If you see him in action, you can tell Gonzo is meant to be a sled dog.
"He just throws his head in the wind. He's just wagging his tail -- he's just along for the ride," says dog musher AJ Norton. "He's such a ham."
But sudden illness threatened to take him off the team. Three years ago, Gonzo went blind in the span of just a couple weeks. Treatments didn't work, and no surgery could restore his sight. His future as a sled dog was in limbo.
"We kind-of went to our vet and we said, 'You know, what do you think?' And he said, 'Run this dog. You know, just take him out and see what he does,'" Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel owner Karen Tolin says. "He looked excited to go, so we harnessed him up, slowly reintroduced him, and over the span of about a year reintegrated him into running with the team. Because he wanted to. He was very sad when he got left behind."
A solution developed when Gonzo's brother, Poncho, became his seeing eye dog. It was a process that took time.
"When Gonzo began to lean into Poncho at first, that's when he became frustrated. But eventually he began to allow that when he realized there was something different about his brother," says Tolin.
And with that realization, Gonzo's future as a sled dog didn't seem so far-fetched anymore.
"Poncho might lean into him, nudge him, bark at him. They've developed a system of commands far beyond what we could teach," Tolin says.
"If they're back there Poncho will kind-of give Gonzo a little nip like, 'Hey bro, there's a hill coming up,'" Norton says.
Though Gonzo and Poncho work quite well as a team, they are trying to make Gonzo more comfortable with other dogs, that way he isn't too dependent on his brother.
"If something were to happen to Gonzo's brother we would want him to feel like he could stand on his own two feet and be confident," says Tolin.
Gonzo's neck line also helps keep him running straight, but his brother has his back when Gonzo's blindness lands him in trouble.
"Gonzo stepped, literally fell off the trail into the deep snow and went 'Poof!'" Tolin says. "The story goes, Poncho literally leaned over and on the X of the X-backed harness, grasped with his front teeth, brought him up, and then they kept going."
And their wagging tale of inspiration has given his handlers a new perspective on disability.
"We perceived him as having a limitation, so we were a bit more hesitant, but for the dogs, the sky's the limit," Tolin says. "He says 'Okay, I'll adapt and keep going.'"
"I figure that if I was blind, I'd rather be out running doing something for fun than sitting at home, you know," says Norton.
They told us that as long as this dynamic duo wants to pull sleds, they're not going to stop them.
Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel also has an active sled dog rescue and adoption program for other dogs. You can learn more about that here: http://www.dogslednh.com/
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