Paws Along the Trail with Dr. Jen
If you get the opportunity to speak with any musher on the Iditarod, you sense their passion for dogs and the outdoors. So many have even changed lifestyle to incorporate a simpler, work-with-your-hands way of life. Dr. Jen Freking, wife, mother, veterinarian, and musher, talked with me about her passion for sled dogs, particularly Siberians. She ran the Jr. Iditarod and competed in the 2008 Iditarod. Her husband is a three time Iditarod competitor. They run a kennel of Siberian Huskies which, she said, are her passion. She began with them as a girl and likes maintaining the minority breed. Their dogs are in the minority among Siberians because they are not show dogs, the ones with the big, fluffy, groomed coats. Their dogs have a different genetic make-up to be pulling dogs. The show dog Siberians don’t have the stamina to race, whereas their dogs are bred for that purpose.
When asked if she views her dogs as working dogs, she responded that her dogs fit the definition of working dogs. They have a purpose. Of course they provide a mode of transportation, but Jen said it’s much more than that. They are so much fun! Pulling is what they desire. When one of their puppies first feels a harness, it’s like a light bulb goes off in the puppy’s brain. It starts running. Some people ask, “How do you keep them running?” The problem isn’t with getting them to run. The problem is with the braking! When she’s training dog teams, her discipline technique is to stop the team and hold them in place with the brake until they obey “Gee” and turn right instead of the way they want to go. Their reward for obeying her commands is they get to run! They learn, “If I go right when she says Gee, I get to run again!!” It’s like withholding the ball from a Labrador. Hold back the reward until they learn to listen. Her dogs’ desire is to run and pull. The enthusiasm her dogs have is contagious. How can she not get excited when she walks into the dog area and all of them stand up, cheering to go?
An interesting bit of information came when I asked Jen about dogs running with partners. Dogs are individuals, but come together with training to become a sled dog team. The goal is to get them to run alongside and partner with any of the other dogs on the team. That is the goal, of course, but a musher still knows that dogs prefer certain dogs with which to run. Personalities are distinct; dogs often have preferences, like which side of the gangline they prefer or with which dog they want to run.
Individuals will come together as a team. Jen’s leader in 2008 was little Capri. At only 35 pounds, the little female Siberian ran alongside Gonzo, an Alaskan husky who weighed in at 60 pounds! When I asked if they pulled well together, Jen described the two dogs as good partners. Gonzo, the big boy, was really goofy with floppy ears. He weaved left to right along the undefined trail. Capri, with her big heart and leadership, kept him in line.
A dog’s personality shows up in various situations, like in what it likes to eat. One of Jen’s Iditarod team dogs, Remy, wanted his water after he ate. All the other dogs would curl up and rest, but he would stomp his feet for his bowl of water before he’d go to sleep.
A funny story: while running the Iditarod, Jen’s team was going over Rainy Pass, which feels “like you are on top of world.” There were no trees, the wind was blowing, it was cloudy, snowing, and difficult to see the trail. Besides that, she was at the top of the pass at night. Jen was gung-ho to see the mountains around her. She kept shining her headlamp around in different directions, trying to see and enjoy the landscape. “I soon noticed that my leaders at the time, Chester and Kimber, kept veering right and left, trying to follow my headlight instead of the trail! I decided to keep my light on the trail to keep them going straight.”
Her kids have their own sleds and love to run their teams. They drive one and two dog teams while Jen mushes along behind. Both of her girls experienced losing their team with her sibling still in the sled. One time, the rider didn’t notice her sister had fallen off the sled runners. The dogs continued running and the little rider was oblivious that the team had no driver. Not until the dogs had run home and stopped in the yard did she turn around to ask her sister to come inside to play. No sister!
Mushers consistently demonstrate that they have a strong connection to their dogs. The mutual love and respect are evident in how they gush about their canine friends. Use paragraphs from this article to motivate students to read and locate the main idea and supporting details!