LEAD THE DOGS LEAD: VERMONT SLED DOG TOURING AT EDEN MT WITH JIM BLAIR

“Luna, Peaberry, Bear – all of the Alaskan sled dogs here have taught me everything that I know about caring for them. By allowing them to show me what they need for their quality of life we have evolved a free-range, non-chain kennel that given all of us – dogs and humans – an experience of how good life can be. We share this knowledge with the guests that come from all over North America and the globe for fun, fast tours year round. Our vision is to combine fun and quality of life in all that we do—the dogs teach us that these qualities are not mutually exclusive. When visitors arrive they are immediately greeted by the dogs singing and excited about having guests, some are surprised by dogs laying all around on couches—but soon everyone is pulled in by the magic and love coming from each of the dogs.” Throwing a ball, six of Jim Blair’s dogs race after it and then happily dance back for more of the game of toss while others, close by, watch one of many bird feeders scattered around the property. A few of the dogs come from a spontaneous swim they have chosen to have in the large pond. There are no leashes here, only a lot of tail wagging and happy canine faces and friendly, individual personalities.Eden Dog Sledding is located on a 75-acre farm in the midst of 3,000 acres of Vermont protected forest. A forty by sixty, two story barn houses an educational center, offices, sleeping quarters for mushers and a number of large dog spaces. Couches in many of the rooms are filled with the four legged fur people. Large dog yards for keeping sub-packs separate for dog safety have on average eight dogs; the pens are essential when the dogs are not out human supervised on the surrounding lands. A large pond provides swimming in the warmer months—a favorite pastime of the dogs where they can play, interact with staff and guests, and swim! Twenty plus kilometers of engineered and maintained dog-only-trails pass through the scenic views of the dog center. Two large four bay garages house year round trail and snow grooming equipment. A specially built two-mile road allows access to the wilderness resort. Some guests elect to stay in the old fashion, two bedroom cabins that provide modern kitchens and baths and the quiet of being off-the-beaten path.Jim has always had dogs in his life. An athlete, he segued from scholarships in hockey and an award winning Junior sailing career to more extreme sports in Motocross, road and mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. When he discovered Skijoring he went on to become the ISDRA two dog champion. Sprint Race mushing was a natural out growth of this and he went on to become International IFSS Six Dog Sprint Champion in 2004. As more dogs came into his life, he made more room on the couches of his Vermont home. Adding up the hours of time spent transporting all of them for training and fun on a daily basis, Jim invested his life savings in the current farm so that they could train, play, and enjoy each other minus the commuting time. Year round tours on wheels and snow grew out of Jim’s love and desire to share the joy with others.“People see us moving around as a pack and the dogs happily staying near me. I used to think it was odd that people would stop me or call me and ask, ‘How do you do it?’ I would think, ‘Well, it is simple, really, you just love them. You listen to them. And they listen to me. I’m their alpha.’ Then I started to realize that for many people who did not grow up with dogs in the intimate way that I did—that this is a new concept because I see and know dogs are my equal.”“When I first came to the sport of dog sledding people tried to tell me how it was supposed to be. It was as if there is an underlying belief system that programmed the way people kept their sled dogs. I didn’t feel comfortable with the old guidelines and did not believe they were true. Letting the dogs take the lead I set about learning from them how to keep them in a way that respected who they are and allowed them to develop as individual personalities and pack members. Years later the dogs and I have shown that my well loved, free-range dogs can be bred for temperament, pack and human raised, cuddle with the many guests who visit, give tours AND go fast. They can win internationally and be the best friends anyone can ever have.”“I guess I am a radical if that means looking for better quality solutions in all areas of our lives for dogs and humans. I have held my own in extreme sports—winning many awards in Motocross early on in my life. But I believe that dogs are not amusement park rides and that we need to involve commercial tour guests in getting to know how fun, loving, intelligent, and sensitive our canine co-participants in dog sledding are.” Here each dog is an individual and is respected as such. Each one is special in their own ways: Luna is the Empress and Hospitality Hostess, Buttercup keeps us safe from marauding squirrels, Rainbow loves to sing for the guests, Buster leans in and hugs…it goes on and on. They are pack and human raised—four generations now. The litters are planned years in advance; from early on the pups and their mothers, and eventually “babysitters” from the packs go for long walks through the fields and woods so that the pups can explore, interact with other pack members and humans. International trainers, Sue Sternberg and Leslie Burgard come to give seminars and study the dogs. They believe this is one of the rare packs where dogs are getting to be themselves and teach us who they really are. These dogs love people, love interacting with them, love entertaining them. The dogs are also brilliant with helping special needs children become more relational.There are more and more mushers who are questioning the ways we have been taught to keep dogs and are searching for ways to give dogs more quality of life. Mushers come to Eden Dog Sledding looking for methods to convert their kennels to free-range and learn that it will take planning, time, and effort over a course of months to years, depending on the number of dogs in their kennels. We started small, building large pens, and put a few of dogs together that seemed compatible. We allowed them time to get used to each other. Then, as they adjusted to freedom and companionship, we added more. We learned that we could not have more than one alpha male or female in any one group as there would be fighting. We have a number of sub-groups in separate pens with an average of eight per group. Some groups are as few as two and others are as large as 15. We have to be very watchful and adjust and shift members if aggressive behavior starts. It’s an evolving process as dogs are social animals and subject to likes and dislikes just as we are.Group feeding is another area where we