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.
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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.”
Camp K9 Kin, as she calls her home, is a free-run kennel on 14 birch-covered acres. One partially cleared acre or two is ringed in cyclone fencing, which includes six expansive pens with doghouses opening onto a large central play area that Isacsson refers to as the courtyard. Her cabin sits inside the yard at one end. Most of the time when she is home, the dogs have free range of the courtyard and pens. Smaller groups are sometimes allowed beyond the boundary for reconnaissance in her woods and intense chase games along the fence line. When she goes to work, she leaves some dogs in the central area and others in pens with pen pals. No one is chained.
“There are people who think I spoil my dogs,” Isacsson says with a smile, and it’s true that her camp is nothing like the dog yards that dot most of Alaska. In the standard setup, sled dogs spend their lives among grids of doghouses on chains just long enough for them to circle their house or climb inside and maybe interact with neighboring dogs. In many households, sled dogs never come inside even when pet dogs are permitted indoors. Their only entertainments are running in a team and mealtime. Summers can be especially dull, since some mushers stop exercising their dogs due to the heat.
Warm months at Camp K9 Kin include hiking, swimming, berry-picking and splashing around in swamps. In the yard, Isacsson sets up plastic pools as oases for drinking, cooling off and more grouping. In addition, she creates a bone yard; at night, after the dogs have enjoyed a fresh batch of raw bones, she collects them and then buries them in a pen. The next morning, the dogs race out to dig up, strut with and rebury the bones. Doghouses and the roots of a downed tree provide elevated perches for the dogs who like to watch over the yard.
She calls this the “layered life.” It’s the physical expression of the hierarchies and relationships in the group. The same sort of layering plays out on the various planes in the cabin. “Without having a tested hypothesis, I can tell you it’s very important for them to have this layered life,” Isacsson says. “They spend about 50 percent of their time working out these dynamics. I provide a wide spectrum of opportunities so they can find balance.” For a dog on a chain, she says, “there are no layers. There are absolutely no options at all.”
Watching Isacsson move among her dogs—in a knee brace, in case an exuberant pup plows into an old injury—is a revelation. A Pit Bull mix, a German Shepherd, several Border Collie mixes and a plethora of Huskies romp and play and snarl. There is lots of contact, some minor scuffles, but no fights—it’s high energy without the anarchy. They are mostly left to their own devices with one another, although occasionally, she runs interference for weaker, marginalized dogs, such as an old gray Husky named Payak, who has never really been accepted, or Yasmin, a silky new addition who is blind.
Her approach is informed by behavioral ecology; field studies of bears, wolves and wolverines; mythology; professional kennel management; gut; and endless, patient observation. She pays close attention to the pack, and they pay close attention to her as she communicates in English, Swedish and French, with body language and with animal sounds. She grrrrs and caws. She’s been called the “Mexican ‘dog whisperer’s’ Swedish twin.”
“I think the reason people make the comparison is the way that the dogs respond,” Isacsson says. But she doesn’t call herself a trainer or offer quick fixes, although she advises her dogs’ adoptive families for years and does consulting for people having trouble with their dogs. “I’m about connecting to the dog and finding a place for the dog in my life. I’m not about solving problems. I’m about relationships. That’s why mushers have problems with their dogs; they talk about correcting.”
Exercise is the other essential element of the Camp K9 Kin regimen. During my visit in March, when Isacsson traditionally takes off several weeks to journey with her dogs in the backcountry, we sled, hike, skijor and play games, including hockey-style fetch on the frozen Chena River or in the yard with a bandy stick.
What becomes obvious after a few days is that this is a physically demanding life in an extreme climate that would break down most people. In addition to the rigorous exercise, daily maintenance consumes time, energy and finances. It takes hours to pick up waste, replace straw in dog houses, clip nails, trim fur, massage limbs, chop and stew meat and fish (which she does on a porch stove even when the mercury hovers well below zero), treat ailing dogs, wash blankets, vacuum, repair gear and on and on. Isacsson makes ends meet with a night job, processing satellite images of Earth at the University of Fairbanks, and through the generosity of friends and supporters. Still, take one look at her biography, and it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.
The 45-year-old with classic Nordic looks—straight blond hair cut short, blue eyes, fair skin and ruddy cheeks—is the daughter of a Swedish actress, Mona Dan-Bergman, and a prominent watercolorist, Arne Isacsson. Her first name is a hybrid of theirs. They divorced when their daughter was three. After they split, she led a divided life—spending six months with her mother and six months with a foster family. At 12, she lobbied unsuccessfully to live with her foster family full-time. The months with her mother, who Isacsson thinks was probably manic-depressive, were difficult. The young girl ran away frequently and often hid in a hollowed-out tree.
Today, she’s adamant about calling her work foster care. “I don’t call myself a rescue,” she says. “I’m just kind of like a halfway house. I was a burden to the commons for a while because I was in foster care. Now, in my mind, I can repay the debt.”
As a child, Isacsson pretended to have been raised by wolves, an idea she thinks was originally inspired by The Jungle Book. “I think kids who are traumatized live in a fantasy world part of the time. The world of imagination can become the only balanced part of your life,” she says. “I have memories that aren’t really memories from my life. That pack of wolves I was raised by, I know now that it’s not real.”
