Blind sled dog pulls his weight

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JEFFERSON, N.H. -- When Gonzo started tripping over his food dish three years ago, no one could explain or stop the Alaskan husky's quickly advancing blindness. But a veterinarian offered some simple advice: "Run this dog."

Gonzo, one of 120 dogs at Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel, was happy to comply. With help from his brother, Poncho, he soon resumed his place pulling a sled all over New Hampshire's North Country to the delight of tourists and his caretakers, who quickly realized that, if Gonzo didn't treat his blindness like an obstacle, neither would they. Given the dog's obvious eagerness, he was allowed to continue on as usual.

"Even though he's blind, he still knows when hookups are happening. He's still very aware," said kennel manager Ben Morehouse. "When you have a dog such as Gonzo, with such a want and a drive and a desire . . . you try it, you hook up, you see what happens."

A frenzy of excited barking engulfs the kennel whenever Morehouse and other staffers haul out a sled. The chosen team is outfitted with harnesses and booties; those left behind scramble onto their doghouse roofs and howl. Gonzo and Poncho are lined up side by side, usually toward the back of the eight-member team -- "brains to brawn" is how Morehouse describes the order.

"A lot of people say everything about dog sledding is efficiency. Gonzo and Poncho are not the most efficient sled dogs out there. They won't set a speed record, they won't pull the most you've ever seen," Morehouse said. "To be honest, they're probably some of the goofiest dogs you can put in harness. But they're just fun."

Some dogs at the kennel, including Gonzo and Poncho, were born there. But it's also home to what kennel owner Neil Beaulieu calls "second-chance" dogs -- former professional sled dogs a bit past their prime -- as well as dogs rescued from bad situations.

Beaulieu describes a spring day when he took the pair for a ride on a trail known for its deep snow, and Gonzo strayed to the edge of the trial and stumbled. With the team still moving forward, Poncho reached over, dug his head in the snow and pulled his brother out, grabbing his harness with his teeth.

"He essentially picked him out of the powder . . . threw him back on the trail and never skipped a beat," Beaulieu said. "I've run dogs in a lot of places, all over the country, and it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen sled dogs do."

Sled tours range from 20-minute trips from the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods to a 50-mile overnighter billed as the "Longest Dog Sled Ride in the Northeast." Money from the tours help support what Beaulieu says has become a main focus -- finding loving homes for dogs that might otherwise be killed.

"Every time I run these dogs, whether it's Gonzo or anybody, I'm still in awe of the ability of these animals," Beaulieu said. "It's just amazing."

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