Kids and Dogs Make Life Better for an Alaskan Community
Through our interviews and research for our TV Documentary, we found evidence of how powerful the human-animal bond can be and how dogs make a difference in the lives of many. The Summit Opening Keynote gave another wonderful example of how Kids and Dogs Make Life Better together.
Arleigh Reynolds Opening Keynote Speech – the human-animal bond in Alaska
Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Arleigh Reynolds gave his opening keynote speech on research regarding the human-animal bond in Alaska. It was fascinating to learn about the impact having positive interactions with dogs has had on Alaskan children’s development and sense of community.
Reynolds announced that Purina will donate $50,000 to The Frank Attla Youth Program – a program developed to help at-risk youth in rural Alaska and improve care for sled dogs initiated by George Attla and his partner Kathy Turco. Sled dog racing is a popular sport in Alaska and northern Canada and George Attla was a well-known Sprint Dog Mushing legend. Reynolds himself is a keen Musher.
“By pairing at-risk youth with working dogs in rural communities, this remarkable program has managed to alleviate some damaging social problems. Through curriculum, training and hard work, students reignite a passion for their heritage and learn many valuable life skills in the process, all while bonding with working dogs. The program has helped decrease social issues such as violence, drug use, and teen pregnancy and is credited with improving the emotional wellness of students.” source Purina
George Attla – the “Huslia Hustler” – a Racing Legend.
George Attla overcame illness, physical problems and adversity in his youth to become an incredible dog breeder and racer living in Huslia, Alaska. Attla ran dogs into his eighties and won many races. He was known as the “Huslia Hustler” during his prime racing days. Attla won his first of 10 Fur Rendezvous sled dog races in 1958, at the age of 24. In the following years—with grit and determination and his knowledge of dogs—he won nine Tok Race of Champions titles, eight North American Open Championships, eight Koyukuk River Championships, and 10 International Sled Dog Association unlimited class medals.
History and Tradition
Dogs had been a part of the lives of Attla’s people since before memory. There have apparently been several top-notch dog drivers from the Koyukuk River villages. “He came by dog mushing naturally because of where he was raised and because his parents knew more about dog mushing than he believed he’d ever know in his own lifetime,” Iditarod education director Diane Johnson Johnson wrote on the Iditarod website. “George enjoyed dog mushing. It was his way of life and driving a dog team and racing dogs was what he really enjoyed doing.”
However with the ready availability of snowmobiles, dogs were no longer needed for transport and young people were not learning about racing and dogs. In some of the small rural communities in Alaska, kids and youth had become less connected with elders and tradition. Many faced not only the harsh environment, but also issues such as violence, substance abuse, depression, unemployment and teen pregnancy.
George started thinking about his yard full of dogs and how to engage youth in his home of Huslia. Having been involved with dogs for most of his life, he understood the benefits they provide to a person’s mind and body. George wanted to share his knowledge with youth. He advised and loaned dogs to young mushers. He wanted to inspire some kids to participate in the Junior North American Dog Sled Races in North Pole.
“I don’t think the kids really understand the importance dogs had in our culture,” Attla said. “We want to bring back the pride people had in their dogs.” Iditarod website.
He talked about building community collaboration for healthy, happy youth at the Alaska Federation of Natives Elders and Youth Conference.
The Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care Program
George developed the program to engage youth with Kathy Turko and named it after his late son Frank. It is focused on teaching youth about caring for dogs, the science behind it, and how to race dogs. It features hands-on training in the four dog kennels in the Huslia area. Attla was a coach and inspiration and worked at instilling pride and committment.
The community of Huslia has embraced the program. It has reportedly attracted more than 30 middle-school and high-school students and been expanded to younger children too. High school students in the program are enrolled in a veterinary science class, while middle school students are enrolled in a math and science class. High school students are receiving dual high school and college credits for completing the class. The program includes two field classes per week working with local kennels in Huslia.
The youth from Huslia had to decide who to send to the first races. They elected four students to participate. Thomas Henry raced in the six-dog class, while Attla’s granddaughter, seventh-grader Jazmyn Vent, ran in the four-dog class Tuesday afternoon. Other kids served as served as the handlers for both teams.
Attla reportedly said Teresa Cox, Principal at Huslia’s Jimmy Huntington School, is the person who made the program happen by embracing it and making it part of the school’s curriculum. According to Cox, the youth are learning to feed dogs, learning about nutrition, and how to hook the dogs up to a harness. They are also learning to work as a team.
Teresa said “They come back so excited.” They are learning how to race and handle dogs, how to become race marshals, race timers and checkpoint volunteers.”
Remembering with Pride
On February 15, Attla passed away peacefully at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage after a brief battle with cancer surrounded by family and friends. He was 81. As he passed, his grandnephew, Joe Bifelt, was readying for the Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race. Bifelt races his granduncle’s team. He attended the Summit so I had the pleasure of meeting him.
Attla was the subject of a movie (“Spirit of the Wind,” 1979) and of a book (George Attla: The Legend of the Sled Dog Trail, 1993).
Racing Toward Recovery:The Extraordinary Story of Alaska Musher Mike Williams Sr.
Another successful Musher that dogs have helped is Mike Williams.
Williams said of George “To young Alaska Natives, he’s a fine example of how an Alaska Native can succeed and become an all-time champion, that if you get your mind focused on succeeding and work hard at it, good things will happen.”
In his book, Racing Toward Recovery:The Extraordinary Story of Alaska Musher Mike Williams Sr. (co-written by journalist Lew Freedman and published by Alaska Northwest Books) Williams writes that mushing is keeping alive an important part of Alaska Native culture. He also writes about mushing to promote sobriety.
“He was glad I was telling my story,” Williams said. “He wanted young people to be free of substance abuse, and he felt education was an important part of the process.”
RELATED Source :Mike Williams Races Toward Recovery
Dogs Make Life Better
The program helps students gain confidence, valuable life skills and self-esteem by introducing dogs into the school curriculum. This gives students the opportunity to create unique bonds with the dogs and teaches them how to care for them. So far the program appears to have been a big success. The dogs are truly making a difference and the students are also impacting the dogs. By pairing dogs and kids, this program has done an incredible job of empowering and connecting a community. I’m excited to see how Purina’s donation will help them go even further.
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