I push the glow button on my watch. Midnight. An enormous black cat and a Pit Bull mix snooze contentedly on my bed. I, too, was sleeping deeply, and it takes me a moment to remember where I am: a one-room cabin, 20 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska.
I climb down a ladder through a hole in the floor of the loft into a dog den and gingerly pick my way between paws and tails to a portable indoor john, hidden under the kitchen sink. It’s probably more than 20 degrees below zero outside, and I’m glad I don’t have to bundle up for a trip to the outhouse.
When I sit, 22 pairs of eyes glint in my direction. In the moon glow, the cabin is a dreamy dog domain, unlike any gathering of canines I’ve ever seen. Quiet and contented, they are sprawled on the couch, chairs, rugs, and under and on top of the raised bed in which my human host—Arna Dan Isacsson—sleeps. They lose interest in me quickly. One or two slip through the wool-blanket flaps of the dog door; others readjust, snuggle into one another and hunker down for more sleep. I climb back up my ladder feeling more like a wolf-child than a writer researching a story.
In the morning, the evening’s strangeness is gone. I wake to a dehumidifier’s noisy drone. In the bone-dry Fairbanks climate, this industrial-strength appliance will suck nearly three gallons of water—liquid dog breath—from the atmosphere every few days. Isacsson is heating coffee and doing yoga stretches with her “deputy,” an intense, tricolor Border Collie mix named Gari. She is why I’m here. I’ve traveled to the epicenter of competitive dog sledding to see how this transplanted Swede rehabilitates canine castoffs in a way no one else has the time, energy or faith to try.
Only a few dogs are inside this morning—comfort-seeking pups such as the delicate tan-and-white 14-year-old Husky curled up in the crook of the couch. Ten years ago, this sled dog was saved by one of Isacsson’s friends, who came across her as she was being beaten by a musher while she was still harnessed to the team. Isacsson has asked me not to use the dog’s name for fear the incident will be linked to that high-profile musher even today. Many of her dogs are here because they have troubled histories associated with mushing (from the stress of life on a chain to physical abuse, neglect or simply having been dumped), but she is careful about criticizing neighbors and friends.
Instead, she offers an alternative that is part rescue and part example. Since the early 1990s, Isacsson has lived with both her own and rejected dogs, as few as eight and as many as 30 or more, in as close an approximation of a natural pack as she can manage. She believes that by integrating them into the group, the often mistreated, last-chance dogs can be restored to a state of physical and mental health, and some day, thrive as companion animals in her home or with others. Her well-mannered crew testifies to the success of her method.
Dogs trickle in and out while we get ready for a hike. As she prepares breakfast and cleans up, they seem to visit with her and each other. “They need a social landscape,” Isacsson explains. “The experience of gnawing and grooming together satisfies something in their limbic system. It’s as important as food and shelter.”
Elaj (pronounced Ely), an Australian Shepherd who looks out of place among the mostly Husky mixes, climbs into Isacsson’s lap when she sits down. While she is a key component in his universe, she points to the pack as the active agent.
“I’m the camp counselor. I call the shots. But it’s the group that heals the dog. I just reinforce it. I allow for it,” she says. “I credit the success of rehabilitation and restoration of these often compromised dogs to the powerful healing dynamics that exist within the family pack structure. Many less desirable behaviors are simply being replaced by constructive peer influences and by just being allowed to live life as a dog where there are clear pack boundaries.”