampshire and Maine. The 60-mile Can-Am race in Fort Kent, Maine, takes some seven to eight hours to complete, Tucker says.
The off-season routine is a little more relaxed, but Tucker will still be up and loading her dogs by 6:30 a.m. about three times a week until it gets too warm to train. It's time-consuming and expensive, but mushing might just be the perfect fit for Tucker, a former emergency and critical-care veterinary nurse who feeds on adrenaline and sleeps some four hours a night.
"I need that time with the dogs. I like my mornings to start running them," she says. "There's nothing more awesome than being out there right before the sun comes up."
Training the pups
At Pachaug, the dogs pull on the line, barking and yelping and getting in each others' faces. When 16 dogs make noise at once, their high-pitched whines and yelps begin to sound human, like there are 16 different conversations going on amid the cacophony.
Often, the dogs get tangled up with their line mates and start bickering.
"They can be as crazy as they want next to each other," Tucker says. "They can bang into each other and look like they're having an argument. But they can't actually have a fight."
Gemma, one of the young dogs and an early onset troublemaker, chews through the neck line keeping her in place and promptly gets scolded.
Chewing of the neck line and tugs is a big no-no, as a dog could chew through the tug, "and that's how you lose one of the dogs," Tucker says.
"Everything is new for them, from unloading to harnessing to walking them to the line, to putting them on the line, to the dog next to them," she says. "So every single step is a big deal that you watch for."
Tucker knows not to try to make the dogs' early training runs perfect. With inexperienced dogs in the mix, you have to teach them one thing at a time, not one hundred things at once, she says.
" 'Cause then they're missing the fun part of it," she says.
Tucker's eye for detail affords her a keen understanding of each dog's quirks and the ability to quickly spot unwanted behavior and correct it.
"The whole goal to running all the time is that everybody does well: no injuries, everybody's safe and sound and happy when they come back," Tucker says. "Even if you have to reprimand them on the trail and let them know that they're doing something wrong, you don't ever want to do it to the point where you stress them."
Giving the dogs individual attention
As the number of Tucker's dogs grew from one to two, two to 10, and 10 to 22, it never occurred to her to stop. She now breeds some of the dogs herself to maintain a full team of runners.
"Some women like to buy shoes, and they like to go clothes shopping," Tucker says. "My passion requires a lot more time and energy for me, but that's me, and so it works well and I would never stop."
As a pack, the dogs behave as one, but that doesn't mean they don't seek individual attention. At feeding time they'll jump up on her in greeting, but not all at once; they wait their turn. Home from work, puppies get her attention first, then the active runners. Retired runners wait for their Tucker time, preferring a quieter time after dinner when Tucker sits on the living room floor and plays with the dogs.
"You just have your chat with them. 'How was your day?' And that's five (dogs), and they get their time," Tucker says. "The runners, I don't just work them. When I'm harnessing them they get a pet, and I'm always talking to them. Same thing when we were done running. You don't just get done running them, feed them, put them in the box, let's go home. No. There's more that we're doing together. It's time for us."
The dogs all sleep in the house, but only one chooses to sleep on the bed with the Tuckers.
Always keenly attuned to the dogs' individual needs, Tucker says she just knows when it's time for a dog to stop racing. They'll look at her a certain way or stop wanting to load up and go, she says.
The dogs were a great comfort to Tucker when she suffered a life-threatening head injury from an ATV accident three years ago. Tucker has never had an accident on the ATV with the dogs; ironically, this accident occurred when she was on an ATV alone in her driveway.
Kevin Tucker, 36, joins his wife on her Sunday morning ride because, while training puppies, she needs someone to hold the brakes on the ATV while she jumps off and corrects the dogs. Kevin, sleepy-eyed at 7 a.m., doesn't appear to share Tucker's enthusiasm for early-morning runs. But he does support her passion.
In a part of the country unaccustomed to the sight of more than a dozen dogs pulling an ATV behind them, any bit of information Tucker can share about mushing can help people better understand the sport, she says.
"Some people meet me or hear about me, they think it's cool or they think it's weird," Tucker says.
A man with a black Labrador retriever Tucker runs into sometimes at Pachaug is unhappy with her use of Pachaug for training; that morning, the man and the Tuckers exchange a few heated words. But a group of inquisitive hikers just a short while later pronounce the sport "cool" as they walk by the pack.
Tucker knows she's done well by her dogs when, at the end of a run, they are "strong, proud and happy."
"I want tails wagging," she says. "I want them to look at me and (think), 'Good run.'"
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