Bark and ride

Debbie Pullen with a dog at Pesky Huskies. PIC: Tony Bartholomew
Debbie Pullen with a dog at Pesky Huskies. PIC: Tony Bartholomew
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The husky is a strong, energetic and incredibly charismatic dog. It also proves to be perfect company for a trek along the Cleveland Way. Sheena Hastings reports.

ON the morning of February 3, 1925, a dog sled team and its musher (human driver) carrying a precious cargo of diphtheria serum raced into the remote town of Nome, Alaska.

It was the last of 20 relay teams that had trekked nearly 700 miles in five and half days through a bitter Alaskan winter, in which wind chill temperatures plunged as low as -80F.

Five children had already died from the disease, and the world watched with bated breath as heroic human and canine efforts were made to prevent further tragedy.

The lead dog of the last team, Balto, became a worldwide symbol of the courage and tenacity that saved the rest 
of the Arctic community from the epidemic, although it had been a group effort, with the longest (91 miles) and 
most dangerous segment driven by 
the Norwegian-American Leonhard Seppala.

A bronze statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City, with a plaque that reads: ‘Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925. Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence.’

Those dogs were huskies, their name thought to be a derivation of the word ‘esky’ or ‘eskimo’, the name given to Inuit people who relied on the dogs for transport across the frozen wastes of Alaska and Canada.

The Alaskan husky (a mixed breed) and its relative the Siberian husky (an older, pure breed that often has blue eyes but can have eyes of different colours) are descended from wolves of their region – but, unlike the wolf, are known for their affectionate and highly sociable nature.

There are thankfully few days of the year when the coast of Yorkshire around Scarborough resembles a frozen waste, and gone are the days when a team of dogs might have been useful to bear heavy loads brought up from alum mines in these parts.

But at Staintondale, just inland and a few miles north of the busy seaside town, live not just a couple of handsome huskies but 30 of them – a collection of 11 Alaskan and 21 Siberian, ranging in age from 18 months to 13. They are a mixture of rescue dogs and those bred by owners Debbie and Mick Pullen here at Meeting House Farm. Like many farmers, they’ve had to diversify to keep the economic ball rolling, but their source of additional earnings is unique in this area of the country.

The business is a mixture of pigs, holiday cottages in refurbished farm buildings and their popular Pesky Husky dog treks and walks. The huskies are working dogs – but unlike their brothers and sisters still used to transport people and supplies across the Arctic, they are adapted to a milder climate.

However they are still high-energy animals who like to work as a team, jump high (owners are advised to install six-foot fences in the garden) – and dig deep, given half a chance.

Debbie Pullen has always lived with huskies, and they were part and parcel of the family culture when she was growing up – no doubt because her mum, a lass who was born and bred in Halifax, West Yorkshire, happened to marry a man from another Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The strong, double-coated, not-so-usual family dogs were much admired by all, and in a household that understood the breed’s instinctive need to run (and run), this desire was satisfied by harnessing the dogs to a three-wheel rig and belting across the countryside.

Debbie grew up, married and had children, and the husky habit persisted. “I’ve always absolutely adored them, and so do our daughters,” she says. “So exercising the dogs has never been a problem.

“One Christmas Mick bought me a newly invented two-wheel scooter which you can attach a group of dogs with a harness. It’s very safe to use and I trained friends in how to do it.”

At the same time, they were receiving enquiries from people who had bought a husky puppy unprepared for the kind of work that needs to go into caring for the adult dog. In some cases a dog is brought after it has been abused by its owners, and Debbie and Mick work had to bring its confidence back.

Debbie and Mick have rehomed 400 huskies, choosing new owners carefully and preferring to pass the dogs on to people who are already understand the breed. Those that are kept help to pay for their keep.

Over eight years the Pullens have built up Pesky Husky, a business that brings dog lovers from all over the country who want to learn about huskies and experience the thrill of riding behind them on a scooter or walking through three miles of glorious countryside of the Cleveland Way to the cliff tops while attached to a couple of the dogs via a special waist belt.

