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Sled dog training begins as temperature drops in northern Minnesota

With no snow on the ground, Blake and Jennifer Freking's Siberian huskies pull an ATV instead of a sled.

Sled dogs jumping and barking.
Siberian huskies Goose, left, and Mo jump and bark with excitement along with 18 other dogs in anticipation for their morning 11-mile run Oct. 20.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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FINLAND, Minn. — With leaves falling and temperatures dropping, it's time for seasoned mushers, Blake and Jennifer Freking, to break out the harness and begin training their nearly 60 Siberian huskies for the upcoming racing season.

The Frekings’ temperature cut-off for training is 50 degrees, so training typically begins around the middle of August. "It's fairly intermittent in August," according to Blake, two-time John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion. "We're just getting them out, getting a few runs on them, and getting a little bit of base. By mid to late September, we can kind of plan on every day we can train."

To keep below 50 degrees, they have to start training around 4:30 a.m., before it warms up. It isn't until around the end of October that they can train almost any time of day.

Woman and her daughter put harnesses on sled dogs.
Jennifer Freking and her daughter Elena, 12, put harnesses on dogs to get them ready for their morning run.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

For the Frekings, the main goal of fall training is to build up endurance, conditioning and strength. It isn't about speed yet. "We start with shorter runs as it gets cool enough — about 5-mile runs usually about every other day," Jennifer said. "And then incrementally, every couple weeks, we increase the mileage, vary the strength of how hard they're working." As of last week, the teams were doing 11-mile runs.

20 sled dogs take off pulling an ATV.
Blake Freking's sled dog team takes off on a morning run, pulling Blake and his youngest daughter, Nicole, on their ATV.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

With no snow on the ground yet, however, they cannot use the sleds often thought of with sled dog racing. Instead, the teams pull an ATV. "Having the ATV gives us a lot more control, so we can stop when we need to and control the speed a little better than we can with a sled," Blake said.

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With more control, Blake and Jennifer are able to train larger groups with teams of 20 dogs. Despite the heavier weight of an ATV compared to a sled, they have to use the gears to hold the dogs back from going too fast. "It's always intimidating when you're watching how powerful these dogs get," Jennifer said.

Man and his daughter sit on an ATV pulled by 20 sled dogs.
Blake Freking and his daughter Nicole, 10, ride their ATV with their team of Siberian huskies pulls them along the road.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
Man and woman interact with team of sled dogs.
Blake Freking, left, and Jen Freking pet their dogs and adjust their harnesses while the team takes a short break along the trail in Finland, Minnesota.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

After a whole summer of no training, their Siberian huskies enter the training season with a hefty amount of pent-up energy. "We've been free running all summer, but it's just not the same. When they get in harnesses for the first time, they're really, really out of control," according to Blake. That's one of the benefits of starting the season with the ATV. Blake and Jennifer are able to control the teams better until they start calming down. "By the time we get onto sleds, we've got enough hook-ups and runs that they're calmed down a little bit, and it's a little bit more casual," Blake said.

Blake and Jennifer Freking currently have 62 Siberian huskies, including 12 new puppies.

Team of 20 sled dogs pull an ATV along a trail.
Blake Freking trains 20 of his family's 59 sled dogs by having them pull his ATV along the trails near their property.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

The married team love starting the training season in the fall. According to Blake, "Fall's just a great time to be out and about anyways. It's a great time to be in the woods." For Jennifer, she loves seeing how excited the dogs get and how seamless it feels putting the harnesses on again. "It's always amazing how the first hook-up so often feels like you didn't have a summer break. They're just so happy to be out there."

Man and his daughter sit on an ATV being pulled by sled dogs.
Blake Freking and his daughter Nicole, 10, ride their ATV while being pulled by 20 sled dogs.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
20 sled dogs pull an ATV along a trail.
A team of 20 Siberian huskies runs along a trail with Blake Freking and his youngest daughter, Nicole, in tow on their ATV.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Wyatt Buckner is a Digital Producer for the Duluth News Tribune, where he has worked since June 2022.
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