started small with two dogs together, then added another every few days. We always put their bowls down in the same order in the same place each time we feed. Dogs are creatures of habit and although they are hungry and have learned to compete, they also want to please. We have found that when they trust their human alpha they will learn to wait for their turn and that their turn is always coming. They trust the routine. We play with each one individually and let them teach us what they like. Some dogs like to play ball, others like furry toys, others just want to sit and be petted. We take them on errands to town and for hikes. We relate to them as fellow sentient creatures—equal but different. They have rewarded us by opening their hearts to us. The guests regularly comment that they have never known dogs as friendly and individual as these dogs are. We train with commands like sit, stay, come, and down—verbal and hand commands so that they come when called and behave well around people. Obedience is important whether with paying guests, when we hike through the woods or take a pee break while traveling, at the races—it makes being with the dogs a pleasure. In a wolf pack there are natural rules and leadership; we have had to learn how to provide the structure that our dogs need. Some dogs have temperaments that allow them to adjust rapidly to pack life and others are more shy and reticent and will need more time to learn how to be free.I groom my trails daily, year round. For winter grooming we started with a Sno-Cat I got used from a ski resort and commercial snowmobiles. I found that the Sno-Cat was expensive to operate and overkill so I sold it. The snowmobiles kept dumping off the trails and then we would have to dig them out so I got rid of them too! For the past few years I have been using new diesel ATVs, with tracks kept on all four seasons. They work best by far and never get stuck. They are reliable, economical, and real work horses for warm weather clearing and trail repair and winter snow grooming.We found our guests love to be hands on interacting with all aspects of our dog center. They learn about kennel practices, view the yards and inside quarters learning about the art of keeping free-range dogs, see slides and videos on the sport, handle the sleds and equipment, learn how to set up the team, harness individual dogs and hitch to the wheeled cart or snow sled. The dogs clown and cuddle during the presentations and gather in a group to receive the reward biscuits after the tour. Both the guests and dogs benefit from the positive interaction as the many follow up visits, letters, calls, and e-mails attest to.We have found that there are important parameters for running summer tours. We are fortunate because we have a cooler climate in the Vermont mountains where we are located; typically the temperatures are below 80F. Our warm weather tours emphasize demonstration and interactions with the dogs. We have many return guests who love the alternative to the freezing winter dogsledding. We run only 5 – 10 minutes on the wheeled cart before we stop at the pond and let the guests help unhitch so the dogs can swim. The swimming cools them off, lowers their body temperature, and keeps them from any danger of overheating. The pond stop becomes the main attraction for the guests as the dogs entertain by fetching toys, catching biscuits, cuddling, chasing each other, and racing all out around the pond. Guests absolutely love it! This is where the ability to listen to commands, come when called, and pack bonding is necessary so that we aren’t chasing the dogs into the woods when they should be having quality time with us and the guests.Many kennel owners look at the prices we charge and think we are making a huge profit. What they don’t see with Eden Dog Sledding’s tour prices is the lifetime of savings investment and THOUSANDS! of hours of sweat equity that went into buying the farm, building the trails, and the learning center. Eden Dog Sledding is currently seeking non-profit status so that we can receive tax-deductible contributions to defray costs and allow for more educational outreach. The dream is for the center to teach about ethical, free-range care, dog sledding, and the fun of relating to dogs for many decades into the future and beyond.The bottom line is that dog tour prices did not fund the sled dog center and the tour fees go into the basic expenses. Our tour prices barely cover what is necessary for year round proper dog care. I work more than full time, usually 7 days a week to keep up with the chores, care, and enrichment that 33 dogs take. We estimate and save for the full cost per year, per dog for good quality food, vitamins, raw meat and basic vet care. Race mushers come here to help give tours and are paid to help defray some of the cost of keeping their kennels. We have kennel and office staff and lots of volunteers.”It is important to understand that the prices we charge for winter tours have to fund all yearly expenses. A large pack of free-range dogs need us to be here with them 24/7 or have day and overnight kennel staff. We feel that mushers who have not been self employed need to understand the real time and financial investment for trails, dog housing, labor, personal, and other yearly expenses that dogs and a dog tour center need. If real tour prices won’t fund the expenses then a musher will have to supplement with outside work or a home business. Dogs are loving, trusting beings, we feel it is important not to endanger the quality of their lives by building a business with unrealistic expectations about profit potential and then going bankrupt.Why I do this if it is so much work? “The smiles on their furry faces and the love in their hearts—the reward to live this way with these dogs is priceless. So is the gratitude and joy that our guests have with the dogs and the letters of thanks that we constantly receive. I hope that others will join in making their kennels free-range and letting their dogs take the lead in their lives.” •* Donations to support the work of Eden Dog Sledding can be sent to Eden Dog Sledding 1390 Square Road, Eden Mills, Vermont 05653 USA. They are currently not tax deductable. Deborah Blair M.S., Ph.D. was raised by the same German Shepherd, Storm, that raised her brother, Jim Blair. Living in New England and Canada, she is a Jungian Psychotherapist and Life Mentor who teaches meditation and lectures and writes on living life authentically, and healing from abuse and trauma. Jim and Deborah are currently developing a fantasy/adventure series with the free-range, sled dog gang, for children, teens, and adults. The first book, ‘The Luna Tales – Book One – The Wisdom Runners,’ is currently looking for a publisher! You can contact Deborah at: healingintoauthenticity@gmail.com

Share:

More Posts