I spent last weekend in the middle of woods at Santon Downham in Norfolk, near Thetford Forest photographing a working dog rally with the British Siberian Husky Racing Association.
The weekend event was part of a race series that sees the owners of Siberian Husky dogs run in numerous events: either 6, 4, 3, 2 or 1 dog categories. The dogs pull a ‘rig’ – A three wheeled cross between a bike and a go-cart over various distances depending on the number of dogs doing the pulling.
I attended the event with a couple of colleagues from work, Steve Blake doing stills and Shane Wilkinson shooting video and along with the stills and audio I gathered the aim was to produce 4 photofilms showing some of the individuals who take part in this exciting activity.
The first thing I noticed during my coverage of this event was the love for the dogs that the people involved had for their own and for other racers’ dogs. A community that spend many hours and I’m guessing, a lot of cash, looking after and providing for their dogs. Virtually all those attending were driving transit vans of various descriptions each fitted out with cages to keep the dogs secure and safe during transportation – many of the owners sleep in their vans during events to be closer to their dogs – it’s also probably nice and warm.
This particular breed of dog, the Siberian Husky, is probably the closest relation there is to the Wolf and as such it isn’t a dog for the feint hearted! Let them off a leash and well, you probably won’t see ’em again as they are by nature, a runner, they will go and go and, well go, so great care was taken by all the owners to ensure the dogs were on leads and harnesses throughout the event when they were out of their cages.
You might think that being this close a relative to the wolf and such a strong ‘pack’ animal they would be vicious but apart from an incredible level of noise, generated when they all bark and howl together and the energy they have when they know they are about to go running they seem to be a very sociable breed – must be the pack animal thing again?
On many occasions I saw young children playing amongst several huge dogs as they waited outside their owners’ vans for an event to begin and to start running – the dogs that is not the children! The parents always kept an eye on them of course but the children all seem to be taught a respect for the dogs that you don’t always see from other owners of different breeds. No teasing, no pulling of tails, no unsupervised activity just a healthy respect for the animals instilled from an early age. Not a bad thing.
To some, maybe if they have never seen this event before, the idea of harnessing dogs to a ‘rig’ and setting off on a few miles through the woods may appear to be a little cruel or harsh but it is clearly obvious when you see these dogs before, during and after one of these events that they absolutely love it! I was trying to think of a way to describe how the dogs act when they know they are about to go out for a run and the only, very descriptive way of explaining it is to say… ‘they go mental’!
The noise generated by a six-dog team as they are led by their handlers – the handler is another owner who assists with taking the dogs to the start point – is incredible! Add to this all the other dogs, who bark, howl, yelp, scream and make other loud dog type noises, it is deafening. One owner we photographed actually keeps ear protectors in his van for when he harnesses them to stop hearing damage.
As the dogs are taken to the start point, although it is more a case of the dogs dragging the handlers to the start point! It is clear to see the strength they possess. They hop and bound on their hind legs as they constantly pull and strain against the lead and harness held tightly by the handler. Many owners have, for their bigger dogs, a waist harness to which the lead is fastened with a carabiner for extra security. As some of the dogs bounce they can reach 4 or 5 foot off the ground as they eagerly head to the starting funnel.
As the starter gives a 30 second warning the handlers hold the dogs firmly as the owner takes his or her place on the metal steps of the rig. Another 2 person team unhook the rig from the securing rope that is attached to a large stake driven deep into the ground and they wait for the final count….”5…4…3…2…1…GO”!
The handlers take a quick step back out of the way and the dogs, rig and owner catapult forward and head off down the start funnel and along the course at a rapid rate. Then, two minutes later the next competitor gets ready to follow.
Speaking with a number of the competitors it was clear that they loved this sport but it was also clear that it is not only about the winning or the competition element of the racing that appeals. It is always nice to win of course, but there is a friendly vibe and community feel to the whole event that covers many different age groups and backgrounds and even we were made to feel very welcome by those we spoke to – and we’re photographers!
As a result of the weekend I’ve edited together 4 photofilms using the stills, audio and video that we all took that hopefully shows what it is like to be at one of these events and what it feels like to stand on the back of one of these rigs and have these amazing dogs pull you through the woods! Thanks to those who let us record and photograph them over the weekend.
The collaborative photofilms can be seen using the links below…