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Here is another dog story.

Champ dog still game despite being blind

By A.M. KELLEY, Journal Staff Writer

RUMELY — Max has no fear. His owners, Pete Curtice and Sharon Nelson-Curtice, call him their once-in-a-lifetime sled dog.

He’s always wanted to go fast and be out in front but this weekend as Nelson-Curtice enters the U.P. 200, Max won’t be on the team. A genetic problem has made him blind. He’s only 6 years old.

“He is by far the best sled dog we have ever run,” Curtice said. “He pulls hard. He’s still good enough. He still wants to run.”

And he does run but only recreationally. Fast trail speeds in competitions would put him in jeopardy. So Max will sit out the U.P. 200 this year while younger dogs he helped train, Ricky and Colleen, will lead the pack.

“This sport is really about having a good leader,” Curtice said, who along with his wife owns Ridgerunner Kennel in Rumely.

The couple began the sport eight years ago and have learned firsthand that some dogs are good runners but not leaders. A dog is either a leader or it’s not. How does a musher know the difference?

There’s no mistaking leadership material, they said. A lead dog shows the musher that it’s a lead dog.

“It’s not afraid of what’s in front of them. They don’t tire and enjoy passing other sled teams,” Curtice said, who won the U.P. 200 in 2002 with Max.

Nelson-Curtice, who won the Midnight Run in 2000 with Max, put it another way: “Max has a huge heart.”

Ricky and Colleen, as well as their backups Trumpet, Asrial, Hurricane and Buck, are very good leaders, the Curtices said, but they’re not Max.

“They’re not as solid,” Nelson-Curtice said. “They’re not as driven as Max.”

Typically, dogs begin to show promise as leaders while still young.

“But some make a career change when they’re older,” Curtice said, explaining that some dogs grow into leadership positions when they find out how much fun the sport is.

Last weekend Nelson-Curtice’s team won the Pellston Ice Box, a 34-mile race downstate.

“It was a real solid run,” she said. “It will be nice going into the 200. The dogs are happy and want to run.”

The Curtices train their dogs to run the U.P. 200 every year. That’s the race they want to do good in.

They have a relatively small kennel, only 30 dogs. One is a retired 14-year-old, four are puppies, and five are yearlings, too young to run in a long, stressful race like the U.P. 200.

With a small number of dogs to choose from, the Curtices are careful not to push the dogs to win races earlier in the season. If one is injured or peaks before the U.P. 200 there are no substitutes.

“We love to win races,” he said, “but don’t put much pressure on (the dogs).”

The Curtices said sled dogs are similar to people. The best leader in a race is young and driven, mentally mature, but more than anything else, when it runs, it smiles.
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