While the “official” Iditarod dominates dog sledding news, the Junior Iditarod for 2013 is over and done. The junior race covers 150 miles of the same type of Alaskan wilderness as the adult race, and one junior girl from Montana is making her mark in the mushing world.
Jenny Greger recently finished her third Junior Iditarod, held annually just outside Anchorage. In her first year, she finished fifth, while also being named Rookie of the Year. She came back last year to finish in fifth again, but also picked up a couple of big awards. In 2012, Jenny received the Humanitarian Award (also known as Best Cared for Team) and her dog Super Cub received the Blue Harness Award for being voted the best lead dog.
The winner for 2013 was Noah Pereira, of Clarkston, N.Y. But close behind, coming in third place, was Jenny.
Jenny repeated the big awards from 2012, plus she picked up her second special award, the Humanitarian Award. As Jenny explains, a lot of effort goes into achieving that. “Each race has a vet team responsible for examining all the dogs prior to the race to make sure they are fit to run, and also monitoring the teams during the running of the race. Based on the dogs’ conditioning at the pre-race vet check, the care and management of the team during the race by the musher, and the condition of the team at the end of the race, the veterinarians vote on which musher took the best care of the dogs during the race and had the best conditioned and healthy dogs at the start. Mostly it is based on the on-trail care of the team that occurs during the race and in the checkpoints.” Clearly Jenny has mastered this important aspect of sled dog racing.
This year, Jenny had a new lead dog. McGee, who is one-quarter Belgian Sheepdog, turned 18 months during the Junior Iditaraod. He and his siblings are out of Jenny’s main Alaskan Husky leader and her Dad’s retired lead dog who is one-half Belgian Sheepdog.
As Jenny tells it, McGee is a storybook figure. “This was McGee’s first year training and racing, so I didn’t expect him to be performing at quite the same level as my veteran adult dogs, but he was quick to prove me wrong. He and his siblings were soon filling slots in my main team and taking the places of adult dogs on the race teams. I knew he was going to be a rocking leader, but didn’t want to run him in lead until I was sure he was ready. Even though McGee was giving me all the signs he was ready to go up front, I was not in need of any more leaders since I have many adult leaders. I promised him I would put him in lead after all the races, and just concentrate on the team I had lined up with my two main leaders, sisters Bella and Alice.
“I couldn’t imagine having a lead dog that would outperform those two girls, especially a puppy. When we decided that my three little cousins, Sydney, Jaden, and Erika were going to run in a two-dog junior race, I needed to figure out teams for them to run, but still keep a pair of lead dogs for me to race in the eight-dog event. I was able to work it so I would have two adult leaders, Erika would have two adult leaders, Jaden would have two adult leaders, but I only had one adult leader for Sydney. So, on a practice day with the girls, I had Sydney run McGee in lead with his mother, Otter. Problem solved! McGee went on to win the race with Sydney even though I knew Sydney had the heavier sled and supposedly the slower dogs.” This was in one of the many preliminary races leading up to the Junior Iditarod.
After that race, Jenny started running McGee in lead in training runs and was able to see a great improvement in him. “Though he doesn’t know his commands for left and right yet, he drives hard and fast down the trail and just radiates with confidence, a confidence that comes from the Belgian Sheepdogs we bred into our sled dogs. McGee led in four of the seven days of the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, the largest sled dog race in the lower 48 covering four states. He also ran lead the whole way in the 100-mile Junior Race to the Sky and all 150 miles of the Junior Iditarod.”
Winning the Blue Harness for his “incredible leading capabilities” during the Junior Iditarod is an “outstanding feat for a dog so young,” Jenny says.
McGee was quite the superstar this year.
For those who might question Jenny’s description of McGee as part Belgian Sheepdog and wonder about the “Alaskan Huskies,” sled dog breeders carefully study pedigrees, health performance and the structure of the dogs they use in their breeding programs. While many, if not most, of the dogs are “mixes” by AKC standards, the dogs are carefully bred, reared and evaluated. After all, a musher’s life can truly depend on the dogs to take him or her safely through hundreds of miles of tough Alaskan wilderness.