She fed her fantasy by reading everything she could about canines in the wild. When she discovered there were no wild wolves in Sweden, she became outraged. In 4-H, she studied Turkish livestock guardian dogs and ways to manage livestock without eradicating predators.
She attended a farm high school, where she raised a litter of German Shepherd puppies for an entire year. “I was part of that pack, living with them in a barn. Yet, it was always clear that I was a human and they were dogs. They had leaders in their mother and father, as well as growing siblings, but still I too was their leader. It was an experience that no book or person could ever have prepared me for.”
On my last day in Fairbanks, we take the dogs out sledding. I know the dogs on my team—Jordy, Ilso, Raanin, Lappy, Sachiko and Kaepen—pretty well by now, which makes watching and encouraging them very satisfying. With the White Mountains in the distance, we glide through the gentle ups and downs and curves along a ridge. The only sounds are our heavy breathing and the sled runners crunching over snow-dusted ice. The sun, the wind and the team invigorate me. It’s easy to see why people fall so hard for this experience.
It’s warm, so Isacsson and I run, rather than ride, uphill, and take frequent breaks in the shade so the dogs can munch snow or roll to cool down. It would be fun to go all-out, but their benevolent leader is not willing to push these dogs to a point where they could be injured or become exhausted. That’s one reason she’s not a competitive musher.
Still, she has serious pedigree. As a teenager, she taught herself Nordic mushing. She constructed a harness out of horse halters, hooked her German Shepherds up to a kick sled and let them pull her across the fjord ice. After moving to the United States, she worked for three leading mushers, including four-time Iditarod champions Doug Swingley and Susan Butcher. She was an ambassador for Scandinavian mushers and a production assistant on a PBS Iditarod documentary.
But mushing in the U.S. is different than it is in Scandinavia. In Isacsson’s native country, for example, keeping dogs on chains is illegal, sled dogs are usually allowed in homes and top mushers keep only about 30 dogs (as opposed to as many as 100 in U.S. kennels). Abandoned or dumped dogs aren’t a fact of mushing there, either, as they are here.
As much as she enjoyed being paid to live and work with dogs, at some point she realized she couldn’t be part of an organized sport that treated dogs like ATVs. Today, mushing plays a very different role in her life. “It does not define who I am,” she says. “I don’t have dogs to fulfill my mushing experience; I mush to fulfill my dogs’ experiences.”
The sport still drives her. Not only does she provide a home and healing for mushing rejects, she also wants to be seen as a workable model for kennel management. She has offered her vision to anyone who will listen, at mushing symposiums and during three years on the board of Mush with PRIDE, an organization established in 1991 to address the care of dogs and the public perception of the sport.
Still, she is realistic. Huge kennels and tethering aren’t going away anytime soon. So her short-term push is for kennel owners to create time and an environment for dogs to socialize off the chain. As a starting point, she recommends either perimeter fencing around yards or building large playpens so dogs can be allowed some free-run play together. She invites people to see her operation, to bring their dogs for a visit. She has even offered to help install fencing. And even this compromise on her vision, she knows, will be a tough sell.
When I check back with Isacsson six months later, she’s added three dogs and built three more pens. It’s snowing when I call, normally a cause for joy, but she’s demoralized. She’s on her way to take in her 27th dog, one of a large group of dogs that were being slowly starved to death. She’s stretched and doesn’t want to add to her pack, but this one is the son of her couch-loving Husky. “He’s family,” she says, to explain why her heart is overruling her head.
But the real punch in the gut, she says, came in July. A puppy she’d placed with good friends five years earlier was returned because of pressures in their life. She was crushed.
“I started thinking about it, wondering am I just enabling people?” says Isacsson, who always promises to take back dogs if necessary. “It was really an eye-opener. I’m thinking about not taking in any more dogs.”
I’m stunned. That she feels hopeless is a rift in the Force.
By the time I hang up, it’s almost 6 PM in Fairbanks, probably just about time to feed the dogs at Camp K9 Kin. During my visit, mealtime struck me as the realization of Isacsson’s vision. While many of the dogs are fed in pens with their pen pals, as many as eight to 12 eat together in the big yard.
Isacsson sets the metal bowls in a ring, like a canine Round Table, and stands in the center with two white plastic buckets. She calls a hungry dog, who then sits in front of a bowl that she fills with a scoop of kibble and two ladles of warm stew. Once the bowl is filled, she and the dog look into each other’s eyes. Until that happens, she waits. Then she says “okay” in Swedish. The dog lunges at the food. She turns to the next bowl, calls another dog, working her way around the circle. One dog at a time sits, waits, connects, eats—and leaves his or her pack mates unmolested.
After the meal, she’ll head inside for her own dinner of soup, cheese and Swedish flatbread. At some point, a howl will rise up in the yard. They do it every night after dinner. It’s eerie and beautiful and seems intended for her. Then Isacsson will walk onto her porch and call out, “Thank you.”
Could she really give that up?