“Hike, Hike!” Peggy Wright loudly calls out to the group of dogs in front of her, spurring them to start running.
At her command, the dogs bolt, pulling a two-wheeled sled that she’s standing on. As they move, each time she approaches a bend on the paved trail outlining the placid lake, Wright yells “Gee!” to direct the dogs right, or “Ha!” to send them to the left.
Boisterous, 6-year-old Kyra howls and barks as she sprints along with the rest of the pack, burning pent-up energy and thriving in the company of other huskies, malamutes, Akitas, and other sled dog breeds.
This isn’t the harsh snows of the Arctic Circle. Instead, it’s Freedom Lake Park on a brisk Sunday afternoon in Florida, filled with plenty of trees, calm waters and grassy pastures.
Kyra is one of three Siberian huskies belonging to Carol Robinson, a massage therapist from Lutz, who is a member of the Sandy Paws Dog Sled Club in Pinellas Park.
“These dogs are strong and fast,” said Robinson, who joined the club in 2011 and regularly attends its monthly meetings. “It’s a little difficult sometimes to contain them because they get so excited, (but) they’re working as a team.”
Robinson and some of the other dog owners flank the pack, running about a mile with them around the lake. Without the owners at their side, the pack can run up to 20 miles an hour with a 150-pound sled and two people on it.
“Halt!” Wright booms. The command causes the dogs to come to a complete stop after their first lap. Before taking their second or even third cycle on the trail, the dogs and their owners take a break to mingle, rest and drink lots of water.
Wright started the dog sled club about four years ago with four of her friends. All five had Siberian huskies. Northern dogs like these huskies are naturally very active, and they can be destructive if they’re not strenuously engaged.
“By having this group, we’re able to teach people how to keep their dogs out of trouble,” Wright said. “When dogs are disciplined and correctly exercised, they are much happier and healthier.”
Wright and her friends wanted to open the club to everyone with Siberian huskies and similar breeds, so they created a website and used social networking sites like Meetup and Facebook. The club went from five to more than 170 members from all over the Tampa Bay area.
The sledding get-togethers happen monthly, except during the summer when it’s too hot for the dogs to run. Wright said the gatherings generally draw about 30 to 50 members at a time. The club gives her a chance to meet with other dog owners, while the dogs themselves play with each other.
“When we’re all together in a group, we can share stories or ideas,” Robinson said. “What’s the best brush to get that undercoat out? What food are you using to keep their coat?”
Robinson also likes to spread the word about pet adoptions because of her involvement with a dog rescue center.
“Sometimes we bring some of our dogs there and say if anyone’s looking to adopt, we have this one or that one,” she said. “We’ve had some successful adoptions through just networking.”
While Robinson greets and talks with the other owners, Kyra, with her pale blue eyes and soft thick black-and-white fur, joins in with her fellow dogs. Before they get ready to pull a sled, the dogs socialize by howling, sniffing and jumping on each other.
But because of their high energy levels, their owners keep them leashed.
Siberian huskies like Kyra were initially bred in the Arctic climates of northeastern Asia — mainly to serve as transportation for nomadic tribes, which didn’t have horses, donkeys and camels to rely on.
“For the original tribes, they would load up the sled with all their personal belongings,” Robinson said. “They were putting their housing, their tents, their blankets — everything went on these sleds. It was the dog’s job to pull it to the next location.”
Huskies have built-in stamina, lots of energy and strong stocky bodies. They were bred to run long distances in cold weather, and they also love to be around other dogs and people.
The dog sled club outings serve as an outlet for all their natural inclinations.
The club’s next outing is Sept. 22 at Freedom Lake Park, 9990 46th St. in Pinellas Park, for the group’s first real sledding event since last May.
For more information on the group, visit sandypawssleddogclub.com.
By Marie Abramov