What to do in a Rochester winter is likely never far from students’ thoughts for a good part of five months. UR’s annual Winter Wonderland, a part of Winterfest Weekend, always lifts some of that burden by bringing winter to life with ice carving, hot chocolate, horse-drawn carriages, s’mores and free giveaways. But it wouldn’t be the same Winterfest without the Siberian huskies. There’s nothing to clear Vitamin D-deficient gloom from the air quite like man’s best friend.
The huskies always seem remarkably calm, considering the blasting music, strangers touching them left and right and the darkness. This year, there were five huskies named David (pronounced ‘the French way”), Lilly, Sabina, Morgan and Martin stationed in front of Wilson Commons, in blistering cold weather. This was the third year the huskies’ owner, Jo Lynn Stresing, had taken the two-hour drive to UR for its Winterfest celebrations.
Stresing explained that they were mostly seasoned dogs who have attended other events in the area. They are older dogs, ranging from 9 to 12 years old. Morgan and Martin, however, are only three. It’s a tactic Stresing uses to train her younger dogs, because they see their seniors behaving normally and so they realize it’s a safe environment.
Apparently the same tactic works for races. The 50 huskies Stresing owns at her 6-acre home in Fulton, N.Y. are trained to compete in dog sledding races, Stresing’s hobby.
‘When I’m planning on going to upcoming races, the temptation is to run the older dogs, which are perfectly trained,” she said. ‘But the smarter move is to work in the younger ones while the older ones are at their game.”
This weekend, with only a few inches of snow coating the ground, we didn’t get to see the dogs in action. When they do race, Stresing noted that whip-lash turns and fast movements make sledding exciting.
‘You’re going fast,” Stresing said. ‘You feel like the sled is just like an extension of your body. You’re not like in a vehicle, you’re standing on something that’s really light so you almost feel like it’s an extension of your body. So the dogs are going at their pace and you’re able to keep up with them … [They’re] letting you know what it’s like to be running in a group.”
Twenty-five years ago, Stresing knew almost nothing about dog sledding. She had wanted a blue-eyed dog and found an advertisement in the paper of a new litter of puppies. It was fortunate for Stresing that the owners competed in dog sledding, and a year later she bought her first dog sled along with a book about mushing from the couple.
Now, she regularly competes in 1-mile sprint races with four-dog teams, which are the most common type of races in her area.
‘Pretty much the dogs taught me,” she said. ‘It’s a lot of fun. It’s a good outdoor winter sport, no gasoline involved.”
Stresing has a breeding program, so her dogs’ ages range from six months to almost 16 years. Her youngest dogs are the great-great grandchildren of her first dogs. She tends to name families with the same letter, so the Morgan and Martin here last weekend are brothers.
‘Sunday I took four of my dogs to a little training situation,” she said. ‘And they’re 9 years old now … In my heart of hearts I wish they could stay 4- or 5-year-olds forever so I can always have that, but it’s very rewarding to have those puppies born, to raise them and train them and now they are a really great team.”
What has surprised Stresing is the dogs’ natural instinct for the sport.
‘The dogs really naturally take to it and are naturally really good at it,” she said. ‘They almost already know what to do and you’re helping guide them in the right direction. Genetically they were bred for this activity. And it’s very surprising when you hook up young dogs that have never done it before and they actually know what to do.”
Nonetheless, there’s a ton of training involved in raising a sled dog. It’s a slow, incremental process where the younger dogs are hooked to more experienced dogs and are slowly exposed to larger, more crowded venues. Not only must the huskies be comfortable driving a sled and wearing a harness, but they must respond to commands like ‘gee” and ‘haw” (meaning right and left) and pass other dog teams without distraction.
Despite being a hobby, Stresing spends about seven hours a day taking care of the dogs and training them, and even more during racing season.
Stresing has shared her hobby, and love of dogs, with the UR community for several years. The huskies station at Winter Wonderland is always a crowd-pleaser, and by now a staple of the weekend’s festivities.
Leber is a member of the class of 2011.