Polly Mahoney has been a musher for 39 years. Now the the co-owner of Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry, she got her start with sled dogs in the Yukon Territory. Mahoney said decades of working with dogs has taught her that they have remarkable instincts and distinct personalities.

When Mahoney guided winter camping trips with her former sled-team leader, Lonnie, she said the dog knew when Mahoney, sleeping some distance away in a tent, woke in the night. When Mahoney opened just one eye, the sled dog would start howling.

“Lonnie was born in the bush in the Yukon and I brought him with me to Maine,” Mahoney said. “He never wanted to go home. He always wanted to be on the trail. He was amazingly tuned in to me.”

More than a third (36 percent) of U.S. households have dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And few people have keener insights into dogs than mushers, who spend most days biking, skiing or driving sleds with dogs as part of a team.

Maine has two sled dog clubs with about 100 members between them. The sport doesn’t draw big numbers. But then no musher can control a team without an intimate relationship with his or her dogs. And it’s through this relationship that mushers have gained a window into the behavior and wisdom of dogs.

“I think we humanize dogs by assigning human emotions to them,” said musher Jill Carter, president of the Maine Highland Sled Dog Club. “They’re kind, compassionate and forgiving, or it seems like it. But they are so different from people. They function on instinct. The key to having a happy dog is to figure out what motivates a dog.”

INTUITIVE

Mahoney said when she’s worked with a lead sled dog for a long time, the dog will become so in tune with her needs that it can read her thoughts.

Mahoney said all dogs are intuitive. And she said if you nurture your relationship with your dog, you’ll see how much they understand.

Polly Mahoney has been a musher for 39 years and has learned that dogs seem happiest when she’s silent behind them. “I think the dogs like when I’m focused on them.” She believes all dogs are intuitive and she tries to nuture relationships with each of her dogs.

“If people watch their dogs, they will notice that their dogs know even before they pack for a trip that they are going away. How the dogs know, I don’t know,” said Mahoney, 59. “But I’ve traveled around the world and I know my dogs know when I’m coming home. I tell my dogs before I go when I’ll be back. I think they like to know. I think they understand. So I try to do that, to voice it.”

Mahoney has noticed by running sled dog teams that dogs seem happiest when she is silent behind them, not distracted talking with a client. She believes her dogs appreciate sharing this time in nature with her, and being in sync with her.

“I think the dogs like when I’m focused on them.”

HAVING A PURPOSE

Amy Craves, a musher for 10 years, enjoyed running sled dogs so much, she opened a business in 2017 devoted to working with dogs in activities that are best suited to certain breeds. She works with dogs on agility, mushing and sniffing.

Craves said it’s obvious that dogs like having a purpose, having a job.

The proof was the first dog she used as a sled dog. It was a pit bull mix that had behavioral issues and didn’t socialize well with dogs or people. So Craves started mushing with the dog and saw him change.

“He was full of anxiety and gave himself the job of worrying about me,” Craves said. “As a result he was fearful of strangers and other dogs. I started taking him bikejoring (in which a dog pulls a cyclist). At the end of one of those runs, for the first time I saw this dog relax. He was a completely different dog overnight.”

INDIVIDUAL TRAITS

Sara Vanderwood started racing dogs when she was 5. Now 43, she still trains three racing dogs and keeps a fourth who is retired from racing.

One lesson Vanderwood’s sled dogs have taught her is that they are individuals with certain preferences, certain likes and dislikes. And when a dog finds its calling or happy place, it can evolve.

“To be a successful musher, you have to learn each individual personality,” she said. “You have to figure out what they’re telling you. Every dog is special in their own way. And no two dogs have the same personality.”

Vanderwood said the best way to learn a dog’s needs is to watch and be patient. Certain actions will offer clues. For example, if they lick a lot, it could be a sign they are anxious. And just as a person’s personality can evolve, so can a dog’s.

Vanderwood once had a dog that came from an Alaskan kennel of 150 dogs. When she got the dog it was 6, aloof and standoffish. Vanderwood assumed it was shy. But after she supervised safe interactions between the dog and others over the years, the dog’s personality changed.

“She was a very different dog at the end of her life,” Vanderwood said. “She was outgoing and inquisitive. She loved her puppies and would visit them. She’d follow you around the yard and stand by you.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.