In 1989 a notion took place in my mind, a notion that had been brewing for quite some time. It had to do with kids and dogs and healing hearts, minds and souls. It had to do with putting something back together that had been torn apart… And about the process of doing that with a dog, or two…Having grown up with Sled dogs I guess I took for granted how amazing and talented they are in so many different ways besides pulling a dog sled or any other number of outdoor sports that they are just great at. Of course, when I was a kid, I thought a sled dog was a stiff, tottering old dog with a lot of fur and cataracts. My grandmother had sent us her retired huskies for years, to bask in the sun and lounge on a couch as they enjoyed old age. It wasn’t until I was grown with a young son that I began to build a team of my own. But the potential these amazing athletes really have in so many different areas led me on an adventure that I want to share with others, an adventure of healing the hearts of growing minds and bodies. It’s also true that a few wayward adults got some much needed mending along the way as well! The first thing I noticed was that my sled dogs sure seemed to attract a lot of attention- and especially from kids. Picking up my 7 year old son from school, a daily routine, was at times a lengthy affair, as the kids had to pet my dogs, and ask questions. It was fun for me to see their bright faces, as I always bring a few dogs with me everywhere. They wanted to kiss and hug and pet them – really a lot. Soon this lead to sled dogs coming to school for show and tell. And then to rest homes, and then, to the classes of special needs children. Although the students were initially excited, teachers remarked that kids became calm in the presence of the dogs, and after our visits, seemed to sit more quietly and focus on school work with a renewed zest. My notion evolved. Of course, I already knew that dogs of any breed could probably accomplish this, but I didn’t have just any breed, I had Alaskan Huskies, just good old fashioned northern sled dogs. As I thought about it, I realized that my dogs had been doing this work for a while now. Years earlier, my son, diagnosed with severe asthma, slept in a oxygen tent with a sled dog. My sister, an epileptic, had one by her side all the time. Neighbor kids who were going through drama and trauma congregated at our house and spent hours with the dogs. Kids and dogs were always hanging out. There was sort of an unofficial understanding between kids and the dogs, kids learning how to handle dogs and how to train, and all the while the dogs were learning too. The dogs were learning about lots of different kinds of kids with lots of diverse challenges. I discovered they loved all kids, although they seemed to have a natural bend in the direction of a child who really needed help. Medicinedogs in AlaskaYears and generations of dogs later, my son was grown and in college. I moved to Alaska. So why not make this notion I had been working on, a more official situation? How could I help the most emotionally challenged kids? How could I get kids and dogs together? I decided to become a licensed foster parent. I went through the training, had my home approved, and waited for my first charge to be assigned to me. I didn’t have to wait long. I named my kennel, “Medicinedogs” and had a sign made at the fair. Pretty soon a little boy arrived at my home. He was very small for his age, and had been through a great deal, I would be his third attempt at a foster home. He was very hesitant as he climbed out of the social worker’s car. He leaned over and peeked around the open car door, I waved. He waved back. He and the social worker made the rather long walk down a rather plank like walk to my front porch. He made it almost all the way to the front door when my older very large male dog barked. The boy jumped back, afraid immediately. But I could see the excitement in his eyes too. “You have a dog!?” “Yes, several,” I explained, “I am a dog musher and I have sled dogs.” He was already overcoming his own fear just to get in the front door to see, “the dog.” All 120 lbs. of him! He was extremely wowed! Well, this particular dog had wowed a lot of folks; he was a large dog that harkened back to the old trap line dogs. Tall and long, with lots of fur, he had once been an imposing figure. He was a gentle giant in his later years however, albeit with a big bark! He had given much comfort to many already, and my new foster son was in love. Life was not going to be so easy over the next few weeks. The old dog and I had our work cut out for us. Our new charge had fears and issues and lots of anxiety. He was sad and angry and homesick. I often remember how much a real bridge my big old dog was for the boy and his nightmares. He missed his family immensely, especially his siblings. Miko went to bed with him and got him up in the morning. If Miko were in the room, he was cooperative. He would eat, dress and pick up after himself. If he became frustrated, Miko intervened, often stopping a