MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Most successful teams do a lot of things right along the way. They train well, they work well together as a team and they have goals. The Door County Sled Dogs do all of that, but they're antyhing but your ordinary, run of the mill athletes!
"You know it's not that much different than if you had a lot of children. But that is a lot of children!" Bonnie Ulrich said.
A blue bus that looks much like a small school bus carries Ulrich's children. They step off the bus one-by-one -- acting much like young children on a field trip who are finally arriving at their destination.
But these "children" are of a different breed.
"We have 14 Huskies," Ulrich said.
That wasn't the plan more than 12 years ago!
"We got a Husky and we really liked that dog, so we got another one. They're a lot like potato chips, those Huskies. And we got another one. There are a lot of Huskies that end up in humane societies because they are lost. They've run away and can't find their way home. What we've done is we've rescued these dogs from a variety of situations. They come to live with us," Ulrich said.
As their family grew, so did Bonnie Ulrich and Rick Desotelle's interest in what their beautiful children could do.
"We got interested in mushing because we had a couple of Huskies and a friend of ours came over and said 'would you like to try it? Bonnie said 'I would,'" Desotelle said.
"After falling about 20 times, I got up and looked at everybody and said 'I'm going to do this.' And that was about 12 years ago," Ulrich said.
While the sled dog route is normally planned out, this 12-year journey that Ulrich and Desotelle have been on with these dogs has been anything but.
"It's a lifestyle. It's definitely a lifestyle and it's a lot of fun. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of responsibility," Ulrich said.
Part of that responsibility is building a relationship with each of their children.
"The relationship becomes very special. It really does. If you're out working hard with them all day and you come home, you all share the fatigue. You share the happiness you have from success, from having achieved what you wanted to do. And it's a great feeling," Desotelle said.
"You don't win, and you don't even finish unless you have a strong relationship with your dog -- especially with dog sledding, because they're in front of you. And you can't push them. It's like pushing water upstream. They have to want to do it," Ulrich said.
The dogs don't immediately start pulling a sled. Like athletes in other sports, their training is what gets them a spot on the line.
"You have to go slow. You have to go easy. We want our dogs to be strong before they go fast," Desotelle said.
Every August, training begins with walks and runs. The new dogs learn to wear a harness and pull a piece of wood until they're comfortable pulling. The next step is a little tougher on the young ones.
"We keep the new ones behind and you have to watch the team go on without them. About the third time that we've taken off without them, we'll come in and we'll put them into the middle of the team. We do it really quickly because they're very freaked out in the beginning, usually, because there's lots of cacophony, lots of noise going on and excitement. But within about one minute, one minute -- you see it. You see where their brain just, just changes. And they're like 'oh my God! Oh my god! I want to be a sled dog! I want to be a sled dog,'" Ulrich said.
Once they're on the line, each dog has a specific role -- often figured out based on the dog's personality.
"Some are more competitive than others. Some are perfectly content and happy to be steady, to be steady and they can be relied on and counted on. Hooch is like that. He's our steadiest sled dog. And he doesn't want to be in the front. A dog like Mushka, she's a leader. She's very competitive, highly-spirited. You have to channel those qualities," Ulrich said.
Once they're ready, the dogs become part of the Door County Sled Dog team that takes part in events throughout the winter.
"They do the rides with the Milwaukee County Parks. That keeps them very busy. It keeps them in shape," Ulrich said.
Even though these dogs don't race competitively, they're still winning with or without the sled behind them.
"We tell people and spread the message and model the message that owning a pet is not a right. It's a responsibility. So we were able to share what that means. In our case it's 14 bowls of food in the morning and 14 bowls of food at night every day of the year. I always tell people -- you could have something like this happen to you too. We never would have imagined it. But it's been a gift," Ulrich said.
The Door County Sled Dogs are a not-for-profit organization, so they depend on donations and fundraisers to feed and care for their dogs.
This weekend, they're having their annual party at Serb Hall to raise money.