Ben Thompson has been racing dogs as long as he can remember.
“I’m second generation in this sport. I’ve done this pretty much my whole life,” Thompson said. “My dad would bundle me up in a sleeping bag, strap me in a basket as a toddler and take me down the trail.”
Thompson, 43, of Mondovi, races hybrid dogs in harness sled races across North America. He generally has about 12 dogs in his kennel and competes in races where he might bring anywhere from two to 12 of the animals to compete. Thompson graduated from Mondovi High School in 1994, lived in several places around the country and recently moved back to his hometown.
“We raise and train animals, so it’s a year-round effort,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the sport combines his love of being an athlete and his passion for being outdoors.
“You need to be athletic to stay on the back of a dog sled and to steer and maneuver it,” he said. “You have to have strategy and always thinking ahead two seconds. It’s exceptionally dynamic. It’s so much more than standing there, going down the trail. You have to be exceptionally quick on your feet.”
The dogs are a hybrid mix, intentionally combining husky, pointer and greyhound stock, he said. These dogs are ideal for sprint racing.
“They can do everything a purebred can do but faster,” he said. “These dogs are exceptionally strong.”
There is nothing these dogs love more than getting out and running and competing, he said. With their combined strength, it isn’t a challenge for them to pull Thompson and the weight of the sled, he added.
Of course, the dogs aren’t just racing animals; they are also his pets.
“You can’t perform at a top level in this sport if you don’t take extreme care of your dogs,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in that and not over-extend ourselves.”
The races aren’t just on snow on the back of a sled, as Thompson also competes in races on a bike or modified machines while being pulled by the dogs.
Some of his recent races include the Bristol Dryland World Cup Dog Race in Bristol, Quebec, where he finished second in a 3.8-mile race. He won first place at the 10-mile Vita Winter Festival in Manitoba, first place in the 12.6-mile Kalkaska Winterfest in Kalkaska, Mich., and first place in the 9-mile Merrill Winterfest.
The race season recently ended, but Thompson will focus on training and getting ready for the non-sled “mud races” that will come up before winter returns.
“There is no time off; every single day, they need care and training,” he said.
The most famous dog race in the world is the Iditarod, but that is a race that goes several days, and a competitor needs a vastly different type of dog for that event. Thompson’s dogs are bred for speed, not the longevity it would take for that multi-day race.
“That’s not what we do; that’s not our discipline,” he said.