Three years ago, when sled dog Gonzo started tripping over his food bowl, staff at New Hampshire’s Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel knew that something was wrong.
A visit to the veterinarian revealed that Gonzo was going blind, and there was no cure. Though staff was initially worried they would have to retire the dog from the sport he loves so much, Gonzo’s vet suggested the opposite. So, on doctor’s orders, kennel staff decided to hook Gonzo up to a sled, and the rest is history (see video).
“Even though he’s blind, he still knows when hook-ups are happening,” kennel manager Ben Morehouse explains. “He’s still very aware. 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.”
With his head often tilted up and to the right, Gonzo uses his senses of smell and hearing to follow the trail. But he also has a very important partner on the sled dog team: his brother, Poncho. Poncho is always paired up with Gonzo and serves as a kind of guide for the blind dog.
“At first, he’d be a little bit nervous when Gonzo would lean into him,” explains Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel business partner Karen Tolin. “And then somehow — I don’t know how dogs communicate — he learned that he was utilizing him to determine where the turns are and how fast they were going. And he would let him do that—he wouldn’t get as grumbly as he did in the beginning.”
Now Gonzo and Poncho share an extraordinary partnership, kennel owner Neil Beaulieu says. Typically the dog team keeps on running no matter what, even if one of the dogs trips on the line; but during one particularly memorable spring trip through a part of the trail that’s known for its snow-covered terrain, Gonzo stumbled. Without hesitation, Poncho turned to his fallen brother and pulled him out of the snow by the harness, helping Gonzo back to his feet.
“He essentially picked him out of the powder,” Beaulieu describes, “threw him back on the trail and never skipped a beat.”
“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,” Beaulieu remarked.
Thanks to Poncho, Gonzo is able to continue on as a part of an active eight-dog sled team at Muddy Paw, which is home to more than 120 sled dogs. With Poncho acting as his eyes, Gonzo is able to take part in regular mushing trips, taking excited tourists across New Hampshire’s North Country by dogsled. Trips range from short 20-minute jaunts to 50-mile overnighters.
“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,” says Morehouse. But it’s not their efficiency that matters — it’s their heart, the kennel manager explains. “To be honest,” Morehouse admits, “they’re probably some of the goofiest dogs you can put in harness. But they’re just fun.”
For the staff at Muddy Paw, their kennel is more than just a regular business — it’s a means of caring for and finding homes for sled dogs in need. Through the New Hampshire Sled Dog Rescue, History and Education Center, homeless sled dogs are put up for adoption.
“A lot of shelters deem sled dogs unadoptable, and they put them down,” says Beaulieu. “For myself and the entire crew here, we know that’s false. They are very adoptable.”