Brother helps guide blind sled dog along trails in NH

Gonzo, Poncho form 'perfect team,' says musher

Published  7:31 AM HST Jan 03, 2013
JEFFERSON, N.H. -

Meet Gonzo. He is a blind sled dog.

Poncho, his brother, to whom he is hitched, is his guide and team partner.

Together, the 7-year-old Alaskan huskies form the perfect team with heart and speed, said AJ Norton, one of the mushers for the Muddy Paw sled dog kennel, on the Valley Road.

"Gonzo always wants to go," she said.

When hitched to Poncho, Gonzo will lean in for the turns, and gauge his own gait and cadence on the movement of his brother, Norton said.

The two friendly pups are among more than 120 dogs at the no-kill, nonprofit shelter for sled dogs, which offers dog sledding as a means to pay for food and care.

In addition to offering extended educational experiences from the kennel, they send teams to the Omni Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods and the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield to offer introductory rides for guests and the public.

Karen Tolin and Neil Beaulieu began the shelter almost nine years ago with a few Alaskan Huskies who were surrendered by their owners, who could not longer pay for their upkeep.

Gonzo and Poncho were part of a litter born at the kennel. She said Gonzo could see for his first three years, but his eyes began to cloud over.

"The vet could not figure out why he was going blind," said Tolin. "It is still a mystery."

At first there was a period of adjustment when Gonzo was working to become familiar with his surroundings without sight. She said he began to yelp in excitement when other dogs were being shown their harnesses to run, Tolin said.

The brothers were previously hitched together as a team and slowly they began to work together again, Tolin said.

It seemed as though Poncho understood what had happened.

Once during training when Gonzo fell, Poncho lifted his brother up by grabbing the harnesses with his teeth.

"That took a lot of thought," she said.

Tolin said Gonzo and Poncho are part of a tail-wagging team of about 15 dogs who work together in hitches of about eight, rotating in and out when some are tired. They are at a perfect age to run and many dogs run until they are 12 or more.

Gonzo is, as his name would suggest, a real go-getter and has shown no sign of wanting to retire.

Tolin said typically dogs choose when they want to retire by not being enthusiastic when it is time to run.

The team are working this winter at the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, where the kennel offers introductory rides for hotel guests and the public along the fields and forests surrounding the Grand Hotel in Bretton Woods.

Up the Road in Whitefield, Tolin and Beaulieu also bring more teams to the Mountain View Grand where the dogs are known to fly across the frozen landscape under the stars to the delight of the guests who come bundled up and into the sled.

Paula Tracy writes about the outdoors for WMUR.com and can be reached at paulatracy@roadrunner.com.

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