By Kristen Gaydos
Although he can't see where he's going, Otto the dachshund relishes any chance he gets to run.
The blind canine - Otty to his friends - will show what he can do during the Wiener Dog Races at this year's PA Oktoberfest. The fall celebration takes place Sept. 13-15 at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Plains Township. The races proved popular with the crowds in previous years, and multiple races will happen each day of the event. More than 180 dogs registered this year.
"You wouldn't believe how fast he goes," said Otty's owner, Janice Preston.
While the dog has never raced before, Preston and her husband, Ed Oltra, think he should make it to the finish line.
"We thought we'd register him and see what he can do," Oltra said. "I think he'll get the feel for what's going on."
The couple doesn't know the cause of Otty's blindness, but his veterinarian said it is likely a nerve connectivity problem he was born with. They adopted him after Preston saw his photograph while volunteering at an animal shelter - someone brought him in after he was found wandering in traffic.
Preston went around the house with her eyes closed to check for obstacles that would prevent him from getting around, and bought grip tape to put along the edge of stairs to alert him to the drop. She crawled around with him until he got used to the home.
"As soon as I saw his picture and that he was 5 years old and blind, I thought nobody would take him. So we took him," Preston said.
"Best thing we ever did," Oltra added.
Preston and Oltra also own two other dogs and four cats, all rescues. Their pups, Maya and Chloe, will root for Otty in cheerleading outfits during his race at 2 p.m. on Sept. 14. Otty will appear in costume, too, as the canine superhero Underdog.
Partial hearing loss didn't stop Salty, a miniature dachshund who won her race last year and will return to defend her crown.
Owner George Abraham of Thornhurst saved the purebred double-dapple about four years ago, after learning she might be put down for her disability. Her rare coloring comes from breeding two dapple-coated dachshunds, risky since it can lead to birth defects such as blindness or deafness, Abraham said.
"I was not letting that happen," Abraham said. "I went as far as offering twice as much as they were asking for her. They ended up selling her to me for half of her original asking price as they wanted her to go to a good home."
Abraham fell in love with Salty, who has "the brightest blue eyes and pink nose." Being deaf may have given her an extra edge during last year's race, since she wasn't affected by the loud crowds, he said. She'll race this year at 8 p.m. Sept. 13.
"She is always by my side. Since she doesn't hear well, she doesn't wander far from me. So in a crowded place like the races, I knew she would want to be back with me, quickly" he said.
The dog's fear of bright strobe lights and flashes cost her a second win during last year's competition. When a photographer snapped her picture, the dog stopped dead in her tracks and ran the wrong way, Abraham said.
Dachshund half-brothers Fenway and Grover have plenty of room to practice in their Kingston backyard, running laps around the swimming pool under the watchful eyes of owners Karen and Pat Simmers and their children Andrew and Alyssa.
"Grover is easily distracted. He probably won't cross the finish line. If Fenway sees me, he'll probably be able to do it," said Karen Simmers.
Fenway, 1, and Grover, 5 months, came from the same breeder. The two share the same sire, but Grover was born with a deformity on his back leg that would prevent him from being sold. The family adopted Fenway because Karen Simmers grew up with two dachshunds and loved the breed. The breeder asked the family to take Grover in too.
"She thought of us because we were so attached to Fenway from the very beginning," Karen Simmers said, adding his leg doesn't slow him down at all. "You'd never know it to watch him."
The two will race at 6 p.m. Sept. 14. The family is still deciding what they'll be wearing. Pat Simmers is leaning toward Batman and Robin costumes, while Karen Simmers considered ketchup and mustard outfits. She decided against dressing them as hot dogs.
Quite the athlete
Phoebe, a 2½-year-old miniature dachshund, will wear her sparkly collar to accent her black, brown and silver-dappled coat during her race. But her pretty looks shouldn't fool onlookers.
"She flies. She's as fast as the wind," said owner Gayle Sensei.
Phoebe came in second last year, and her owners, Sensei and Michael Erhard of Dunmore, are confident in her chances this year. Their girl is quite the athlete.
"We do a lot of walking with her," said Erhard, adding she enjoys running back and forth in the yard and chasing the squirrels.
Erhard's daughter adopted Phoebe, but asked him and Sensei to take care of the pup when she went away to college. They fell in love immediately with the good-natured Phoebe. She never growls or snaps - an all-around sweetheart, Erhard said.
"Now we're dog people," Sensei said. "Now all we talk about is our dog. She absolutely changed our lives."
Phoebe will race at 4 p.m. Sept. 14. They brought bacon to the finish line to get her attention last year, but will probably try one of her favorite toys this time around.
"She's got a big pig and a little pig. We'll probably bring little pig," Sensei said.
Other dachshund owners banded together to create a racing team this year. Laurel Wolfe of Wilkes-Barre, whose 4-year-old Zane competed last year, invited her friend Karen Brennan and her 6-year-old dachshund Abby to form Team ZAbby.
Brennan, of Wilkes-Barre, said Abby ran a race once when she was only about a year and a half.
"She didn't do very well, she kept looking for us on the sidelines, not realizing we were at the finish line," she said.
While Abby got "too chubby" to run for a few years, she went on a diet and is at a good running weight, Brennan said. They're ready to try again.
"I think if we practice, a little and if she sees her dad at the finish line, she will run like nobody's business. She can be very fast when she wants, needs to be," she said.