Photos and video: Keeping sled dogs happy, healthy in summer – Duluth News Tribune

FINLAND, Minn. — Taking care of sled dogs is a year-round affair, which means they still need to be cared for long after the racing season ends.

Sled-dog racing is an intense winter sport. Some races, such as the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, take mushers and their dogs on journeys hundreds of miles long through snow-packed trails and ever-changing cold temperatures, including possible polar vortexes.

For Blake and Jennifer Freking, who race teams of Siberian huskies, the coldest times of the year are the ideal weather conditions for their dogs. According to Jennifer, who’s also a practicing veterinarian since 2004, “they love the cold.”

“We thrive when we get a nice polar vortex at a race. They think that stuff is great, so they have nice thick coats,” she said.

As the temperature rises, the snow melts away along with much of their ability to train. Once they enter March or April, they begin “de-training,” where they progressively start training less. With the dogs being less active, they slowly drop their food rations to about a quarter of what their winter rations would be.

Woman and man sitting and petting two dogs while several other dogs run around and play.

Jennifer and Blake Freking each petting a dog while several others run around and play on their property in Finland on July 13.

Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

After the temperature rises above 50 degrees, they hold off on harness training until it cools down in the fall. To help keep them cool, each of their 62 dogs has their own kennel, where they can lay in the shade if they get hot, and they have regular access to clean water.

Woman lays her hand on a mother Husky as she's nursing 2-day-old puppies.

Jennifer Freking lays her arm around a Siberian husky, who is mothering her 2-day-old puppies, on July 13.

Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Small puppy sitting patiently.

A 9-week-old Siberian husky puppy patiently waits for food.

Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Throughout the summer, they’ll keep their dogs active by having them free run in large groups in their 2.5-acre fenced in yard.

“It just lets them play around and be dogs, but it also helps keep them in shape as well,” Blake said. To prevent them from overheating, they keep the activity limited to when it is cooler in the early mornings.

According to the married couple, training doesn’t really exist for them in the summer. Instead, they’re focused on keeping the dogs happy and healthy, which, according to Blake, is what they enjoy about the summer.

“During the winter, we’re pretty focused on really putting miles on, training and conditioning, whereas during the summer, we can really focus on just having fun and let them have fun,” he said.

With the Frekings unable to train in the summer like they do in the winter, they now have time for something else: puppies. As of July 13, they have 12 puppies: five 9-week-old puppies and seven 2-day-old puppies.

Man playing with two young puppies.

Blake Freking plays with two 9-week-old puppies.

Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

In the early stages, the puppies are completely dependent on their mother. “When puppies are born, they can’t hear or see,” Jennifer said. As such, Blake and Jennifer’s focus at this stage is just to support the mother and help her raise her pups.

By being there from the beginning, they hope to build a bond with each puppy and slowly grow that bond and trust until they’re ready to start training with the other dogs at around 1 year old.

“And they take off, immediately,” Blake said. “We’ve never had to teach a dog to pull; they just go. From there, it’s just care and constantly building on that trust until we’re to the point where we’re asking them to do 300-mile Beargrease or 1,000-mile Iditarod, or something like that.”

Jennifer, who’s been racing sled dogs since she was 8 years old, says it is a passion of hers to raise and train Siberian huskies. “I love the breed,” she said. “I love the lifestyle. Being out with the dogs is my happy place, working with them. They’re just your best friends and buddies. They feel like your family.”

Woman smiling as she's circled by multiple dogs.

Jennifer Freking smiles as she’s surrounded by a few of her dogs July 13.

Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune