For the Love of Dogs: Orford Woman Raises, Races 13 Canines

Sunday, February 22, 2015
Orford — The members of Fran Plaisted’s family like to dig in the yard and bring dirt into the house. Whenever there’s a deer in the yard, they let her know with their voices. The youngest like to chew and while each of them have their own sleeping spaces, some often choose to spend the night next to her instead.

Being the head of a family of 14 — 13 of them sporting four legs and distinct personalities — can be tough, but Plaisted happily manages her pack of sled racing dogs on her own.

“I’ve truly fallen in love,” she said. “I always loved dogs. It doesn’t surprise me that I have dogs. It probably surprises me that I race competitively.”

Plaisted was introduced to racing in the late 1980s when a friend lent Plaisted and her then-husband a team of dogs. It brought out a competitive edge in her that she didn’t realize was there.

That desire to compete has continued for about 20 years.

Plaisted has raced at the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby in Laconia, N.H., for about 10 years, most recently last weekend

She wasn’t sure how her six-dog team would do, especially since her leader, Pax, was out injured after he slipped playing with a ball in the fenced-in acre of land at her Orford home.

“It was really icy and Pax is obsessed,” Plaisted said. “He has to fetch every day or he goes nuts.”

That meant Plaisted needed to promote a new leader. The task fell to Pax’s daughter, 11/2- year-old Pepper, and his son, 3-year-old Nemo.

The team got tangled up in the lines a few times over the three-day race, during which teams travel six miles over hilly terrain each day. On the first day, Pepper had difficulty passing another team. “She took us into the deep snow a couple of times,” Plaisted said.

On the second day, they had to stop only once and had their best finish, at 19:12.

The third day, Espresso was running on the right side of the sled but kept trying to run on the left, her preferred spot. That distracted her partner, Truffle, and Plaisted had to stop to switch them. Mousse, who was recovering from surgery to remove a piece of rubber he had eaten, was tired on the last day.

The team came in fourth, but Plaisted couldn’t compliment her German pointer and husky mix dogs enough.

“I am happy,” she said. “They did as well as they could have.”

And for Pepper, who is still learning the ropes?

“She did great,” Plaisted said with pride in her voice. “This (event) was perfect for Pepper to learn.”

Since the start of her mushing career, Plaisted has owned about 50 dogs. Today, her brood includes Okie, 12, who’s retired and deaf, but used to be a leader and still itches to race. Ten-year-old siblings Tater and Doughboy are semi-retired. Sprite, 8, is moving into semi-retirement. The peak years for racing dogs are ages 2-7.

Pax, 5, Plaisted’s fastest (“He is an unbelievable dog”) came from one of the best racing teams in Canada and is the father of 11/2- year-old sisters Pepper and Salsa.

His son, Nemo, looks and acts like a Labrador retriever, Plaisted said. (“He does not look like a fast sled dog. He’s quite shocking when he runs.”)

Pax also sired 7-month-old puppies Ginger and her brother, Basil, who needed to be tube-fed at first. “The only reason I kept him is because I tube-fed him and worried and stressed (over him),” she said. “The runt of the litter is going to be a great dog. I can tell.”

The puppies’ mom is Truffle, age 2 (“She was a great mother”).

Her brother is Mousse (“He loves the puppies way more than Pax”).

Espresso, age 4, is the only dog without husky in her: She’s a greyhound and pointer mix.

Caring for the dogs takes a lot of time and money. Plaisted has her own business as a vocational rehabilitation counselor and is able to schedule her appointments around the racing season, which begins in early January and extends to mid- or late March, depending on conditions. There is also a dryland season, which runs from the end of October until mid-December.

It takes about 1,000 pounds of dog food, supplemented with beef, to feed all 13 for three months. It used to cost about a dollar a day per dog, Plaisted said. “It may be a little bit more than that” today, she said, estimating that it costs roughly $500 a month to care for the dogs and then $200 for equipment upkeep.

But Plaisted said the other mushers in the Twin States help each other out when they can, buying food in bulk and dog sitting. “We tend to try to work together,” she said.

While huskies are more associated with sled dog racing (Think: Alaska’s Iditarod), pointer-crosses are preferred for sprinting. “The honest reason is these dogs are faster and driven,” Plaisted said. “My dogs will run as fast as they can and won’t leave anything on the table.”

In 2017, the world championship for sled dog racing will be held in Ottawa. Plaisted’s goal is to qualify for it.

“I really like the competition. We work together as a team,” Plaisted said. “It shows how good my dogs are. ... It’s nice to have people give them credit.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.