Jenny also got a neat personal prize. Libby Riddles, the first woman winner of the full Iditarod, offers a handmade musher hat to the top female finisher in the Junior Iditarod. Jenny now has two of these fabulous hats!
Some of the dogs on Jenny’s team came from a tough situation. “The oldest on my team, and my first sled dogs of my own, were from a rescue five years ago. Thirty-three sled dogs were abandoned in the open with no shelter, food or water. Fortunately, a local musher found where the dogs had been left and notified authorities. Animal control contacted our family and other mushers in the area to assist with the seizure of the dogs and to foster the dogs. The snow was so deep where the dogs were left that my dad had to hook up two of his lead dogs and run the abandoned dogs to the vehicles because the snow machines were getting stuck. All the dogs were successfully retrieved and soon were given food and veterinary attention.”
Among the dogs were three pregnant females, one of whom lost her litter almost immediately after going into foster care. Jenny’s family fostered the two remaining pregnant females. “The day after they were rescued, the first female gave birth to eight puppies, but only four survived because of the poor condition the mother had been in. The other female gave birth five days later, and four out of the seven survived. We struggled to nurse the malnourished puppies and mothers back to health.”
After a trial was held in the courts for the man who abandoned the dogs, many of the dogs had to be returned to his family. Luckily, the puppies were allowed to stay with Jenny’s family since it was unknown whether they would be good sled dogs and the guilty man’s father did not want to pay the vet bills for puppies that might have no racing potential.
Jenny’s parents agreed that those puppies were going to be Jenny’s. “I agreed with my parents that all the raising and training and care of those pups would be my responsibility. Raising my own dogs and racing with them really made me decide that I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and be a musher. All my other dogs are children and grandchildren of those rescue puppies. They are all Alaskan Huskies or Alaskan Husky/Belgian Sheepdog crosses.”
Training, caring for and racing her sled dogs has become a major focus of Jenny’s life. When asked how many hours she devotes to her dogs, Jenny replies, “The better question is how many hours do I not spend with my dogs! I’m always feeding them, picking up poop and will just go out and spend time with them. In the summer I will take one or two hiking or hook them up and let them pull me on the bike. They also get let out in groups to run around the yard, which is totally fenced in since they would take off exploring without being on leash.”
Of course, for a musher, there is also training and conditioning in addition to the general care. “As for conditioning the dogs for racing, I start in the fall using the ATV in place of the sled and run on dirt roads in the early mornings when it is cool. We don’t go very far with the ATV; it is more of a slow weight-lifting type workout that strengthens the dogs’ core muscles and joints in preparation for the speed and endurance training we do with the sleds on the snow. They pull the ATV about three to four days a week as long as it stays cold enough, which is less than 50 degrees. Once we are able to use the sleds on snow, we can double the miles we were doing on the ATV and work on going fast and far. With the sled training, we start off running three to four days a week and bump it up to five days a week during intense training. A training run can take between one and eight hours, and two or three hours of before and after prep.”
While it may seem that Jenny does not have time for any other activities, let alone more dog activities, she does have two AKC Belgians in addition to her sled dogs. “Chevelle is my young Belgian Sheepdog, and she will turn 2 years old this summer. JB is my 7-year-old Belgian Tervuren. I compete with both of them in agility, obedience, rally and Junior Showmanship. I show Chevelle in conformation, but JB is not eligible to compete in conformation.”
What is up next for this talented and dedicated dog lover? “I will continue on with my wonderful dogs! Maybe one day I will compete in the Iditarod, but that is a few years away at the soonest. Next year I am planning on doing distance races in the lower 48 that are between 200 and 400 miles long. I also want to become a vet, so I will start college the following year at MSU [Montana State University], and hope to get into the vet school in Washington. I will do as much racing as I can during college, but understand that it is important to get a good education and start into my adult life so that I can support my mushing dreams in the future. I will also continue competing in AKC performance events, and hope to maybe become an AKC judge.”
I suspect Jenny will make all those goals. With dedicated young people like Jenny, the future of dogs and dog sports will be in good hands!