This weekend, huskies and their mushers from near and far will gather in Calumet, Michigan, for the Copper Dog 150. Brandon Woolman, Michigan Tech University Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF) masters student, will be among the over 50 teams registered for the event. Brandon is a member of The Mushing Club at Michigan Tech – maybe the only collegiate-level mushing organization in the nation. His role as “handler” will be to help prepare and care for a very energetic team of dogs, poised and ready to run!
Brandon gives us an insight to how he got into dog sledding, the relationship between mushers and their dogs, and what he’d like to accomplish during his time with the Mushing Club.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the sport of dog sledding?
I grew up in Waterford, Michigan and earned my undergraduate degree in cognitive neuroscience from the College of Wooster, Ohio. Two summers ago while visiting Houghton, I went to the Otter River Sled Dog Training Center with my partner Suzie Harris, who is a member of the Michigan Tech Mushing Club and current secretary. It was so cool to see all of the dogs and the workings of the kennel. Later, when I was accepted to the ACSHF masters program, I realized that I could actually participate in the Club myself and help out with the dogs.
I’ve kind of always been an outdoors person. I really enjoy the winter so I like the cold and snow. Southeast Michigan doesn’t get a ton of snow compared to up here where we’ve gotten nearly 250 inches so far this season. But I also grew up in Grayling, where my father lived, and we would do a lot of ice fishing, sledding, tubing, and snowboarding – all sorts of winter activities.
The thing that I like best about the sport of dog sledding is its friendly competitive nature – two adjectives you usually don’t hear together in describing a sport. When I started going to the races, I had never been on a sled before. I would just go and talk to all the mushers and the people involved with the races, and help out with the dogs. I also enjoy seeing the Michigan Tech team arrive at the events with so many people. Other teams might have two to four, but at the last event, Marquette’s Midnight Run, we had 20 members of the Mushing Club helping out with our three teams.
It’s always nice to hear stories from the mushers. They’re all very friendly and so are all the people who help put the races together – from the volunteers at the start, checkpoint crews along the way, and the judges. I try to talk to as many people as I can and hear their stories of past races, experiences they’ve had caring for their dogs, and learning more about their lifestyle.
The mushers definitely form a strong bond with their dogs. And the lead dogs are amazing and really smart. Until you get them leashed up and ready to go, you wouldn’t realize the strength of just one dog, and the mushers are racing with a team of 6-12, depending on the length of the race. That’s a lot of power in front of a sled.
I’ve learned that good mushers prioritize praise and positive reinforcement when training their dogs. With patience and time, they build trust with their team. Of course belly rubs, ear scratches and treats help as well. Mushers learn what motivates each dog, just like humans, they are all unique.
Do you have a mentor in the sport?
I definitely look up to Tom Bauer. He and his wife Sally are the owners of the Otter River Sled Dog Training Center and sponsor the Mushing Club. We [club members] go to their kennel and help take care of the dogs. We feed and run them and keep their spaces clean.
I’m always excited to follow Tom during a race. It’s cool when he’s out there and I get to watch where he is on a tracking system. You can actually see as his team moves through the course and encounters other racers. It also helps to estimate the location of the teams and how close they are to the next checkpoint.
As a handler, I help with the maintenance and feeding of the dogs before and during the race. At the rest points, you’ve got to take the dogs out of their houses every four hours and let them stretch their legs. It can be a lot of work when you’re staying overnight and you need to wake up at 2 or 4am. It definitely helps when you have a lot of handlers with the team, so it’s not just you. We’re all bearing through it together – negative temps and snowstorms alike. As far as dressing to stay warm, I wear Rocky boots, wool socks, lots of layers, and a good pair of Carhartts.
A highlight for me so far this year was helping run Tom’s team to the starting line at the Midnight Run. So much excitement and adrenaline ready to break loose as crowds of people watched on. It took four of us to hold the team, along with Tom pressing on the break until the countdown was complete.
How do you balance your studies and time spent with the dogs?
I try to get to the kennel at least once a week. My schedule is rather busy with coursework and research so it really depends on how things are going. Some weeks I just can’t make it, but then there are those weeks when I’m able to help out a lot. The kennel has nearly 70 dogs so any time I can give makes a difference.
Right now I’m trying to learn all the dogs by name. There are some of our Club members who know them all. Mushers have a naming system that helps in remembering which dogs are from what litter. Each litter is named after a certain category, such as Greek Gods with one named Ares, for example.
My goal before I complete my degree and leave the Mushing Club is to race as a musher for the team. But until then, I’ll enjoy being with the dogs and the people in this very interesting world of dog sledding.
Brandon is currently working with his advisor, Dr. Kevin Trewartha, CLS/KIP associate professor, in a research project aimed at evaluating whether subtle differences in motor behavior could serve as a sensitive marker for early cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease. The project, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), is assessing differences in rapid motor decision making between healthy older adults and individuals with mild cognitive impairment or early stage Alzheimer’s disease.