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Mushers train at one-of-a-kind boot camp in South Colton


SOUTH COLTON — Ten teams of sled dogs race through 600 acres of forested trails, pulling specially made carts and their owners behind them. There are frequent stops: speed is not the goal of Mushing Boot Camp, obedience is.

Teams from across the Northeastern U. S. and Canada brought their dogs to South Colton for this one-of-a-kind three-day training event.

Trainers Ann B. Stead and Jamie L. Nelson live in Minnesota and have decades of mushing experience between them. Ms. Nelson has run in the Iditarod, one of the world’s most famous and grueling sled-dog races, four times. The pair started Mushing Boot Camp in 1997, and have been travelling the world training mushers and their dogs ever since.

Having recently returned from Switzerland, the pair is at Call of the Wild Kennels this weekend. Mushing Boot Camp started Thursday night, and won’t let up until Sunday.

Spencer F. Thew, owner of the property, raced against Ms. Stead in the ‘90s. When he heard that Mushing Boot Camp was looking for a new East Coast location, he was eager to volunteer Call of the Wild. This is the camp’s first year in South Colton.

The intensive training works with both dogs and their owners over three days, developing obedience skills and teaching training techniques that owners can continue to use when they return home.

“When we start, the dogs are really not used to what they’re doing,” Mr. Thew said. “Within an hour they were catching on. I’ve been doing this 26 years, and we’re still learning stuff at boot camp.”

The ten teams came from Virginia, Maryland, Vermont and Canada. Each team paid $895 for the chance to train with the pros.

While the dogs learn plenty of valuable skills, Ms. Stead and Ms. Nelson are more focused on developing skills in people.

“We’re training people. We teach them how to train their dog,” Ms. Stead said.

The teams came to the camp with a variety of experience and motivations. Some want to race competitively, others race for the fun of it. Eric Benson came from Baltimore, where he hosts sled tours with his company Maryland Sled Dog Adventures. This is his second Mushing Boot Camp; he went to one in Maine several years ago.

“Jamie and Ann are just excellent at teaching you how to teach your dogs,” he said.

Mr. Benson’s started mushing as a way to provide exercise to one high-energy dog, but soon he grew to love the sport and now he owns a whole team.

“It’s an opportunity to work with your dogs in a way that few people get to see or experience,” he said.

Ms. Nelson and Ms. Stead offer five or six boot camps across the world every year. No matter where they go, they see the same needs with nearly every team.

“People need to learn to be quiet and not nag their dogs, and dogs need to learn to trust their people,” Ms. Nelson said.

Not everyone has the chance to own a sled team. It requires a lot of space and resources. But for those who take the plunge, it becomes a life-long hobby.

“It’s an addiction,” Ms. Nelson said.

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