Rory Blazevic and his 1-year-old pug, Otter, hadn’t prepared, but they were ready. “We walk every day, and he runs like the wind.”
It was their first year competing in the Mini-Sled Dog Races. The annual event, which brings together small pups of all kinds and their owners, is sponsored by radio station KQDS and is a kickoff to the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Each category has three winners, vying for treats and trophies. Only full-grown dogs can race, and the categories are lightweights, 12 pounds or less; and heavyweights, up to 22 pounds.
The dogs run about 50 feet in multiple heats. And the specially made tiny sleds are about a foot long.
Sometimes, the smaller dogs can’t pull the sled, but no animals have been harmed during the races, said Jason Manning, KQDS Morning Show co-host. They don’t allow pulling on the dogs, and owners are asked to bring their own harnesses in place of a neck collar.
KQDS launched the Mini-Sled Dog race in 2001. “Bill Jones, my Morning Show partner, thought it’d be funny if we had our own Beargrease sled marathon with little, tiny dogs.” And it grew from there, said Manning.
The event later joined Beargrease, and it now kicks off the festivities. The race has moved from Playfront Park to Grandma’s Saloon and Grill. They’ve been at Canal Park Brewery Co. the past couple of years.
It can get pretty competitive, said Beargrease spokeswoman Monica Hendrickson.
Some train their dogs with mini sleds, and she has spotted pooches in special racing suits.
The only challenge is “the bitter cold,” Manning said, but they always see a good turnout — and mixed reactions.
Some dogs race to the finish line, some sit and shiver, others get tangled up.
“Some want nothing to do with it, and some, you can tell they were born to pull that little sled,” added Manning.
The sun wasn’t quite out early Friday near Canal Park Brewery. There were canines in sweaters, some were wrapped in their owners’ jackets. Other trotted around with their tails pointed up or in curly Q's.
The ruckus rose as people fashioned the yellow sleds to their dogs. KQDS’s Scott Savage called heats of pups with names like Honey Child, Ramen Noodle, and Pippa.
When he yelled, “On your mark, get set, mush,” the dogs were off.
Some owners ran ahead leading the way. Others called from the finish, with treats or a squeaky toy in hand. A row of nearby spectators cheered and giggled as tiny paws scampered past.
Pomeranian Husky mix Malaya won best in show. Blazevic and Otter came in second in the championship lightweight category. Asked if he’d return next year, he was unsure.
“Waiting to keep the dog enticed to run, it’s too hard.”
Carol Jorgenson drove to Duluth from Hayward on Friday morning with her dachshund-hound mix Leyla. She came in second in her category, Jorgenson said with Leyla snuggled on her lap. “She might’ve come in first, but she ran in the wrong direction.”
Jorgenson’s twin sister Linda Claflin is a past Mini Sled Dog Race winner. Claflin’s chihuahua Rico won best in show, and her rat terrier Bella won second place in her race.
The Duluth woman said the key is “Have a second person with, one holding the dog and one in front. You don’t have a good chance to win otherwise.”
Winning first in the heavyweights was Marley, a cavalier King Charles poodle mix from Hibbing. “She took off so fast, she broke the strap,” said her owner Steve Skorich.
It was their first race, but the family has designs for next year. She has a sister that could run as a lightweight, said Cheryl Skorich.
Her tips: “Come, have fun and maybe bring a squeaky ball.”