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How Dogs in Rural Alaska are Giving the Youth a New Leash on Life

Imagine teenagers living a life without any social media along with no shopping malls and movie houses to visit with friends. It is indeed hard to imagine for anyone living in a typical American city. However,for the youth of small rural towns in Alaska, this is their reality. And they don’t even have the idea of getting a driver’s license and the possibility of getting a car to look forward  when they turn 16  because there are no roads. Access is by small planes or by dog sleds. Depression amongst teens and the suicide rate is often high in such communities.

This was the subject of the keynote speech given by Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, a senior nutrition researcher at the recent Purina Better With Pets Summit held in Brooklyn, New York. Reynolds is the director of the Purina research facility in Salcha, Alaska where he evaluates the impact of nutrition on performance sled dogs.

It was his work with performance dogs that made him aware of the situation facing the youth of rural Alaska in towns such as Huslia, which was the home of the late legendary sled dog racer George Attla. Attla started the Frank Attla Youth and Self Dog Care-Mushing Program in memory of his late son in this small rural town with the idea of helping the youth of his hometown improve their self-esteem and general wellbeing.

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.

In his keynote address, Reynolds explained how 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. By pairing dogs and teens, this remarkable program has done an amazing job making this beautiful community even more vibrant.

Thus  this was the perfect illustration for the theme of the Better With Pets Summit namely emotional wellness. It exemplifies and how pets and people are better together.

The program has been made possible by local sled dog kennel owners/mushers who use their dogs to teach about dog care. For youth to work with sled dogs during daylight hours all winter, the grassroots program became part of the curriculum of the Jimmy Huntington School and in the past two years has involved over 30 high school and middle school students. High school students also earn school credits by taking a Veterinarian Science class as a part of their general school studies.

The program’s in-school classes also teach literacy and numerical skills and its kennel classes teach dog care including feeding, maintaining a dog yard and monitoring overall dog health. All students learn dog handling and mushing skills involving harnessing, hooking up, training, and racing a team.

For me, Reynolds’s address was the most illuminating part of the emotional wellness theme of the Summit.  We see the power of pets when pet therapy teams visit the sick and the elderly, work with autistic children and help children learn to read. And it was indeed an eye-opener to learn what being around dogs can do for a small isolated community.

There is no reason why the program, which is supported by Purina, cannot be adapted to work in other small communal situations around the country too. You don’t have to be snowed in for large chunks of the year to benefit from being around dogs.

This post was sponsored by the Nestle Purina PetCare Company who invited me to attend the Better With Pets Summit as their guest. However, all opinions are my own. I only write about topics, events and products that I consider readers will consider useful information and relevant to their interests.

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