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Sled dog team preps during off season

Ryan Seeger attaches a dog to the rig for some pre-season sled dog training. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

A serene, quiet fall morning in the snowy north woods is broken by the yelps and howls of a pack of dogs. The canines are not injured, or excited strays after a deer, but rather the sled dog teams of Ryan Seeger and Justin Herdina out for a training run.

The two have been in training for this winter's sled dog racing season since October, using the Smokey Hills Forest trail system, giving their dogs a 10 to 12-mile run on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

No, there's still not enough snow in October to pull a sled down the trail, so the team tugs along in front of ATVs, which can give a bit more or less resistance as the musher sees fit.

"We've got dogs that are only a year old that have never really ran before, so this (training) is for them," Seeger said. "They've got to learn what they're doing and it gets us in shape."

Getting a competitive edge with their top dogs is the main reason for the pre-season training, Herdina said. At an early February race last season, their teams had about 250 miles behind them, while the teams they competed with had logged about 1,000 miles.

"The more miles you have on your dogs you run in the races, the better you're going to do, period," Herdina said.

Once the snow gets a little deeper, they will run the teams on back-to-back Saturdays and Sundays to simulate a race weekend.

"It's good to get that mentality in (the dogs). Otherwise they like to shut down on that second day and that can be trouble," Herdina said.

Seeger has also borrowed a dryland sled -- a specially designed sled with four wheels instead of skis -- from renowned sled dog racer, Eddie Streeper, and competed in a dryland race for the first time in mid-November. He took 12th place in a six-dog event and 10th place in a four-dog event.

Seeger encountered some "new dog problems" in the six-dog event and figures he would've finished in the top ten without those problems. Also, the weight of the sled makes a lot of difference.

"I don't mean to make excuses, but it's a proven fact that when you have a 40-pound cart and you're racing against a 10-pound cart, that's a big difference," he said.

Seeger also competed in the CaniX event, where he runs harnessed to one of his dogs -- much like a skijoring event, without the cross-country skis -- and took fifth place.

Ryan's father, Neal Seeger, started the racing team and Huskies Run Kennels 15 years ago, and Ryan, 21, has been racing the dogs since he was 11 years old. Herdina has been with the team for four years. Both Ryan and Herdina work for Neal Seeger Construction, which affords them the time to train in the morning then work in the afternoon.

Huskies Run Kennels currently has 41 adult dogs and seven puppies.