The rural fields of Pennsylvania are a far cry from Alaska, but Teanna Byerts of Dover Township still manages a team of her own sled dogs.

When snow is scarce, she uses her bicycle or a wheeled rig to go on mushing adventures with her dogs on the rail trail, at Pinchot State Park and on other scenic trails.

While it's not the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is going on now in Alaska, Byerts' mixed mushing team enjoys it, she said.

"All breeds of dog are descended from the wolf. They all have that instinct to run and hunt in a pack," she said. "You can take your dog for a walk. But unless you're a runner, your dog really isn't getting the exercise it wants."

Legolas, a Siberian husky and German shepherd mix, dashes through an obstacle course following commands from Teanna Byerts. The Dover Township woman has
Legolas, a Siberian husky and German shepherd mix, dashes through an obstacle course following commands from Teanna Byerts. The Dover Township woman has trained her four dogs to pull wheeled rigs. (Bill Kalina)

For Byerts, Wednesday's snowstorm wasn't a cause for worry -- it's a cause for excitement.

"If it snows enough, I might take the dogs out in the sled through the development," she said. "And it'll be hilarious."

Training: Of Byerts' four dogs, three are at least part Siberian husky. Legolas is a mix between a German shepherd and husky, and Chasseur and Denali are striking huskies -- piercing blue eyes and all. The fourth, Max, is a 16-pound Schipperke who proved he could trot with the big dogs.

Any dog who wants to trot down a trail can mush, Byerts said, noting that it's important to be mindful of the slowest or newest dog on the team and keep the speed at a comfortable level.

"It's different from running back and forth in a yard. On a trail -- going somewhere -- is really neat because every stride, every minute is something new," she said.

To give an idea of the disparity between recreational mushing and the Iditarod, Byerts, 57, said she and her dogs usually go on 4- or 5-mile long excursions for about an hour at a time and that they "can do more" in cold weather, as it gets too hot for the dogs in the heat.

The Iditarod is more than 1,049 miles in 10 to 17 days with about 16 trained dogs running together.

Byerts trains her dogs herself, using simple commands like "wait" to stay or "on-by" to keep them running straight ahead instead of yielding to a distracting squirrel. And dogs can make turns by learning "gee" and "haw," which mean left and right, respectively.

Aside from the time and patience one needs to get into the sport, Byerts said it's relatively easy on the wallet.

"You can do this for about 20 bucks," she said. "You have a dog, you have a bike -- you have most of what you need."

Additional gear includes a helmet, a durable sledding harness -- which costs about $15 to $30 -- and a simple rope to use as a gang line for the dogs to pull.

Rescue dogs: The eight dogs Byerts has trained over the past 17 years have all been rescued from shelters. She rescued Legolas and Chasseur from the York County SPCA after she learned that they were huskies. She acquired Max and Denali from friends who could no longer meet the dogs' needs.

"Every single one of those (dogs) was some kind of rescue, and they were all awesome," Byerts said. She knows nothing about Legolas and Chasseur's backgrounds or training, but they have proven to be good-natured and adaptable to her training methods.

Melissa Smith, executive director of the SPCA, said huskies are not uncommon at the shelter. And all too often, unknowing owners adopt them only to give them right back because they cannot meet the energetic breed's needs.

"They should be adopted into a home where they can expend energy in the proper way," Smith said. "We do our very best to match the right dogs to the right owners."

Although huskies and other northern breeds are quite striking and people-friendly, Byerts says they are not for everyone.

Former racer: Dover resident and former competitive racer Diana Miller, who is now retired from the sport, echoed the sentiment.

"People see these puppies and think they're gorgeous -- and they are -- but people don't understand. It's hard work," she said. "You have to have your lifestyle be for the dogs."

But Miller, who has owned huskies for about 50 years, said that hard work is duly rewarding.

"They're the most loving animals. They're the most independent animals. And they're smarter than most owners," Miller said.

Learn about the Iditarod

As it has for the last several years, JuniorDispatch.com is hosting coverage of the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race, the 1,000-mile run from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nome, Alaska, that happens each March.

Junior Dispatch has a variety of resources for learning about the race, including daily reports on the mushers' progress, photo galleries, racer profiles, videos and quick-hit facts about the rules and history of the race.

Along with the race coverage, the Junior Dispatch is also hosting a read-along story that's great for kids. This year, JD is featuring "Rescue Dog of the High Pass," about a boy and his dog as they work through the winter at the Great St. Bernard Pass in Europe.

Teachers, parents and other caregivers are invited to submit their Iditarod-themed reports, drawings and stories to juniordispatch@yorkdispatch.com for inclusion in this year's coverage.