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Couple’s love of sled dogs takes them from South Africa to Colton

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COLTON — The trip from South Africa to the United States began with a dog.

Andre and Natalie van der Merwe adopted Sabre, a Siberian husky, 20 years ago. It was to be the first of many, and the decision eventually led the couple to Colton and into the world of competitive sled dog racing.

Although huskies are typically associated with frigid climates, the breed is popular around the world, even in snowless South Africa.

The van der Merwes meant for Sabre to be a just a pet, but they loved the husky so much they soon adopted another. Then another. Then another.

Soon they were joining clubs of husky enthusiasts, and took up sledding as a fun activity for them and their growing pack.

The lack of snow was not a problem; the couple simply used carts instead of sleds for a dryland variation of dog racing.

“Before we knew where we were, the dogs were influencing every decision we made,” Mr. van der Merwe said.

While that might sound like a bad thing to most people, the van der Merwes were just following their newfound passion, he said.

Dryland sledding is a rapidly growing sport worldwide.

“The last place to catch on is the states, because you guys have the real thing,” Mr. van der Merwe said.

Eventually, though, the couple decided cart racing was not enough. They wanted to experience snow.

Through acquaintances in America, they learned that Spencer F. Thew, owner of Call of the Wild Kennels in Colton, was looking for dog handlers.

They agreed to sell everything they own and move to the United States, a journey of about 8,000 miles. After a hassle getting their visas, they were on their way, along with eight of their dogs.

They arrived in 2010, and ever since they have helped Mr. Thew run his kennel and train his 28 Siberian huskies.

Their experience with dryland sledding has proved helpful. It is common practice to use carts to train when there isn’t enough snow on the ground.

Handling a cart is very different from handling a sled for the human mushers, but for the dogs it’s teaching all of the same skills, Mr. van der Merwe said. “As far as the dogs are concerned, there is no difference,” he said.

While Mr. Thew usually races the dogs himself, Mr. van der Merwe’s dryland skills have led him to victory in two Canadian races recently. He won the four-dog Nordic cart category in the first Prescott-Russell dryland race in Hammond, Ontario, and the four-dog purebred category at the Bristol Dryland Canadian Championship. He also took second place in the six-dog purebred category at Bristol.

The wins are nice, he said, but he sees the small dryland races as training for when the snow falls and the sledding season begins in earnest.

“Yes, it’s nice to win,” he said. “Who doesn’t like winning? But it’s mostly a training exercise to get the dogs used to whatever a race will throw at them.”

The highlight of the season is the Can-Am Crown International, a 250-mile race held in Fort Kent, Maine, that starts March 1.

Mr. Thew wants his team to be in top shape by then, and he’s counting on his handlers to get the job done.

Mr. van der Merwe said his favorite experience is taking the dogs out for a long training run, gliding along a snowmobile trail in the Adirondack Park, miles from civilization.

“It’s just me and 12 dogs and the only thing you can hear is the panting of the dogs and the runners on the sled,” he said.

The van der Merwes plan to stay in the United States permanently. Mr. van der Merwe said he is happy with his life, and while he eventually may want to do more racing of his own, he is happy simply training with and caring for the animals he loves.

“If you told me I could never race again, I would be sad,” he said. “But if you told me I could never work with the dogs again, I would be devastated.”

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