Some teenagers ask for dance lessons, others an electric guitar. Renata Sauder asked for a sled dog. At 14, Sauder asked her parents to buy her first dog, a Siberian Husky named Osie, and heard the answers one might expect from parents. “They said ‘oh you’re just going to have it for a week and then we’ll have to take care of it,’” said Sauder, now 22. “So, first I did the fish and then the hamsters and then they saw I was serious.”
Eight years later Sauder owns three sled dogs and races with some of the best dog teams in the country.
In her most recent competition, she raced using the second-place national team of dogs, in a two-day four mile event in Kearney, Ont. Sauder placed second on day one, but fell to fourth on the second day.
“They’re fast, it’s very, very exciting,” she said of the national team. “It was fascinating to see that caliber of dog.”
Although one wouldn’t expect a teenaged girl to be interested in sled dog racing, the extraordinariness of the sport is what attracted Sauder to the event.
“I like doing things that are unique and different,” she said. Now a dog groomer in Guelph, Sauder loves the sport for the connection it has with the dogs. More than just pets, Sauders animals are teammates and friends, working with her everyday.
“They’re stunning animals, but there’s a lot more to them than just looks,” Sauder’s eyes light up as she talks about the three Siberian Huskies she owns.
The oldest, seven-year-old Osie, retired now, plays outside with the newest addition to Sauder’s family: a five-month-old named Vixen who is just beginning her foray into sled dog racing.
Training is a slow process so as to acclimatize the dog properly to the job they will perform. Currently Vixen is too young to race and is being socialized so she will know what to expect from the people she meets.
“I have her around anything I can come up with. Fireworks, elevators, kids, people with funny hats, anything I think she could come in contact with at a race,” Sauder said.
The dog is full of energy and even now pulls Sauder along on her leash when they go for walks, but has yet to be hooked to the harness that will pull Sauder through cold, snowy trails. Sauder is waiting until next winter to introduce Vixen to a sled, concerned as the snow begins to melt about the dog’s future reaction to the sport if something goes wrong with little time to correct it.
“I don’t want to have a bad pull or a bad experience and not be able to rectify it for months; that might scare her out of doing it. I’m not rushing her,” she said.
Sauder remembers her own first spills while learning the sport. One in particular where her sled tipped over, but the dogs kept pulling, sticks out in her mind. Unable to let go of the sled for fear of losing the dogs, Sauder hung on and was dragged more than 100 feet. Eventually she lost her grip on the sled and the dogs had to be rescued by a friend on a snowmobile.
“He did this big western move, jumping from snowmobile to sled and then rode the team back and as he’s passing me he says ‘now you get to go get the snowmobile.’” She can laugh at the memory now.
Although the dogs are always her primary concern, not every one sees the love she has for her team.
Sauder has had to face angry protestors at races and defend her love of the event, more so recently after more than 100 dogs were alleged to have been slaughtered in British Columbia by a sled dog touring company. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) members and other groups have accused the sport of being cruel to the animals, forcing them to work against their will.
“This is absolutely what they live for, it’s what their bred for, it’s everything. You can’t make a sled dog pull,” Sauder said. Whips having been long outlawed in the sport, the only way a dog will run is if it wants to, she maintains.
“Yes, it’s a race and yes it’s competitive, but we’re all a bunch of friends and we’re all there to have fun.
It’s all about the dogs. The dogs’ safety and their happiness is the upmost priority at all times,” she said.
“It’s not fair to lump us all into one group of abusers. That sort of abuse doesn’t make athletes.”
Becoming athletes means training for not only the dogs, but Sauder as well, which includes acclimatizing herself to weather the dogs are naturally at home in. In the winter, Sauder has been known to feed and play with the dogs outside in just a t-shirt and jeans.
“If I’m taking one of them for a walk I’ll dress as light as I can stand and that will thicken my blood.”
Spring may seem just around the corner, but Sauder still has her mind firmly on winter as she prepares for her last two races of the season. She doesn’t want to guess at how she will place, but hopes for a race and a team as good as the ones she had a Kearney.
“I’m happy as long as I beat my own best and have a good clean run with no issues with the dogs.”
And what about the parents who weren’t sure she could take on one puppy, let alone a whole team of sled dogs?
“It’s my mom who wants another dog now,” Sauder giggled. “They are so proud of me and I couldn’t do it without them.”