With snow on the ground, Mark Branham could be mistaken for a resident of Alaska as he trains two of his Siberian huskies to pull a sled.
Branham and his wife, Frances, live on Laylin Road in Norwalk Township and he is training two of the dogs the couple has acquired after 20 years of breeding as sled dogs.
"When I met my wife, she had a Siberian husky and we started getting males and breeding them," Branham said. "She bought that first one Sheba Blue Clover from a friend for $300 in 1988."
After years of breeding, the couple now has four dogs Sky, a red-and-white female; Snowball, an all-white female; and Leo and Rufus, two silver and white males. Rufus, the one-year-old male, is the only one they can use for breeding now since the older male is fixed.
The Branhams started out with official papers from the American Kennel Club for their dogs, but decided not to continue to register births because of the cost.
"We've been selling them for so long," Mark Branham said. "We keep the ones we want. We know they're pure-bred." The couple had 18 dogs at one time.
Branham said though two breeds of huskies are popular in cold climates, Alaskan huskies and Siberian huskies are different.
"Alaskan huskies are mixed breeds to run faster and Siberian huskies are built to withstand the weather," he said.
Branham said he decided to start training two of their dogs Rufus and Snowball to allow the dogs to reach the potential that has been bred into them for generations. He hopes to eventually breed the two for another generation of Siberian huskies.
Branham build a sled from a kit he had shipped from Wisconsin and then built a track for training on the couples' six-plus acres. He also bought harnesses and a tug line for the dogs.
When he first started training the dogs, Branham quickly saw how much the dogs enjoy the work their breeding has trained them to do over the generations.
"It is amazing how smart they are," he said. "They sit still to wait for me to put the harnesses on them. They love the exercise."
Than they get to work. Branham said the dogs can hardly wait to start pulling the sled around the training track. Now he works them with weights in the sled, but eventually the two should be able to pull the sled with one person sitting inside and another standing on the back, Branham said. The racing-type sled can hold up to 400 pounds.
The exercise isn't just fun for the dogs it is also Branham's favorite hobby now.
'I love doing it with them," he said. "I gave up deer hunting this year just to work with them." He said he spends about two hours each evening training the dogs.
The breed is meant to enjoy the outdoors, Branham said. They tried keeping one inside as a house dog, he added, but the pet made it clear he preferred the large outside pen with the other dogs.
"I don't like chains," Branham said, so they built a large outside pen years ago for their dogs. He said Siberian huskies shouldn't be left to run free because they will take off running for the sheer joy of it.
Branham's dream is to build up a full team and compete in dogsledding competitions.
"At this time next year I should have a six-dog team. I hope to go up north to compete," he said. "That's my dream, if my wife lets me."
Branham said a husky should be able to pull 100 pounds per dog for a mile each, which means they train for two miles with two dogs. He trains his animals two or three days each week.
Even if he doesn't get to follow his dream, Branham is just grateful he has found a hobby he loves. He said it takes time to learn to understand the husky breed.
"No matter what kind of dog you have, doing the things the dog loves will make them love you," he said. "And you will have the best time of your life. Working with your best friends in the winter is better than spending your money on 'fun' to have a good time."