PINELLAS PARK — Peggy Wright stood proudly on the wheeled practice gig she calls a "sled," mushing eight dogs around a calm lake in Freedom Lake Park on a sunny and clear Saturday.
"Siberian huskies are such active dogs, so it's a good way to burn off some of their energy," said Wright, a Seminole woman who started the Sandy Paws Sled Dog Club almost two years ago as a social group for Siberian husky owners. The club, which she later opened to all breeds big enough to pull a sled, has more than 100 members. Among the dogs now in the club are malamutes, Samoyeds and Bernese mountain dogs.
The high energy of huskies is why Janene Smith of St. Petersburg decided to try out the club. She said Charley, 1, is so energetic he sprained her ankle by pulling on the leash. On her first day, Charley pulled the sled on the first lap around the lake.
Within a sled dog team, Wright said the two dogs in the back are "wheel dogs" and are the strongest because they do the most pulling. The four in the middle are "swing dogs." The two in front are "lead dogs" and are the smartest because they have to be able to follow Wright's instructions on when to turn and when to stop.
Yelling "Gee" to turn right and "Haw" to turn left is one of the things Wright learned on a trip to a mushing camp in Alaska.
"That's where you learn to encourage the dog."
Though huskies are typically associated with Alaska, Wright said their bodies adapt to any climate. The colder the climate, the thicker their hair grows.
"Their bodies naturally shed in warmer months, we just brush it out," said Wright, who has owned Siberian huskies for 20 years.
Wright compared a husky's fur to skin, its shield from the sun and skin cancer.
She sometimes organizes sledding meetings at morning or at night to avoid the heat. She said she rescheduled meetings during the three hottest months last year to the beach or had the dogs train inside.
"Husky owners are very protective of their dogs and know not to overdo it in the heat," she said.
Wright also said the harness must fit correctly or the dog will get distracted. The camp instructed her on how to properly hook up harnesses.
"If the dog is not comfortable, they will not like it," she said.
Wright bought the harnesses and ropes from a sledding equipment store and bought the sled used. In colder climates, people use the wheeled practice gig to train during the summer. Wright uses the sled throughout the year and organizes events, such as dressing up on Halloween or taking pictures with Santa for Christmas. She also collects donations for shelters at meetings. Wright's Siberian huskies, Minka, 7, and Bear, 3, and many others in the club were rescued. Most are from the Siberian Husky Rescue or Heidi's Legacy Dog Rescue.
Madeline Reitter owns four Siberian huskies, all rescues. One survived Hurricane Katrina and others survived a puppy mill. Reitter, who wore Siberian husky earrings for the recent club meeting, was particularly proud of Schmoo, 7, who is featured in the Sandy Paws Sled Dog Club calendar wearing Gasparilla beads.
Marilyn Wolf works as a dog trainer and brought her black Labrador retriever Molly, 3, to the recent meeting. She said Siberian huskies are "talkative" and usually not aggressive.
"They seem to be calming to other dogs," she said.