"Must be hardworking and self-motivated. Cold weather experience preferred." So reads a help-wanted ad for a dog handler on a popular sled dog website. "Must be able to lift fifty pounds, love dogs and be willing to do other work around the homestead," read another. Some positions pay a small stipend, others provide only room and board. What does a sled dog handler really do? What types of people apply and why do they come?
Dog handlers come from all walks of life: professional people looking for a diversion, college kids that love dogs and folks that are looking to cross something off their "bucket list." Most have no experience and absolutely no idea of what they will be doing. Playing with puppies seems like a vacation and standing on a sled behind a team of huskies loping through a winter wonderland is a fantasy fulfilled.
Reality is somewhat different. The four-month-old puppies are like small wolves dancing around your feet, wanting to eat and run. Puppy walks are more like attempting to wear down a bunch of kids at day care. It isn't going to happen. They come to the call of "puppy, puppy" but you'll need to be hurrying to have them follow. The adult sled dogs are little better.
Most mature sled dogs will come when called. However, running is still their passion, especially when hooked to a line with a half-dozen others. Loping through the snow would be more accurately described as hanging on and hoping to remain upright. Feeding time is controlled chaos: "feed me first, me, me!" It isn't quite like setting the bowl of kibble in front of a couch dog.
There is also fish to chop and meat to cut. Most kennels cook food for their animals, and that food is cooked outdoors. Alaska winters see a fair amount of negative temperatures. Dress well, because handlers spend the better part of the day out of the cabin.
It is one thing to go outside for a walk or some sort of activity. It is entirely different to spend your day living outdoors. Splitting wood, walking pups, hooking up teams (booties are put on bare-handed) and repairing equipment, it all requires various gear. It is tough to stay comfortable. However, comfortable isn't one of the requirements. "Must have an upbeat attitude" is!
A good attitude is an absolute requirement when it is 40 below and darker than the inside of a witch. Put on the headlamp, 7 a.m. is the time to roll out and scoop poop. You have to be inventive to make that enjoyable.
Handling dogs would be a lot more fun if the pay was better. Usually it is just room and board. Some kennels include a small stipend. That means just enough cash to keep up with basics that are not provided and pay the cell phone bill.
What possesses a pharmacist who normally makes more than of $150,000 to welcome this abuse? Most who apply for a position in a dog kennel are planning for the short-term. Kids still living at home and not quite certain of what they want in life make up the majority of applicants. Some stay only a week before realizing that dogs are not just fun and games. One guy told us at the end of his first week, "I love dogs, but I don't know how to love all 50 of them!" He stuck it out and learned.
The ones that don't stay go home with stories to tell. Tales of chilling cold and long days coupled with the enthusiasm and power of a well-trained team of huskies, miles from anywhere, running strong as a single moose crosses their path. There are the tracks of a single wolf cutting onto the trail, the fox that stops for a look before bolting for cover and the ptarmigan that explode from the way.
The things that send some home cause a select few to stay. Handling dogs becomes an addiction. Money must not be a priority, nor can personal comfort be more than an unnecessary convenience. Not many Alaskans apply. However, the ones that stay become Alaskans.
If you love hard work, revel in 30 below and the smells of fish send you to ecstasy, then please give me a call; we have a place for the addict.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.