Stoic stone huskies stand guard at the gated community of the Door County Sled Dogs. In the farmhouse on the three acres are Rick Desotelle and Bonnie Ulrich (who split time between Fish Creek and Milwaukee), and their 14 sled dogs – spread out on beds, floors and chairs awaiting the day’s training when they will do what they do best – pull the sled.
But these are more than just your ordinary sled dogs. In fact, they come from all walks (or wags) of life, though their binding force is the fact that they are all rescue dogs brought into the group by the love of retired educators Rick and Bonnie.
The story of the Door County Sled Dogs goes back nearly 15 years, with Bonnie and Rick’s first husky, Eddie. They joke that they “lived through” the notorious destruction of a young husky’s first year.
“They’re notoriously difficult as young dogs, for the most part,” Bonnie said. “ … After the first year, we had a great dog, so we got another one, then we got another one.”
“Two huskies are easier than one,” Rick said.
“And three is a lifestyle,” Bonnie laughed.
With three huskies in tow, Bonnie and Rick were introduced to a local musher and his lead dog. It wasn’t long before the couple and their three dogs were hooked on the dog-powered sport. Bring in their own equipment, a mentor and education on the importance of having a lead dog, and they soon were given Beautiful (formerly known as “Bonnie”) a seven-year-old semi-retired lead dog who had raced as far away as Germany.
“Lead dogs are really smart and they’re really good,” Bonnie said.
With Beautiful as their teacher, the couple began forming a sled dog team and learning the ins and outs of being mushers.
In the decade since, they have added 11 more rescue dogs to the team and formed the Door County Sled Dogs, an all-volunteer/all-rescue recreational dog sled team that provides educational presentations to people of all ages. Over the years, the mission has become simple.
“We create community,” Rich said. “ … We create a community of dogs, we create a community with the people, the volunteers who work with us.”
The organization was recognized as a nonprofit in 2010, though its beginnings go back nearly a decade to when the pair first began training in Milwaukee. After continuously being stopped by interested people who saw them out with their sled dogs, Bonnie and Rich teamed up with the Milwaukee County Parks and other civic groups to provide presentations and rides in the Milwaukee area.
Since then, hundreds of children and adults have enjoyed the weekly dog sled rides in two Milwaukee County parks every winter. The organization has also grown to include 35 volunteers and has successfully rehomed 80 dogs. It is an accomplishment that has grown through Rick and Bonnie’s tireless outreach not only in Door and Milwaukee counties, but throughout the state. It also has a lot to do with what they’ve learned in their years owning dogs.
“Dogs have an innate desire to work, to do some kind of a job, a purpose,” Rich said. “If you can help them to find a purpose, I think they become a better companion for you.”
The team does not compete in general races, instead electing to put its energy toward a number of charity races, among them the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Adopt-A-Husky. It is a mid-distance team made up of a mix of Alaskan and Siberian huskies, Border Collies and Border Collie Labs. Being mid-distance means the dogs could potentially run between 50 to 150 miles if they are trained to run distances between 30 and 40 miles. However, Bonnie and Rich train their dogs to run between 15 and 20 miles due to carrying heavier loads.
“They’re more a freight dog than a race dog,” Rich said.
The Door County Sled Dogs hold meet-and-greets throughout the year and will offer the chance for people to learn more about them at Renard’s Cheese on Saturday, Dec. 13. They will also present “The Making of the Sled Dog Team” at Door Community Auditorium at 2pm on Wednesday, Dec. 17. The presentation is open to the public.
Meet the Door County Sled Dogs on Saturday, Dec. 13 from 12 – 2pm at Renard’s Cheese, 2189 County Road DK in Sturgeon Bay. Door Community Auditorium is located at 3926 Hwy. 42 in Fish Creek. For more information or to donate, visit doorcountysleddogs.com.