The Heartwarming Reason Why One Couple Decided To Retire And Rescue 90 Dogs
In 2002, a friend invited Bonnie Ulrich, 60, and her husband, Rick Desotelle, 61, to a farm for what they thought would be a fun afternoon giving their three Siberian huskies a try at pulling a dogsled. The dogs were indoor pets who had never worked together as a team. At the farm, an experienced sled driver (also called a musher) hitched their dogs, along with the musher's own lead dog, to the sled. Then Bonnie climbed on board and braced for her first-ever ride.
Surprisingly, the dogs adapted to running as a unit with ease—it was Bonnie who had a tough time. "The rule in mushing is: Never let go," Bonnie says. "I got on, went 20 feet, fell down, and let go of the sled. The team of dogs kept going without me!" Tears in her eyes from the shock of the fall, she asked to try again—and again. The fifth time, she held on for the entire circuit.
It was a revelation. "I couldn't believe what a joy it was to discover something that my dogs did innately and loved so much," she recalls. "Plus, I've never been athletic, but this sport just felt right." Bonnie was also ready for a life change: An art teacher, she was frustrated by a system that made it hard to work one-on-one with the kids she loved.
When Bonnie dismounted that day, she walked up to her husband and said, "I'm going to do this." Right then, she formed her plan to retire and follow her new calling.
Rick, an assistant principal, was also intrigued. "At first, I was a bit skeptical of Bonnie's idea," he says. "She'd never liked winter sports, so I wasn't sure she'd follow through." But she was determined. "We do things together; we always have," Rick says. So the couple set off to buy a used sled for practicing, and found a longtime musher who agreed to be their mentor. They also adopted a semiretired lead husky named Beautiful. "Beautiful taught our dogs to be good sled dogs," Bonnie says. "And she taught us to be good mushers."
What the couple didn't expect to be taught, though, was how to be better communicators. It was at a boot camp in the Minnesota backcountry where they discovered the lessons of mushing also applied to marriage. For one, mushing taught them how to manage conflict. "If we didn't resolve our arguments, we could not get the team to move forward," Rick says. They also learned how to share leadership in harmony: Though they exchange roles, whoever is driving also verbally commands the dogs. If they talked over each other, the team would get confused.
Leading the pack
As mushing became a serious passion, the couple adopted rescue dogs (many with a mix of husky in them) until they had amassed a full team—14 in all. (One husky, named Happy, has deformed kneecaps and cannot pull. Instead he rides on the sled.) They trained with wheeled carts on Milwaukee bike paths, and spectators would stop to take photos and ask questions. "People were fascinated," Bonnie says.
Bonnie and Rick (who retired a year after his wife) realized the dogs could allow them to work with kids again. The Milwaukee County's park system authorized the couple to offer sled rides in the downtown lakefront area. Their business, The Door County Sled Dogs (named for the county where they found their first huskies) was converted in 2010 to a nonprofit that promotes pet rescue and responsible ownership. The group holds educational presentations and meet and greets, and entertains the sell-out crowds that come for $15 sled rides on snowy weekends. (The money pays for the dogs' care.)
The rides are more than fun. "We have 1,000 children and adults show up for a 2-hour session to spectate or ride," Bonnie says. "That's 1,000 people learning about rescue dogs, teamwork, leadership, and also that what you put into your dogs, you'll get back tenfold. It's incredible to see that impact."
During the week, the couple attend events such as Girl Scouts meetings to teach the qualities of successful mushers, which include trustworthiness and respect. They've also rescued about 90 dogs of all types and helped to place them in homes.
"We're very, very tired at times," says Bonnie, who, with Rick, cares for their 14 dogs at home. "But it's a good tired. We're blessed to have these animals in our lives. They force us to have structure and bring us back to what's important in life: learning, giving back and connecting with others."