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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

Mush! Cobble Hill Kennel opens for recreational dog sledding

<span class="photocreditinline">COURTESY PHOTO</span><br />Doug Butler (above), Ben Barrett ‘20.5 (far left) and Jules Struznya ‘19.5 (far right) have worked for the last few years to established the Cobble Hill Dog Kennel. With over 50 dogs, the Kennel now offers dog-sledding tours to the public during the winter season, and dry-land cart sledding during the fall.
Doug Butler (above), Ben Barrett ‘20.5 (far left) and Jules Struznya ‘19.5 (far right) have worked for the last few years to established the Cobble Hill Dog Kennel. With over 50 dogs, the Kennel now offers dog-sledding tours to the public during the winter season, and dry-land cart sledding during the fall.

Doug Butler warmly welcomed visitors to his property last Saturday, Sept. 22 but the canine members of his greeting committee were the ones who stole the show.  

Dog barks and yelps echoed around Butler’s property — located three miles northeast of Middlebury center — while county residents and college students chatted, played music, grilled burgers and enjoyed the grand opening of the new Cobble Hill Kennel. Butler, a native Vermonter, worked for years alongside Middlebury students Ben Barrett ’20.5 and Jules Struzyna ’19.5 to establish a kennel for recreational dog sledding. Now open, the Cobble Hill Kennel will offer wintertime sled tours, as well as dry-land sledding in the fall.

Two three-month-old puppies were dubbed parts of the “Cheese Litter,” as all the puppies are soon to be named after different cheeses.

The grand opening was an opportunity for visitors to see the kennel before they decided to spend money there, Struzyna said.

“It’s also a beautiful time of year to meet dogs, hang out, sell locally sourced burgers and celebrate the opening of our business,” they added.

Attendees, many of whom found the event through Cobble Hill’s social media posts, mingled around picnic tables and puppies at the event.

“I saw pictures of the puppies on Facebook, and I texted my friend, ‘We gotta go’,” Lucy Emptage ’22 said. “I like to get off campus just to see the surrounding town and landscape. It’s beautiful out here. But also, my favorite part of the event is the four-week-old puppies.”

While the puppies played in their pens, they greeted each passerby with barks. For every neck scratch, they gave enthusiastic, wet kisses to the adoring audience; some jumped on their hind legs to give guests full-body hugs, paws on shoulders and noses in necks. Butler’s dogs, all husky and pointer mixes, are used for sledding in groups of four to 16, pulling 20 pound sleds. In the right conditions, a pack can pull a rider up to 25 miles per hour. 

Grace Weissman ’21.5 and Rachel Hemmond ’19.5 played with one of Butler’s 50 husky-pointer mix dogs, used primarily as sled dogs in the winter months.

“We don’t have to do much training for the dogs. It’s all in their genes,” Barrett said. “You just hook them to a sled and they pull on their own. They love doing it. When we get the sleds out and start hooking them up, they go wild.”

Both Barrett and Struzyna talked about the conception that dog sledding is exploitative.

“The [sport] can get a lot of flak from certain animal activist groups,” Struzyna said. “But the thing is, many of those people have never spent a day in a kennel with a musher. They don’t understand how loved and well cared for all our dogs are, or how our dogs are athletes to Olympic standards. The people who mush love dogs more than anyone, and we wouldn’t be literally devoting our entire lives to it if we didn’t.”

Struzyna has been dogsledding since they were 16 years old. When Butler expressed interest in hiring people to work for him, someone from the Middlebury College  community contacted Struzyna, knowing that they had dogsledding experience from their Febmester. 

Attendees, many friends of Barrett and Struzyna, grilled and relaxed in the Saturday sun.

“I’ve been at [Butler’s] side ever since, pretty much,” Struzyna said. 

Butler has been mushing since 1975 and raising dogs since he was young. He has represented the U.S. in dryland races and even went to Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2018 to race in the Open North American Championships.

On top of managing a kennel of 50 dogs, Butler is also a seasoned farmer. 

Emily Ballou ’21, along with a handful of other Middlebury students, attended the Grand Opening on Saturday.

“Most mushers are pretty rich,” Barrett said. “Doug is unique in that he’s a struggling farmer; [dogsledding] is just his passion, and he does it in his spare time.”

In order to convert Butler’s property into a dogsled tour venue, Butler, Barrett and Struznya were busy mowing lawns, cutting trees and putting together tables up until last week.

“I feel like opening day went really well,” Struzyna said. “There was a huge turnout. I think that people got to see a side of dogsledding that they never had before. This place has been essential to my four years here, and I’m glad I got to share it with everyone. It seemed like everyone had a really great time”

Butler, Barrett and Struzyna have worked to make the dog sled tours accessible and affordable to the Middlebury community in hopes that more people would be able to experience their world. All students receive a 50% discount on tours, which begin in the fall and last throughout winter.

“It’s such an amazing experience,” Barrett said. “When you’re out there in the snow and the dogs are pulling you, it’s completely silent. You can’t hear anything else except their panting. It’s gorgeous.”

Daniela Morales ’21 cuddles a dog at the Cobble Hill Dog Kennel.