Part of the offer is a visit to the dogs in their giant kennels in order to observe the huge variation in colouring and to learn about the breed. Hearing a visitor’s arrival the huskies bark and howl their greeting, sticking their noses out to be petted.

There’s the gorgeous Bear, son of a Crufts Best in Breed and father of Coco. Then there’s Diesel and Nanuk, Ziggy, Ruby and Abby, Red, Amber, Vinny, Inca, Kia, Biscuit, Badger and Blue…These and all the others are vying for attention and getting excited. “They think they’re going out. They all want to be picked,” says Debbie.

She explain that, in the husky world, the female rules the roost. The bitches are fed first (raw meat and bones as well as dried food), and when humans are around the male knows to hang back until the womenfolk have had plenty of fussing.

Anyone thinking the handsome husky, with its glorious markings and apparently manageable size, makes the ideal family pet needs to do their homework thoroughly, says Debbie.

“Britain is full of puppy lovers who can’t cope when they realise they have a very energetic and strong adult dog on their hands who needs a great deal of exercise and attention. When I say a lot of exercise, they need to run – every day, and a good distance. We don’t let a dog go to a home where we think the family will keep it indoors.”

It’s a hot day, and Debbie won’t over-exert the dogs in high temperatures, even though they were all born in this country and are acclimatised. She’s not keen either to hitch up a human to two or more dogs and then find that the human part of the partnership lets the dogs down by being useless in the area of balance and communication.

First of all she explains the workings of the scooter and its brakes, and I’m sent off down the hill so that they can assess whether I have reasonable natural balance and am therefore unlikely to fall at the first tug from my furry pals who’re champing to get up that hill.

Equipped with helmet, knee pads and elbow pads, I scoot down the hill and come to a halt without too much trouble. I trundle back to Debbie and she and Mick attach two beautiful dogs to the front of the scooter.

I’ve had my instructions about how to encourage the dogs (no aggressive tones or verbal abuse allowed). And we’re off. Let’s say it’s been decades since I had both feet on a scooter, and I haven’t even ridden a bike in years. I admit to some nerves.

However it wasn’t the white knuckle ride I’d feared. Mick’s constructed a special 700m circuit of beautifully tended grass worthy of Epsom for the scooter riding, with enough gradient to give the dogs a decent workout.

The immediate feeling was a rush of exhilaration, and even on this hot day the dogs made light work of their burden, seeming to delight in doing the job well. It took a couple of minutes to relax into it, but following a track so smooth meant there were almost no bumps to upset the balance.

All too soon it was over and Bear and Coco were back in the pen, lapping up water with their enormously long tongues and also lapping up affection from Debbie. The heat and exertion seemed to have had a dramatic effect on Bear’s coat (the males ‘blow’ their fur twice a year, but the females only once). Clouds of fur balls danced in the breeze.

Taking the sweltering heat into account, we decided to try only a short walk while attached to two dogs using the waist harness. With no balance and braking to worry about, but stiil using words of encouragement, we trekked down the hill and up again, tilting backwards slightly to counterbalance the pull.

Doing the full three miles daily, with a couple of athletic dogs setting a cracking pace across this undulating landscape, your fitness would improve incredibly fast, even if the dogs do occasionally stop to sniff something in a hedgerow.

They seem to be enormously generous-spirited dogs who love working in a team and adore their Yorkshire environment – despite the lack of pack ice.

“Lots of people of all ages come back regularly and become very fond of the dogs,” says Debbie. “Some prefer the winter, and we have a sled we use then. Even people who are a bit nervous at first soon realise there is no aggression in them at all.”

Indeed it has been said that a husky is not the dog to install to guard your home, as they’re more likely to befriend the burglar as a new source of cuddles – and show him where the goodies are to boot.

Pesky Husky is at Meeting House Farm, Staintondale, near Scarborough. For more information or to book call 01723 870521/