full blown tantrum with his huge soft brown eyes and tail that waved back and forth very slowly. And when I had a short temper, Miko also intervened, letting me know I needed to relax and have patience. Calm was what was needed, and calm is what the dog insisted on. And believe me, what the dog wanted, he got, especially when it came to the boy! After a few months, it was time to move on to other dogs with other gifts. And it was time for the young man to rescue a dog, to be the one to rescue another. And he did. After teaching Todd to feed and clean and water dogs, how to cook fish broth and soak kibble, how to harness and use equipment, it was time for him to have his own dog. I arranged for Todd to rescue a little deaf puppy we named Olo, short for Olowan. Olo was a special needs pup and needed lots of looking after. Todd taught sign to Olo, and was responsible for teaching him how to be in a house, on a leash, and finally in harness. It was wonderful to see the changes come to the boy, and the pride he had in the dogs and in his own ability to reach for small accomplishments such as remembering how to harness, and who runs next to whom, what trail went where. He became very good at understanding the dogs needs, and communicating with them. The dogs responded to him with wagging tails and happy short barks, eager eyes. His pleasure and happiness peaked when he realized how much they enjoyed working with him. He started to excel at school. He read as many books as he could get a hold of on dogs.Todd’s brother and sister came to live with us. All of them started with Miko and graduated to a rescued dog, and then began to work with the team. They learned how to run small teams of dogs, and had a sense of what was going on with dogs. They took on more rescued dogs and found homes for them. Todd realized that our team dogs had a lot to offer the rescued dogs, and he would let a rescue run next to a team dog, or we would take a team dog and a rescue to the dog park. If the rescued dog had fear or anxiety about the people, other dogs, or even the truck ride, a team dog was by his side, and so was Todd, soothing and coaching and supporting. He new that love and compassion and patience were key. And in the process of helping dogs, Todd was healing and becoming a whole person. Soon Todd and his brother were going on long runs into the woods with me. I certainly was pleased with both boys’ interest level and progress. It was lot of fun to bring them with me and I never had to worry about getting lost as they had developed wonderful memories and senses of direction. It was also great having the company and helping hands. All in the familyRecently our youngest charge and a grandson had the opportunity to live with us for the winter last year. He had been in special education and had learning troubles and a hearing loss. But he also helped care for his older brother who suffered from Autism, and so was already patient after learning how to guide his brother. Both boys loved dogs and had spent a lot of time with the team. Both were assigned several dogs to care for. The six year old decided he wanted to race! But first it was learning all the basics, which took quite some time. Harnessing seemed to be a huge struggle. He just could not remember how to harness no matter how many times he tried. I remember how gentle little Tukaani was with him. She had that harness on upside down backwards and inside out time and time again. She would look at me for help and it was hard not to! Finally, after months of practice, a tip from a friend who teaches learning disabled kids worked wonders. She said to color each part of the harness a different color with felt pens. And voila! The technique worked, the young man got the hang of it and began to teach his brother. As a matter of fact, everything he learned, he taught his older brother. It was a way for him to reinforce what he knew. Then came racing season! The two-dog class was just what the boy needed next. He began to race those dogs he had grown to love, and they went all the way for him. Not only did he move into a regular class in school, he went to the top of it! He learned to read and read well, with much inflexion and enjoyment. And his successes did not stop there; he raced in the two-dog class and won the Junior North American. At the end of the race he exclaimed, “We flew like bird!!” He beamed with such joy and excitement. And the dogs? They were as happy as he was! Another success for our Medicinedogs. They sure never cease to amaze me.And so my notion was realized, and continues to be realized, thanks to the dogs who are my family, and the kids who came to us. The dogs gave unconditional love, endless patience and true companionship to those kids in grave need of just those things, guiding them to learn to trust in the world once again. And no matter where in the world these kids are nowadays, they call on a regular basis, and always ask about the dogs. In loving memory of Miko.
Lost Sports of the Winter Olympics: The fast and furry world of sled dog racing