Riley Dyche believes trust is the most important aspect of being a musher.
Trust in your sled.
Trust in yourself.
But most of all, trust in your dogs.
“It’s an unconditional commitment between you and the dogs,” said Dyche. He’s a musher for Alaska Icefield Expeditions in Skagway during the summer and Black Spruce Dog Sledding in Fairbanks during the winter, leading mushing tours for visitors who want to take a dog sled ride and have hands-on contact with the dogs.
The jobs supplement his real professional passion: training, racing and caring for his dogs.
“People say dogs have unconditional love,” he said. “That’s true. But if you ask more of them than they can do, they won’t trust you, they won’t trust what you’re asking them to do. They’re like human athletes. If you push them too hard it won’t work. You always do what’s in the best interest of the dogs. You have to build trust. Once you’ve lost that trust, you’ve lost it.
“I think it involves unconditional commitment,” he added. “They do love unconditionally, but they don’t trust unconditionally.”
Dyche got into mushing while living in Leadville, Colorado, in 2010. Later, he was in class at Colorado Mountain College and overheard a classmate talking about her mushing experiences in Alaska. It sounded intriguing, so he applied for mushing jobs and received an offer from Alaska Icefield Expeditions in Skagway in 2013. It was there that he met Yukon Quest winner Matt Hall, who offered Dyche a job training and racing two-year-old dogs.
He started his own kennel in 2015 and currently has 18 dogs. He’s preparing them for the 1,000-mile Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in 2018.
Dyche grew up in Iowa surrounded by Brittany Spaniels, which are more hunting dogs than sledding dogs, he said. But since he grew up with dogs, he can’t help but love them. Still, there are no favorites among his kennel of Alaskan Huskies. Dyche loves all his dogs equally.
“I mean, I have 18 dogs, 14 of which I raced from birth,” he said. “You treat them like children. You love them in different ways.”
That love extends to his training and racing regimens. He tries hard not to push the dogs past their capabilities. In training he said he is “semi-conservative.” He remembered how his dogs responded when he ran a race called the “Old Mail Trail 200” in 45-degree weather.
“As far as keeping that trust, it’s really hard when it’s 45 degrees,” he said. “The dogs were like, ‘you want us to run 200 miles in this heat?’”
It was a challenge to the trust between Dyche and his dogs, but he said the key to maintaining the musher-dog relationship was to appeal to their competitive spirit, by “getting the dogs to trust that we were going someplace that was worth going to.”
Dyche loves training, loves the “zen” of being with his dogs, the “aesthetics of being totally alone with your dogs when it’s 20 or 30 below.”
“It’s more of a way of life than a hobby,” Dyche said. “Every day I’m training. You don’t have much of a life outside of the dogs. You don’t get a day off. It’s a fun commitment, but it’s a commitment you wrap your life around.”